Saturday, June 23, 2007

Rice and Meat

This friend of mine suddenly pulled a fast one on me. He claimed all biriyanis are overrated... what is biriyani after all, he asked? Some good old red meat and uncomplicated rice thrown together with a dash of onion and garlic paste. And voila - you have a meal for the lazy male Greek god, whose simple mind cannot process more than 'duh meat yeah'!

What the fornication is this? Has Tunday Kababi lost out to Saravana Bhavan? Are the Gosht Godfathers getting masscared by the Sambhar Mafia? Has the poster boy of cholesterol converted after his marriage?
Those are questions that will only be answered when he lands up in Delhi next but for the time being, I thought it would be interesting to explore this whole business of mixing rice and meat to come up with food that at least some crazy people will take some pains to get to!

First things first, there is no better example of an oxymoron than Vegetable Biriyani.
For the veggies, please understand that meat constitutes approximately 80% of the cost of a non-veg rice dish. If you replace meat with vegetable, then the price is reduced by 5% and cost falls by 90%. Do the math and try to figure how you are contributing to entry of F&B entrepreneurs into the Forbes List of Richest People in the World!

There is a pretty strong misconception in Calcutta that non-veg food ceases to exist once you cross Orissa. So, when I was posted to Madras for my first job, the entire dynasty went into mourning. I steeled myself for an extended tryst with rice paste delicacies. As luck would have it, I took up residence in a place called Royapettah which has the highest density of biriyani restaurants in urban India apart from the Charminar and Jama Masjid areas! So, while my grandmothers were shedding tears over my gastronomical misfortune, I would be breaking fast with a quick half-plate chicken biriyani at Velu Military Hotel!

Anyways, the addition to my biriyani repertoire in Madras happened by way of Chettinad Biriyani.
It is the spiciest and least oily biriyani I have ever had. The spice was not through chilli but black pepper - which had a more gasping kick. Of course, the dish would also be redolent of cardamom, cinnamom and a whiff of coconut (apart from the standard onion and garlic). Also, the recipe works best with chicken because mutton tends to absorb the spices more and that makes it a little overpowering.
Karaikudi was one restaurant in Madras where I pigged out on all kinds of Chettinad dishes, though I cannot - for the life of me - remember how their biriyani was.

From Chennai, I moved on to Bangalore - where the entrant was Andhra Biriyani.
I think I have made this point earlier as well that the best Andhra cuisine is found in the capital city of Karnataka. This kind of biriyani had chillies - lots and lots of them - with green chillies being cooked into the rice and a whole lot of red chilli powder added on for good measure. Again, it is not oily at all and almost dry. So you have to add copious quantities of raita to make it wet and dull the chilli!
RR and Bheema's (both on Church Street) have killer recipes of the Andhra biriyani. The ubiquitous Nandhini chain is also worth a meal - at least for beginners because you might die of a spice attack if you try out Bheema's on first go!

Time for the third Southern metro to raise its hand be counted for probably the most famous brand of biriyani - the Hyderabadi Biriyani.
This has a very strong Mughal influence and uses a lot of oil and saffron. A lot of hue and cry is made whether the meat should be cooked along with the rice (dum) or be pre-cooked and added to the rice. Frankly, the first one is a high-risk, high-gain option. If you manage to cook the meat right, then it is a feast for the gods. If not, order takeway!
And don't forget the Haleem to go with the biriyani. Minced meat made into a thick porridge by adding daal and wheat, it is traditionally eaten to break the Ramzan fast. It is a deadly rich accompaniment to the biriyani and as Anthony Bourdain says, "If I have to die, I want to die with a morsel of this in my mouth!"
If you go to the swankier places like the Kakatiya Sheraton, then they go the whole hog and serve the biriyani in earthen pots with the cover sealed with atta dough. However, if you can make do without these trivialities, then the place to go is Paradise. Cannot think of too many restaurants which identify the road/place they are located in and Paradise is one such institution standing proudly on Paradise Circle! Bawarchi is the other contender (which also has an equally fanatical following) but I personally found them to be overrated.
The most revolutionary rendition of the Hyderabadi biriyani is the Midnight Biriyani - which is a buffet of biriyanis (even veg ones!) served with an assortment of raita, mirchi ka saalan and haleem! Hotel Green Park's no-frills offering is highly recommended after the pubs close and all that dancing has burnt a whole lot of calories!

Bombay is one city where I have hardly sampled a fraction of the food it offers. Also, thanks to the cosmo nature, there is a little bit of every good thing in Bombay which I have only scratched the surface of. Blame it on the long commute!
I have only heard of Irani Biriyani of Cafe Britannia and managed to sample it at conveniently located Lucky's at Bandra. The intricacies of Bohri Biriyani remain unsampled. The marination, the gravy-centred rice and the spice will have to be researched on a later day.
What I can comment on is Cafe Noorani near Haji Ali. I have had the privilege of having their Fish Biriyani and that was quite heavenly. Imagine a succulent fish tikka with a semi-gravy feel getting soaked in the oil/ghee of the rice and becoming softer! Now imagine a game... there is a mound of rice and you do not know how many such tikkas are there in it! You have an hour on Sunday afternoon to find out... wanna play?

Now, I go North and arrive at the biriyani that developed closest to the Mughal kitchen itself - the Awadhi Biriyani. They operate on the principle that you cannot spoil a dish in any way if you add a whole lot of meat and ghee.
Not surprisingly, there are very few good biriyani joints in Delhi, which is essentially a roti-shoti-tikka-shikka town. Deez Biriyani does a reasonable job of show and taste by home delivering a mean Awadhi Biriyani in a covered earthen handi.
Delhi has one very robust culinary culture. Most of its localities have meat shops which double up as kabab-paratha joints in the evening. Thanks to their day job, the quality of the meat is first-rate and it is very difficult to screw up from there. They extend this by taking party orders for biriyani which they get made from secret kitchens in the Jama Masjid area. Our local butcher - Shamim's - supplies by the kilo if you order a day in advance and provides a biriyani with the highest meat/rice ratio I have had.

That brings us to Calcutta - which embraced the Awadhi biriyani and made it into the Calcutta Biriyani. Imagine a perfect recipe and suddenly you feel it does not have enough cholesterol. So, you add a potato to it! Still not clogging the arteries? Oh well, thrown in a boiled egg as well and light-fry the bloody egg before adding it.
Shiraz, aptly described as The Golden Restaurant, is the iconic Calcutta restaurant which has the added sentimental value of being the first place where I had biriyani from. Calcuttans love underdogs a lot and arguments even more. So, any discussion on the best biriyani joints have a lot of contenders and usually end in abusive fisticuffs. In recent times, Arsalan (on the Park Circus circle) has emerged as a place which could hold its own in such discussions.
No roundup of Calcutta biriyanis is complete without a mention of the annual Eid feast at the Saturday Club, organised by the Club's Muslim waiters. They get in bawarchis from Lucknow and the goats are walked down as well. Gentle souls would cringe but apparently the long walk improves the meat quality of their thighs. It is meant for a private gathering - only the Club members and their guests can attend - but let me very confidently state that this is the only perfect biriyani I have tasted.

Life is all about finding your own perfect mixture of rice and meat.
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