In Quest of Biryani

By itself, Biryani (as the Indian subcontinent largely knows it) is a full meal. And therein lies its widespread appeal across restaurant menus and taste buds alike.

Especially, if you do not restrict yourself to vegetarian options in food, Biryani of all kinds would easily have crossed your palates when exploring cuisines of South Asia. At an early age, yours truly was drawn to this dish due to its lip-smacking and finger-licking taste regardless of the preparation type or spice mix.

What started out as a preferred dish when ordering at restaurants, gradually evolved into an exploratory tale for me – across cities, countries and continents. I have the had the fortune of gorging on some of the best biryanis, at home and restaurants alike. And I also hope to someday lay my hands on the ones that are still stuck on the wish-list.

In this post, I have tried to put together an analysis that has relied solely on my taste buds – for over a decade. This spans over five hundred restaurants in about a hundred cities across two scores of countries. A journey that was never about pitting one style against the other or going by and vouching for ratings that flash on the menu-scanning apps; there are three key beliefs that emerged in my quest for Biryani –

  1. If someone tells you one style of biryani is better than the other, say the Hyderabadi is better than the Awadhi or how Mughlai is what Moradabadi aspires to be – it is almost always a personal preference or the love for your local preparation. There is no absolute best in terms of cooking style.
  2. Most biryanis served in restaurants, across the parts of the world I have been to, are hastily done ‘Pilaf/Pulao’ in varying degrees. Trying to differentiate a biryani from a pulao may be understandable but not discriminating against different styles of biryani – steer clear of suggesting ‘Who makes Biryani with potatoes?’ at the sight in Calcutta, it only shows the lack of knowledge of different styles.
  3. I will always subject a Biryani sample to three test criteria –
    1. Repeat Value: How many times can you ask for this same dish when you return to this location?
    2. Willingness to Consume: Can you consume a standard serving of this dish on a full stomach?
    3. Taste Quotient: The must-have in any food preparation – simply rate the taste

If you look closely, the third factor is often one aspect of a culinary assessment – plating, ambience, service etc. there are several other factors at play; which may be great for rating a restaurant, but when it comes to the quest for the undisputed biryani of choice, I will go with the first two qualifiers to determine how good the biryani is.

For example, I may find the taste of a sample an absolute delight – but it will still not be a blockbuster, if I feel full too soon or if I am willing to part with it on a subsequent visit. As a matter of fact, I subject any preparation I come up with in my kitchen to the same test. There are no distractions when it comes to the ultimate Biryani – no plating, no salaan, no raita can come in the way of this quest.

The legend in the tables below indicates the coverage across countries when it comes to having a biryani on my trips. There are three categories of locations –

  • Sampled: Locations where I have tasted just one sample of biryani
  • Surveyed: Locations where I have tasted more than one but less than ten samples
  • Seasoned: Locations where I have tasted more than ten samples

Europe

AsiaAndNA

Here are the top ten that I have rated in this exercise, and a few more that ran close – but by no means is the quest for the ultimate over. This will always be, a work in progress.

TheTopTen

Hydaspes. Encore.

roman-hatyara-cover

My earliest encounter with the Battle of Hydaspes was way back in kindergarten when I had just learnt to read Hindi – Super Commando Dhruv’s new comic book, quite unusually named Roman Hatyara (The Roman Assassin) had hit the shelves and they were giving away this free poster. Awesomeness was inexpensive those days.

dhoni

The plot tells us of the battle and the time when Porus was having the upper hand because of his war elephants. Eventually, in bizarre circumstances, the war elephants turned against their own forces after the introduction of a mysterious ‘Roman Assassin’ possessing extraordinary powers and Alexander was able to pull off an improbable victory – way before this man to the right made it his USP…

 

In the years that followed, I came across this battle quite a few times – history books, interschool quizzes, newspaper editorials and more. The fascination with this battle was just intriguing – not just for me, but the world around me as I saw it. Not without reason I guess, after all, it had several dimensions that could possibly interest you ranging from an epic face-off involving the most powerful western and eastern civilizations of the time to the controversy around the actual victor or even the sheer importance it commands in history books across most countries.

Umpteen books, references and articles later, while I may have read through quite a lot of information that has been documented and preserved – I still continue to be as undecided as I was back in school regarding the actual victor in this battle. Starting with the most contemporary account (which was drafted still over a century after the battle) of Diodorus Siculus to the several accounts written mostly by historians over the last couple of centuries, the lack of Indian texts from the time also make a case for one of the most quoted African proverbs – Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.

While it may be argued using elaborate diagrams such as these…

hydaspes-1 hydaspes-2

…on knowledge platforms such as Wikipedia or Quora to underscore Alexander’s strategy and emphatic victory (most of them borrowing heavily from primary accounts written by Diodorus, Arrian, Plutarch, Curtius or Justin) yet the vacuum created by lack of Indian texts and the aftermath of the battle as documented in even these sources cast a cloud of confusion. For example, every single account mentions the alliance between Alexander and the local Indian kings Abhisara (Embisarus) and/or Ambhi (Omphis) to defeat Paurava king Porus on the condition that Alexander would then place Abhisara/Ambhi as ruler(s) of lands controlled by Porus. In the episode that follows, Alexander ends up winning the battle as per western accounts but in a gesture of goodwill allows Porus to remain the ruler of his lands in view of his heroic leadership in the battle.

Now, we aren’t exactly talking about a peace-loving Rama from the Ramayan here and well, even there Ravana has been killed annually ever since at a Dussehra Maidan near you. Therefore, to see Alexander become this benevolent emperor in the heat, humidity and hunger of India (yes, think about what you do to even your best friend in those conditions) is precisely the sort of seed that allows contradicting theories to crop up.

So what do I think actually happened? The most honest answer anyone – well read or not, can give you is ‘I don’t know for sure’. Ironically, when I look back, I somehow found that answer pretty much when I was first coming across this battle – thanks to one of the best Indian movies ever… jjws

While the movie, based largely on Breaking Away, has been one of my favorites because of the fantastic screenplay, the title of the movie is actually a four word synopsis of the climax – ‘he who won would be called Sikandar’. The protagonist, who is pretty much the underdog, snatches a nail-biting and almost impossible victory in the very last seconds of the bicycle race at the end of the movie – and the title refers to him as ‘Sikandar’, the Persian name for Alexander. The name of the movie is actually a common phrase that has been used for as long as anyone can remember. And perhaps it is in this play of words that I see the most probable answer – Did Alexander win? Not very sure – but ‘he who won would be called Alexander’.

True to the phrase, the victor has always been called Alexander. Encore.