When You Eat Biryani, You Are Eating the Food of Royalty

Photo: Shutterstock; Illustration: Emily Carpenter/Thrillist

I love Biryani, the famous layered, fragrant rice and meat dish that takes hours and hours to prepare. It is one of the things that my mother cooks the best. Every Indian household has their own complex way of preparing it, and their individual secret ingredients. According to my family lore, it is the water of a particular city that gives each Biryani its distinct flavor. You’ll find different versions in various parts of India--and at restaurants in the US as well. 

But wherever you enjoy your biryani, whatever recipe it comes from, know that you are eating a dish with a royal lineage.

Indian folklore traces the origins of biryani to Mumtaz Mahal (1593-1631), the Mughal Shah Jahan’s queen. It was for her that the Shah built the iconic Taj Mahal in the northern city of Agra. It is said that she once visited the army barracks and found under-nourished men. Saddened by the sight, she ordered her chef to prepare food that was well-balanced in flavor, nutrition, and energy for the soldiers--think protein (meat) and carbohydrates (rice). Thus the Biryani was created.

The Mughals originated from Central Asia. Long before the British colonizers, Persians, Turks, Arabs, and Afghans governed India. They introduced an exciting element to Indian cooking -- food which must be wholesome, with rich flavor and spices. They also taught Indians to eat in a feast style. Historians believe the word “biryani” derives from the Persian word “biryan,” meaning fried onion. Others say it comes from “biranj” meaning rice. Actually, Persian biryani does not have rice at all, and as a matter of fact looks nothing like Indian biryani. Instead, it is minced meat cooked in spices along with lots of fried onion and served on flatbread. 

Under Mughal rule from the 15th to 19th Century, India, and especially the northern city Delhi, became famous for its Mughlai cuisine. The Mughals introduced several techniques, like dum pukht (slow-cooking spiced meat and vegetables in a dough-covered pot over low heat), and rice and meat dishes like Biryani.

Anoothi Vishal, author of the food-focused cultural history, Mrs. LC’s Table, describes biryani as perhaps pulao (rice pilaf) getting an Indian makeover. Mughal cooks loved to experiment with their spices, adding locally-produced ingredients and introducing new techniques. Perhaps this is what the khansamas -- royal chefs -- did after getting the orders from the Queen Mumtaz Mahal.

There are other origin stories behind Biryani. Historical records tell of a similar rice dish in Tamil Nadu (near the southern end of India) as early as 2 A.D. The dish was called “Oon Soru” and was composed of rice, ghee (clarified butter), meat, turmeric, coriander, pepper, and bay leaf. As with Mumtaz Mahal’s dish, Oon Soru was created to feed the military. It was considered a meal with a perfect nutritional balance, providing the required energy to these warriors.

But there is no doubt that it is our Islamic-Persian heritage that inspired and popularized the dish. This Biryani traveled to the different states of India, where it was adopted by that state as its own, be it Nawab (King) Wajid Ali’s Kolkata Biryani, or the Hyderabadi Biryani made by monarchs called the Nizams governing small territories in Northern India, or the Lucknow Biryani popularized by the Awadhs of present-day Uttar Pradesh.

This dish, which was once created in the royal kitchens, an extraordinary cuisine in the kings’ courts, can now be easily enjoyed at any Indian restaurant near you.

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Sadaf Hussain explores the rich food history of India food and is the author of Daastan-e-Dastarkhan: Stories and Recipes from Muslim Kitchens. He was one of the top contestants of MasterChef India in 2016.