The writer goes Dakshin to experience the many wonders of biryani

Years ago, I met a visiting chef from Tamil Nadu in Delhi who had come for a food festival. He was a confident young man, and held forth eloquently on the diverse kinds of food that the region had to offer. Of course, I needed no persuasion, for I have long believed that Tamil food is one of the best forms of cuisine in India. And, of course, when I say Tamil food, I actually mean a whole collection of cuisines from communities such as the Mudaliyar, Chettiar, Nadar and so on.

The visiting chef told me another thing that struck me rather forcibly – he argued that the biryani actually originated in southern India, was exported, and then came back to India via the north. Ancient Sangam literature mentions forms of biryani, he said. Well, if you read Pratibha Karan’s excellent book on biryanis, you will know how many varieties actually originate from the south.

I had a taste of that the other evening at Dakshin, the southern Indian restaurant in WelcomHotel Sheraton New Delhi. Chef Vel Muruguan P. – whose culinary skills I am rather fond of – has put together a festival called Vividha Annam – consisting of various kinds of biryanis from the region. The festival is on till November 30, and the dishes cost between Rs.750 and 1250.

What particularly interests me is the wide variety of rice and cereals that are used for the biryanis. South India has its own cousin of the Basmati, which is of course one of the staples for a good biryani.

But Chef Vel showcases two other kinds of rice that are used in these delicacies there. The pudina kai kari pulao with its flavours of mint uses a rice variety with beautiful little grains, like translucent white jiras. The mutta biryani – an egg biryani to be eaten with green chillies and caramelised onion – is cooked with ponni rice, a small flavourful variety.

The chef even prepares a biryani with string hoppers or idiappam – the idiappa kozhi biryani. This biryani is flavoured with star anise and chillies. I enjoyed it, as I did the meen anam – fish cooked in rice, and flavoured with spices, coriander and mint. Yet another interesting dish was the suthiriyan mewa biryani – which had mutton cooked with rice along with delicious rice balls that the chef innovatively referred to as rice gnocchi.

Biryanis from the south come from all the States, and great many communities. And that explains the great variety of such rice-based dishes from the region. The Moplah biryani of Kerala’s Muslim community is wonderfully spicy, while the Konju biryani – cooked with praws – is a Syrian Christian speciality. The Rowthers of Tamil Nadu have their own biryani specials, as do the Chettiars. And of course because of the varied use of spices, the tastes differ from community to community.

I am such a biryani fan (which is surprising, considering I am actually a wheat-ist, and mostly prefer rotis to rice), that I can go on and on about the aromatic rice dishes of the south. There was a time when I thought that the Hyderabadi biryani was the best in the world. Later, I got rather fond of the Calcutta biryani (perhaps because of the potato that it comes with). And now I look mistily at the vast variety of southern biryanis and sigh contentedly. I am certain that this massive cauldron of rice is going to keep throwing up surprises.

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