Ambur probably has more biryani shops per sq.km than any other town in the world. What makes the dish so special? Mukund Padmanabhan, Subash Jeyan and Subajayanthi Wilson attempt to find out.

For longer than he cares to remember, C. Jamal Basha has made the morning 7-km journey from Nariyampet village to the wood-fired kitchen at the back of Rahamaniya, situated in a narrow lane among a warren of shops and small business enterprises in Ambur. Here, as Biryani Master, his day unfolds amidst the smoking oil, the eye-searing smoke, the huge aluminium pans, and the dramatic assembly of rice, meat, vegetables and spices that will go into the making of the biryani that has attached its name to this unprepossessing and non-descript town three hours from Chennai on the Bangalore highway. Every day, Jamal uses 35 kg of rice to make the two varieties of biryani — mainly mutton but a little chicken as well — which is consumed at lunch time by eager Ambur regulars, many of them of the nearby tahsildar and taluk offices and other government departments on adjoining streets. At 5 pm, he readies for the second shift to prepare for his dinner-time customers — the famous Ambur biryani.

Back to the basics

What is Ambur biryani? Set this aside for a moment to ask the larger question: What are the culinary and etymological roots of biryani? K.T. Achaya, that towering authority of the country’s food history, records that the Ain-i-Akbari, Abu Fazl's third volume on the official reign of the great emperor, makes no distinction between biryanis and pulaos — in fact, he suggests that the latter word is “of older usage in India.” Did the pulao then morph into the biryani? Or are the theories that, being derived from the Farsi word Birian, it arrived from Persia to northern India, correct? Whatever the truth, the association of biryani with the Mughal empire and its successor regimes cannot be denied. The Ambur biryani is the best known variety of the Arcot biryani, a generic name for biryanis in the region once ruled by the nawabs of Arcot. Pare down to the essentials and Ambur biryani is distinguished by two central features. The use of Seeraga Samba rice, a traditional Tamil Nadu variety that is squat and, rather like the Arborio used in risottos, does not coagulate into a mass and retains an al dente character when cooked. The second element is technique. Unlike the katcha Hyderabadi biryanis, the meat is cooked separately, the rice parboiled, and the mixture allowed to cook further on dum — that is, in a lidded vessel on which red hot coals are put. Purists in Ambur, and we met a few, swear there is a difference between the biryani in their town and others, for example, in nearby Vaniyambadi — another unlovely town that also makes its living from tanning leather. But it’s not easy to discern such fine distinctions. Asked where the difference lies, the answers are usually vague and unsatisfying — for example, more cloves or less curd.

Legend has it the biryani business in Ambur was started by a Hassain Baig, who began selling biryani from his home in 1890. Over the years, this grew into Khursith, a small hotel named after Baig’s son, who ran it until the 1960s. The story goes that “family problems” resulted in Naseer Ahmed, Khurshith Baig’s son-in-law breaking out and starting Rahamaniya around 1968. Today, Muneer Ahmed, Nazeer's eldest son, runs what is easily the town's most popular biryani haunt – Star Biryani. So, as we discover, the story of Ambur biryani is also a family saga.

The Star

Located on the Chennai-Bangalore highway, the two-decade old Star Biryani is not much more than a hole in the wall. But it has unleashed a slew of thinly disguised imitators with suspiciously similar names that compete for custom, a good part of which comes from motorists passing through the highway. Star Biryani has a facility to cater for railway passengers that pass through Ambur as well. Success has meant expansion. One of Nazeer’s brothers, Muneer, runs the branch in Chennai’s Vadapalani. Another branch in Anna Nagar is to open soon. It’s easy to see why Star is so popular in this town, which possibly has more biryani shops per square kilometre than any other in the world.

Of the various biryanis we sample — including the delicious one at a lunch specially organised for us at the C. Abdul Hakeem College of Engineering and Technology, Melvisharam — the Star Biryani had a distinct edge. The rice was cooked just right, each grain retaining its distinct shape and identity, and the flavours were subtle and understated in an appetising way. A certain unexpected restraint is a good way to describe a good Ambur biryani. Unexpected because, you would imagine it is a spice bomb given that it throws in just about everything — garlic, ginger, clove, cinnamon, chilli, mint, lime and much more. Yet, possibly because it is tempered by curd and uses spices only in modest quantities, the restraint is evident. This is also reflected in the manner in which it is eaten. Unlike other biryanis, the Ambur variety is not usually paired for contrast — that is, not always complemented by something like a soothing raitha to take the edge of the spice. It is almost always eaten with a spicy brinjal curry (variously referred as ennai kathirkai, kathirikai pachadi, khattay baingan). Sitting in the dark interiors of Rahamaniya, we manage to get a recipe (published alongside) for about four people from Jamal Basha. It takes some time for him to scale down the ingredients from commercial quantities he deals with to the family-sized amounts we are looking for. Will he share some of the biryani with us? “No,” he replies a little surprised. “I never eat what I cook.” As with some of the best chefs around the world, one man’s meat is really another man’s meat.

HOW IT’S MADE

Ingredients

1 kg rice

1 kg mutton

Refined oil 300 ml

Garlic 100 gm – ground

Ginger 100 gm – ground

Chilli powder 30 gm

Clove

Cinnamon

Onion 100 gm

Tomato 100 gm

Curd 100 gm

Mint and coriander leaves

Lime – 2 nos

Salt

Method

Heat oil in a vessel. Sprinkle curd. Add to it clove, cinnamon and elachi. Sauté the garlic paste first and then the ground ginger. Both garlic and ginger are never ground together.

The mutton is now added, along with salt, to the other ingredients in the vessel. Onion goes in next and then the tomato. Everything is stirred together for just about a minute.

Add coriander and mint leaves to the mixture along with the remaining curd. Add a litre and a half of water and keep the vessel closed under low fire.

Meanwhile parboil rice, filter the water and keep the rice aside.

When the mutton is cooked, add the rice to it. Close the vessel tight and put out the fire.

(Recipe given by C. Jamal Basha, the biryani master of Rahamaniya)

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