K.C. Vijaya Kumar is taken by surprise with an oil-free biryani, redolent with onion and a dash of curry leaves.

Is it a phantom dish? Or just a remembrance of a friend’s constant references to his favourite food from the Konkan coast? These are genuine anxieties because when the need to know more about the Bhatkal Biryani forces you to enquire about it with a Konkani-speaking cricket-scorer, he rolls his eyes and asks: “What’s that?” You then chat with the Navayath-speaking lads in a Bangalore super-market. The boys, muttering in their Konkani-laced dialect with Arabic influences, are amused that someone is so keen about a dish that seems routine to them in their home-town Bhatkal, three hours up the coast from Mangalore. They scribble down a few restaurant names and soon it is time to find out: Does it exist? Is it hyped? And will it be unique?

The fears are quadrupled due to the lack of restaurants (in other parts of India) that list it as part of their menu.

Step into any hotel that has a reputation for serving good non-vegetarian food and you will find the usual suspects like Hyderabad Biryani, Chicken Kolhapuri and Chicken Chettinad. But ask the waiter about Bhatkal Biryani and you will see him pondering a bit and then declaring: “No sir, we don’t have that.” And you do wonder whether the Bhatkal Biryani is mere nostalgic indulgence by a few from the Coast.

As the bus rolls into the Bhatkal bus-stand that is slowly waking up on a humid March morning, the mind whips up that self-doubt about the existence of Bhatkal Biryani. A lad at the restaurant is asked and, in a moment that makes you nearly scream “Eureka!”, he says: “Bhatkal Biryani? You should try Kwality Hotel.” So it does exist. The waiter at a lodge is also asked about Bhatkal’s signature dish. “Try Kwality, that’s the best; and then maybe Pai’s Fishland and City Light,” he says. As all the dip-stick surveys point towards Kwality, it is time to savour Bhatkal Biryani while the afternoon sun beats down on the coastal town.

National Highway 17 snakes through Bhatkal, linking Kochi and Mumbai, and just near the milestone that says “Honnavar, 38 km” is Kwality Hotel. A fresh coat of paint seems to camouflage the restaurant’s culinary history.

The proprietor Abdul Rasheed is busy supervising the preparation of Bhatkal Biryani. “Can’t you come tomorrow?” he asks. The motive is explained, his photographs clicked and he grudgingly warms up: “Let’s make this quick.” You gather that the hotel is 14-years-old and its adjacent parent restaurant is 46-years-old. Rasheed remembers patrons coming in specifically for the Bhatkal Biryani ever since the hotel put out roots in the red laterite soil. “The very rich and the lower middle-class both equally enjoy this place, and the price at Rs.65 per plate is very reasonable. The taste is unique and we have never compromised on the ingredients,” Rasheed says. “We also do a dum-variety of Bhatkal Biryani on special occasions,” he adds. A liberal dose of grated onions and a few curry leaves (yes, you heard that right) add that extra flavour to the dish.

In the kitchen, meanwhile, chef Nagraj Naik cooks the fine basmati in one cauldron. In another vessel, he makes the biryani masala high on onions and spices and, in another tawa, chicken pieces are getting cooked. At the time of serving, Naik blends the chicken with the masala and then mixes it with the steamed basmati and heaps it on to a plate. It looks a lot like Kerala’s Malabar Biryani. The rice is overwhelmingly white with mild streaks of orange, but there is a difference from the one you get in Thalassery and Kozhikode. There is not a drop of ghee or other oil additives on any morsel of rice. “We don’t add ghee or any oil to the rice. It makes the rice stay fresh for a long time,” Rasheed says.

If you are calorie-conscious, then Bhatkal Biryani will surely gladden your heart. As you chew the first helping, the difference between the two coastal biryanis becomes stark.

The rice here has not been infused with the flavours of the masala but as you tuck into the food, the pungency of the spices and the mild sweetness that excess onions often bequeath to any dish come through along with bites of tender chicken. Eating Bhatkal Biryani can be fulfilling only if you use your fingers to meld the morsels with the middle-layer of masala and chicken. The resultant fusion makes it special, but if you eat just the rice without blending it in, then it can come across as a bland product.

The lingering after-notes of mashed onions laced with garlic, a few chillies and spices littered with curry leaves does lend a unique flavour to Bhatkal Biryani, and it is a taste that may not fit into the conventional grooves associated with other biryanis. Perhaps this taste lends a special aura to Bhatkal Biryani that is had along with salad, pickles and (hold your breath), mashed onion masala! You just cannot keep onions away from Bhatkal Biryani, it seems.

At night, another helping is savoured but this time it is at the Pai’s Fishland Hotel. The Bhatkal Biryani there is a bit spicier and the curry leaves are missing. Bhatkal Biryani may not evoke the same awe as Hyderabad Biryani and it still awaits its break-out moment like the Dindigul Thalapakatti Biryani — that has swept across Chennai — or the Ambur Biryani that is greatly influencing Bangalore. Yet, it truly belongs to the pantheon of India’s innumerable biryani variants.

HOW IT’S MADE

(Serves eight)

Ingredients

Basmati rice 1.5 kg

Chicken, medium pieces, 2.5 kg

Onion, 1.5 kg

Garam masala, 50 gm

Pepper, 50 gm

Dhaniya (coriander powder), 50 gm

Haldi (turmeric), 50 gm

Salt, to taste

Garlic, a few pods

Chillies, a few pods

Curry leaves for seasoning the masala

100 gm refined oil

Method

Cook the rice in four litres water. Grate the onions into fine slices and fry it in a pan with oil. As the onions turn golden brown, add all the masala powders, garlic, chillies and salt to taste. Simultaneously cook the chicken separately. As the onion masala acquires a thick consistency, season it with curry leaves and add the chicken pieces. Serve the cooked rice in layers on a plate and add a generous dose of the onion-based masala and the chicken pieces as the mid-layer. Top it with more rice. Serve hot.

Accompaniments: sliced onions and tomatoes, pickles — mango or mixed vegetables and a side gravy that is culled from the onion base-masala that is made for the biryani.

(This is Abdul Rasheed’s Bhatkal Biryani recipe. According to him, the entire process should take 15 to 30 minutes.)

A fortnightly feature on food and the places that made them famous.