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Can such a thing as a vegetable biryani be taken seriously?

The debate over biryani has been raging on social media for quite a while now

Social media forwards tend to be repetitive. Some of the jokes, in fact, come back so often that my WhatsApp platform seems like a revolving door. Once in a while, though, I do get a new post that fills me with joy. One such was a cartoon that arrived last week from a friend holidaying in Kerala.

It shows a battlefield. Two men in armour are looking at scores of men, riddled with arrows, lying on the field. How do we know they are dead and are not pretending, one man asks the other.

The second man announces solemnly: ‘Vegetable biryani is actually good.’

Immediately, the soldiers playing dead begin to laugh.

I laughed too, for the debate over vegetable biryani has been raging on social media for quite a while now. Some months ago, I met one of the initiators of the debate, lawyer Sanjay Hegde, at a lunch. “What do you think of vegetable biryani,” was almost the first question he asked me.

It turns out some people do believe that a vegetable biryani can be tasty. And some — like the not-so-dead soldiers — laugh derisively at the very thought of it.

Now, I believe some ardent foodies have decided that June 25 should be known as International Pulao Biryani Day. Fair enough. There’s Father’s Day and Doctor’s Day. Why not a day be devoted to pulaos and biryanis? The Indore Bloggers Association celebrated the day with great gusto (and some great rice dishes, too, I am sure) two years ago.

On food blogs and social media, however, the great biryani debate carries on. Did it come to India from Persia, as many believe, or did it, as some hold, originate in India? I remember that an ardent South Indian chef told me many years ago that references to rice-and-meat dishes can be found in Sangam literature.

Perhaps. But the Mughals did their bit, too. My go-to biryani person is Pratibha Karan, whose book Biryani (2009) is my bible. She writes: “The Indian subcontinent owes a deep debt to the Muslim community, for it is they who introduced the gamut of biryanis and pulaos to us.”

Regional variations

If you are a biryani-pulao enthusiast and like to cook them at home, you should try out her recipes. She refers to regional differences (the use of mustard seeds in Bengal, chillies in South Maharashtra, the local kaima rice in Kerala, and kala bhaat in Hyderabad, for instance) and goes on to cite various kinds of dishes and recipes.

Lucknow has its ananas biryani — cooked with lamb and pineapple — and rose biryani, prepared with meat, flavoured with rose water and garnished with dried rose petals. Delhi has an orange biryani and Hyderabad, a doodh biryani of mutton and milk.

“Though Tamil Nadu cannot boast of any significant Muslim dynasty, many of its towns are famous for their biryanis,” she writes and mentions the Dindigul, Salem and Ambur varieties. “And, yes, each town is fiercely proud of its own biryani,” she adds.

There are some nice rice recipes in Madhur Jaffrey’s A Taste Of India: The Definitive Guide To Regional Cooking. She writes about “a tiny Moplah lady... (who) leads me into her kitchen where she will prepare my lunch.” And then she goes on to describe the prawn pulao which, she is told, must be eaten with fried prawns.

Prawn pulao can be delightful, but what about vegetable biryanis? Are they, to come back to the debate, any good? “Despite the overreaching dominance of Mughal culture over much of North India, especially Lucknow, it is home to some wonderful vegetable biryanis. Beans, peas, cauliflower and carrots are cooked with rice to create this delicious dish,” Karan writes.

To each, her own. Eat, and let eat, I say.

The writer likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 4:04:31 PM |

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