Biryani, Rice Fit For an Emperor (ASIAN 258)
Updated: Feb 11
In March 2012, a chance trip to a restaurant changed my life. No, I didn’t meet Barak Obama, the Dali Lama, or Brad Pitt. For the budding food historian in me, it was more momentous. I encountered Biryani.
I was in Toronto, playing hooky from a dreary conference. Tired of panels, I decided to wander around the city with my husband, checking out all of the hipster cafes. By early evening, the exercise left us famished.
“I’m hungry,” the husband declared. “What’s the plan?”
We looked up and down the street, seeking out something different. Then our eyes caught sight of a South Asian restaurant. The words, “Mughlai,” appeared in the window display. Neither of us knew what that meant, but we decided to take the plunge anyway.
Greeted by the maître d, we scanned the menu and just started pointing. We were hungry and were up for anything. Within minutes, warm naan, freshly baked, appeared on the table, followed swiftly by crispy samosas, filled with potatoes and spicy accents, then creamy curries. The highlight of the evening, the gorgeous diva, arrived fashionably late.
It was the biryani: lovingly prepared with spices and succulent morsels of lamb, garnished with raisins and nuts. The rice was different from the stickier, short-grain varieties you get from Panda. That night, the rice was elongated. And each of the grains stood apart from the others and glistened like pearls. I could taste the hint of saffron.
As I took my first bite, Middle Eastern pilaf popped into my brain. The concept was similar, but the flavor profile of the Indian dish, bursting with aromatic spices, was something else.
Intrigued by the meal, I did a little research. I had guessed that Mughlai food had something to do with the Mughals, who ruled India from 1526 to 1857.
I wanted to know more. Who were these people? And why did they make such yummy food?
As it turns out, ‘Mughal’ (also written ‘Mogul’ and ‘Moghul’) is something of a misnomer. The Mughals preferred to call themselves the Timurids. The English name came from European visitors. That name has inspired colorful modern expressions like ‘internet mogul.”’
Technically speaking, the Europeans were right, even if the name was tacky. The Mughals were descended from Genghis Khan (ca. 1158-1227) on the maternal side. But people are often picky about their heritage. They select which ancestors to acknowledge. Like many Americans of German descent, my dad says he’s Irish.
Those choices disclose a lot. They help us understand not only people’s pretensions, but also their culinary proclivities. My dad likes his Guinness and potatoes, and his St. Patty’s Day. He never waxes about Schnitzel.
In the case of the Mughals, they thought of themselves as Central Asian Turks from modern-day Uzbekistan. But they were not just any ole Turks. They were cultured Turks. In the context of early modern Central Asia, this meant they were Turks who spoke and ate as Persians.
Persianized or not, the Mughals ended up in India. You might call it an accident. The Mughal leader, Babur (1483-1530), had the bad luck of becoming a khan while still a tween. His relatives took advantage of his tender years and stripped him of territory. After losing a battle, Baby Babur found himself pushed out of Uzbekistan. On a lark, he decided to invade north India, “Hindustan.” And by some twist of fate, he emerged victorious.
India should have been enough. But Babur was a hard man to please. To the end of his days, he was sore about losing Central Asia. He wanted to live among Persian speakers and fellow Muslims. But what really irked him was the loss of Central Asian cuisine.
In his mind, good food was Persian food, or Persian inspired. It had a few local flourishes and influences from China, and featured pastries like naan and samosa. Persian food in Central Asia was also loaded with other goodies: fruits like muskmelons and raisins, as well as icy sherbets. In that cuisine, rice pilaf was, to quote Lizzie Collingham, “the piece de resistance.”
Further complicating matters, Babur *despised* Indian food. He had no need for vegetarianism; meat was manly food in his cultural matrix. Babur also turned his nose down at wholesome everyday Indian meals: healthy lentils and chickpeas, served with rice, and flavored with iron-rich turmeric and ghee.
Babur’s whining made me scratch my head. How could India not be enough? What was he missing so much? Since it was not very convenient to do a road trip to Uzbekistan, I consoled myself with becoming an experimental (and not an armchair) anthropologist.
Trying to get a handle on Babur’s gripes, I decided to eat what he ate. So I prepared the Central Asian version of biryani. It was called plov, or pulao. There are, of course, many variants (this one uses chili peppers and post-dated Babur). Some versions fry the rice in butter. But I’ll start with another:
Brown some onions in a wide pan. Now add the meat. It can be chicken legs (don’t remove the skins!), or some sheep on bone. After browning the meat, it’s time to stir in the long-grained rice, about 70 percent cooked. (No sushi rice please!) After a few minutes, add broth, salt, and pepper. A dash of cumin. In the last few minutes of cooking, sprinkle in carrot ribbons.
I served up the dish to my husband. He had been demanding biryani since the trip. I told him he was only getting the Central Asian prototype. We needed to know why the early Mughals complained about the food in India. As I looked on, he took a bite. “It’s good,” he said. “But the flavor is totally different. The Indian version has a lot more spices and you know how I love my spices.”
Now I was curious. Why was the Indian version so different? I then compared the recipes. The contemporary North Indian version has a lot of spices. Cardamom, cloves, saffron, fennel, turmeric. Some versions include many others. The Central Asian version looked bare bone in comparison. For spices, my version only used pepper and cumin.
To explain the divergence, I hit up Collingham again. Apparently, the aromatic and pungent version came later in Mughal rule. It was a product of the kitchen of Babur’s grandson, Akbar, who ruled India from 1556-1605.
Akbar was a different man from Grandpa Babur. Akbar was the perfect UM student for the Third Century Initiative, a citizen of the world. Yes, he spoke plenty of Persian. But he was famously open-minded. Though a Muslim, he was crazy about Jesus. He named his wives Mary, decorated his palace with Catholic icons, and invited Jesuits to come tutor his many sons. He was also not hostile to Hindus, who made up the lion’s share of his realm. In fact, Akbar married a Hindu princess and celebrated Diwali. Towards the end of his life, he even toyed with vegetarianism.
According to Collingham, Akbar’s kitchen reflected that eclecticism. His meals fused Central Asian, Persian, and Indian elements. Collingham takes this as evidence of Akbar’s cosmopolitanism.
I have a simpler explanation. Akbar was a second-gen South Asian. Like me, his mouth wanted different things from his parents. Whereas mine craves sickly sweet foods drenched in corn syrup, his longed for spices.
Not surprisingly, Akbar’s chefs took cues from their master. Instead of doing what Genevieve Ko demands (i.e., following the recipe to a ‘t’), they veered from the Central Asian script and improvised. In the process, they adapted a Central Asian recipe for the local palate.
In practical terms, this meant piling on the spices. Cardamom big and small, coriander, cloves for aroma. Bay leaves, fennel, ginger, garlic. The chef’s adjustments, of course, went beyond realigning the flavor profile. Over time, chefs also took advantage of locally-abundant ingredients, producing an infinite number of variants. Tamarind, a tangy fruit that can be made into paste, provides one such example. These fruits abound in India and find their way into southern editions of biryani. So does seafood on the coast.
If we are trying to sound smart, we can call those modifications examples of local adaptation. Local adaptation is something that often “happens” to foreign recipes. Those recipes get reconfigured as cooks modify them in response to local tastes and available resources. Take the humble dumpling. In China, cooks stuff them with pork; in the United States, that filling might have Phili Cheesesteak.
Local tastes are not the only force behind recipe evolution. Religious differences and the broader cultural matrix can stimulate adjustments. There are now meatless renditions of biryani. Those modifications allowed Hindus, many of whom are serious vegetarians, to join the ever growing ranks of pilaf lovers.
At the end of the day, I am happy that Akbar and his cooks deviated from the original recipe. Their biryani may be no plov, but it is equal to the original.
Abkar’s biryani has also given me plenty of food for thought. Like many of you, I had begun my food history odyssey with the conviction that we should strive to make “authentic” food, or keep food just like it is in the home country.
But biryani changed my mind. Phili Cheesesteak dumplings may be *interesting* but it’s not because there is anything inherently wrong with changing the recipe. Deviating from the recipe can actually lead to good things. Akbar’s version of his ancestors’ plov may not win any authenticity awards from Central Asians. But it is certainly delicious. It has become its own delectable thing.
Are you a biryani person or a plov eater? Do you have a secret passion for Phili Cheesesteak dumplings? What do you think of authentic food? Thoughts on doing a biryani (also called pulao) lab?
Sources for Blog:
Read: Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), Chapter 2: “Biryani: The Great Mughals,” 13-46.
There are many different regional versions of biryani. Professor Jo Sharma has provided me with some recipe links and resources for South Asian food:
https://www.bongeats.com/recipe/kolkata-mutton-biryani - one of my fave sites and their videos are spot on.
https://www.archanaskitchen.com/thalapakattu-chicken-biryani-recipe - a Tamil one again with specific local spices
There is also yakhni pulao which was cooked in Akbar’s kitchens, and that my friend popular food blogger and public historian Rana Safvi showcases: https://ranasafvi.com/yakhni-pulao/ (yakhni is stock). It is truly delicious! (MB, I counted nine different spices in this recipe!)
Central Asia and Western China:
For food in Inner and Central Asia, I consult Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China (Artisan; Illustrated edition, 2008). This is a beautiful recipe book with lots of cultural contextualization. It's my go-to for Uighur, Kazakh, Inner Mongolian, and Tibetan food. A must read!
There is now a new recipe book on Central Asia by Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford, Samarkand (January 1, 2016). I am still trying to track it down!