Cuisine leaves its own imprint on history. India has witnessed many invaders; with every invader came a different culture and a new cuisine. Muslim invaders like Turks, Arabs, Persians, and Afghans introduced the culture of feasts to India. The Mughlai cuisine that India is famous for developed from the 15th century to about the 19th century during the reign of the Mughals. The Mughals raised cooking to an art form, introducing several recipes to India like biryani, pilaf, and kebabs.
While biryani is popularly associated with the Mughals, there is some historical evidence to show that there were other, similar rice dishes prior to the Mughal invasion. There is mention about a rice dish known as “Oon Soru” in Tamil as early as the year 2 A.D. Oon Soru was composed of rice, ghee, meat, turmeric, coriander, pepper, and bay leaf, and was used to feed military warriors.
The famous traveler and historian Al-Biruni has precise descriptions of meals at the courts of Sultans who ruled parts of India prior to the Mughals. These also contain mentions of rice dishes similar to the Mughal biryani. However, there is no doubt that Islamic Persians inspired and popularized the dish.
The word “biryani” comes from the Persian word “birian” which means “fried before cooking.” One could conclude that the biryani originated in Iran (modern day Persia). Another interesting story traces the origins of the dish to Mumtaz Mahal(1593-1631), Shah Jahan’s queen who inspired the Taj Mahal. It is said that she once visited army barracks and found the army personnel under-nourished. She asked the chef to prepare a special dish which provided balanced nutrition, and thus the biryani was created.
When the British deposed Nawab Wajid Ali Shah to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the Calcutta biryani was created. Nizams governing small territories in Northern India encouraged regional variants like the Hyderabadi biryani and the Arcot Nawab biryani. Biryani recipes of the Mughals can still be found in places where their empire had a foothold.
Once a dish for royalty, today the biryani reflects local sensibilities and traditions and is a popular and common dish. Here are two biryani recipes that reflect the predominantly vegetarian Indian society.