Biryani, the top-selling dish on food delivery apps, is a feast for the senses, with an enticing blend of aromatic spices and flavours that few can resist! Delhi-NCR always had its fair share of biryani sellers, ranging from five-star hotels to small street vendors, but small biryani stalls set up in various parts of the city have made it more accessible.
Whether in households, royal kitchens, or neighbourhood eateries, the recipe for a delicious biryani is frequently a closely held family secret passed down through the years. A new brand that proudly proclaims its city of origin, is now visible all over the city: Moradabadi Biryani.
Most vendors are too busy to ask questions and are also ignorant of the origins of their brand. That is why it was a triumph for Patriot to track down Mohd Sher Ali, who has owned a little biryani stand in Naya Bans, Noida, for the last 22 years, and get him to reveal his secret recipe (see box).
“The biryani that is being cooked and served today is not the original biryani from the period of the Mughals; it has an influence from states like Rampur and Moradabad that has deviated it from its origin,” explains Osama Jalali. He is a seasoned food writer, historian, and researcher turned chef.
Commenting on the evolution of the biryani over the years,he says, “Traditionally, biryani was made of sella rice, but later on, makers started using basmati, made with an elaborate process called Yakhni Lagana, which added a flavourful taste and better texture to the biryani and became one of the most important reasons for the popularity of the dish. The cooking methods have changed drastically. Now, if you leave out a few old Delhi bawarchis who cook using the traditional style, everyone is trying something different. A lot of experiments have been going on.”
He goes on to say that biryani is no more a special meal produced for special events such as Eid, marriage functions, and feasts, but has evolved into a comfort food that is available on most streets and is one of the most requested cuisines on online food delivery platforms. Another reason that has contributed to the popularity of Moradabadi biryani is the nutritional balance it offers between protein and carbohydrates.
What is its lure?
There has to be a reason why, over the years, the demand for Moradabadi Biryani has been increasing over the traditional ones. Pravin, who owns a stall in Khora, Ghaziabad, gets to the crux of the matter. “People are growing more fond of it because it’s less spicy. Younger customers today are more health conscious.”
The low price is also a factor, Moradabadi Biryani comes at various prices but averages around Rs 240 per kg. “We buy around 10 kg of chicken every day and rarely does it happen that there is any leftover,” he says. The younger generation mostly orders the Moradabad variety, but older regular customers still prefer the Hyderabadi kind.
Shubham, a customer eating at Ali’s food stall, said, “I’m a student, and for this meal I don’t have to wait for hours in line; it is also widely accessible in almost every part of the city.” He adds that biryani is the most affordable and is also a heavenly delicious street food. For around Rs 50, it’s a tasty full meal – not to mention the accompaniments of raita (a curd dish), pickle and fried onion rings that make it the best, he says.
On being asked about the history of biryani, Zulfiqar Ahmed, who runs the famous Ahmed Biryani Centre in Batla House, repeats the old tale that introduction of biryani to India was the work of Timur the Lame, founder of the Timurid Empire. The legend goes that in 1398, when the Turk arrived at our borders, he fed his warriors a simple meal of slow-cooked meats, spices and pots of rice that simmered in coal-fired underground pits until they were pulled out at mealtime.
The other theory is that the biryani is an import from the Middle East, more specifically, Persia. The word biryani is thought to originate from the Persian word birian, which means “fried before cooking” or birinj, meaning ‘rice’. If so, the journey of the dish from Persia to India via the Mughals has been an incredible one.
There have been several refinements to the dish as it has moved into different regions across the country based on local taste and innovation, and Moradabadi Biryani – or the Lucknavi or Sindhi one – are just some variants. Nobody Patriot spoke to could explain whether there is any specific connection to Moradabad, the Uttar Pradesh town which is a three-hour drive from Delhi.
All’s not well
However, just cooking up a great product does not guarantee financial success. Restaurant owners complain that the takeaway stalls have taken away their business.
“My shop has been here for one year, but there’s no significant growth,” says Zulfiqar Ahmed. “My daily earnings are around Rs 2,000-2,500. After deducting the expenses, I only get a profit of around Rs 500, which isn’t enough.”
He is mulling changing the location to try his luck elsewhere – or switch to some other business altogether, as this one takes all of his time and energy. He still hopes that a change of place might bring a change in fortunes.
“I’ve tried lowering the prices as well, but nothing seems to be working. These stalls have made my life miserable. Now people don’t want to come to eateries because of these stalls,” he says.
Perhaps he should consider selling via food delivery apps.
A recipe for happiness
Mohd Sher Ali’s stall is located in a narrow lane just beneath the Naya Bans metro station. The moment you walk into a small stall named Kaka Food Point, with four tables and around 20 chairs, the aroma tempts you. The small eatery is famous in the whole area for its biryani and korma, with Moradabadi Biryani being the top favourite on the menu.
So what’s the recipe? He reels off the list of ingredients: basmati rice, which was traditionally brown rice, chicken, lemon juice, onions, green peppers, ginger, and spices such as asafoetida, cardamom, cloves, jeera, garam masala powder, cumin powder, and so on.
The process sounds simple: “We first fry the whole spices over a low flame. We cook the chicken pieces in the masala after they have been pre-fried for five minutes. After that, we add the appropriate amount of water to the pot and combine it with the masala before adding a different kind of raw rice than is used in Hyderabadi biryani”.
After being allowed to boil for 8-10 minutes, it should be left on a slow fire, covered and sealed with dough.
Thus with only a few tweaks to the ingredients, flavours and preparation methods, simple rice may be transformed into a delicious feast worthy of kings and commoners alike.