Be it the potato-laced biryanis of Kolkata to the spicier, mixed versions from Thalassery and Dindigul, biryani seems to unite the subcontinent of India better than any political party ever could. It has inspired ancient Tamil poetry and so many splintered regional styles, Hyderabad alone is said to have dozens variations. All around the nation different forms of the same dish are treasured, each bringing something special to the bellies they’re precariously balanced upon; and while several famed eateries are oft thought to be the purveyors of the most quintessential biryani preparations, it is important to remember the authentic, home-style recipes of home cooks with decades of experience and generations of know-how.
So we bring to you seven classic and regional biryani preparations to try out at home, straight from the kitchens of mothers and grandmothers who’ve been gracious enough to share their family secrets with us.
Ask any Kolkattan foodie transplant what they miss most about the city, and they’ll probably say ‘real’ biryani with deem and aloo (egg and potato). The Kolkata-style biryani can be traced all the way back to 1856, when the British decided to annex Awadh, then under the rule of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who was exiled to Kolkata. A connoisseur of music, art and food, the Nawab decided to bring along a posse of musicians, artists, ministers and, of course, his royal chefs. When these chefs started to cook up batches of the famous Awadhi-style biryani in Kolkata, the recipe was slightly tweaked. The addition of the potato was, according to some, a desperate measure, and to others, a luxury. While some say that Wajid Ali Shah’s sorry state of finances led his chefs to reduce the meat ratio in the biryani and add potato to maintain the quantity, others say that the potato itself was a luxury vegetable that was experimented with. Whichever story you choose to believe, the potato is to the Kolkata biryani, what pav is to bhaji.
The recipes for Kolkata-style biryani range from exasperatingly tough methods to straightforward home-style renditions. Rukma Dakshy, a Kolkata-based chef, shared a simple recipe she makes for her family back home.
“My cooking style has always been experimental. For instance, just today I made biryani in a rice cooker, odd as it may sound, and it turned out great! My tryst with the iconic Kolkata biryani happened the same way. About 15 years ago, I decided to finally try my hand at the one dish that makes up the very soul of the city. What I find the most striking about Kolkata biryani and what makes it stand out, is the giant potato that accompanies a generous serving. Also, other regional biryanis tend to use a lot of spices and more often than not, the biryani at hand ends up delicious but spicy. Kolkata biryani is lighter and the lesser number of spices used is what adds to its simplistic but distinctive flavour.”
Step 1: Marinate the mutton with onion paste, birista (fried onions), grated raw papaya, ginger paste, curd, sweet curd, chilli powder, two bay leafs, two tablespoons of garam masala powder, four tablespoons of ghee, oil leftover from the fried birista and salt. To all this, add a tablespoon of biryani masala and allow the marinade to sit for six hours.
Step 2: Heat oil and ghee in a pan and add to it the marinated mutton. Cover the pan with a lid and slow cook on low flame until the meat is 80 per cent cooked. When this is done, take out the meat, collect the residual oil with the masalas and keep aside.
Step 3: Pour three litres of water in a thick-bottomed vessel and add two black cardamom pods, four green cardamom pods and two cinnamon sticks. Let the mixture boil for about 30 minutes. In the meantime, wash and soak the rice in water for about 20 minutes. After this, add the soaked rice and salt to the vessel with the garam masala ingredients. Cook the rice till it is three quarters done. Drain the water and let the rice cool.
Step 4: Now, mix kesar and food colour (optional) with three tablespoons of milk.
Step 5: Take a handi or a cooking vessel of your choice and coat it with ghee. Put in two bay leaves, first. Then add the 80 per cent cooked mutton and rice in alternate layers. Sprinkle some biryani masala upon each layer as well as some of the cooked masalas from when the mutton was being made, along with the mixed kesar, grated khowa (dried whole milk) and aloo bukhara (prunes). Finally, add the boiled eggs (which should have been fried lightly) and potatoes (uncooked, peeled and halved).
Step 6: Cover the handi with a lid and seal its opening with atta (wheat flour) dough.
Step 7: Keep the flame on low and place a tawa over the burner. Place the handi on top of the tawa and cook for 15 to 20 minutes.
Step 8: When the dough becomes dry, you know the biryani is ready.
Step 9: You can turn off the flame at this point, but let the handi sit 15 minutes before opening.
Step 10: Open the handi, preferably with a spatula, and mix the rice and meat well. Your Kolkata biryani is ready to be served.
The strategic location of the Malabar Coast’s Thalassery—a convergence point between Chirakkal, Kottayam and Kadathanad—made it an important spice trade hub for pepper and cardamom since the 17th century. The large number of British, European and Islamic traders that conducted business there resulted in a confluence of cultures, which influenced the city’s local cuisine. A popular example of this cross pollination is the Thalassery biryani, a local delicacy that calls for short grain jeerakasala (kaima) rice and a garam masala made up of local spices like Tellicherry pepper. Chinnamma Mathew, mother of Regi Mathew (chef and co-founder of Kerala-based Kappa, Chakka, Kandhari) shares her decades-old special recipe, which she’s now passed down to her children.
“Feeding four growing and forever hungry boys in my house was always a full time challenge. To this end, I was constantly looking for interesting and wholesome recipes to try out and hone my cooking skills.
While on a visit to a friend in Calicut, I remember picking up a handwritten cookbook on Malabar cuisine which had this recipe. Many years later, I had lost the book, but by then I’d made it so many times for my boys, that I knew by heart. It’s a special dish I’ve always put out on my table to mark important occasions and celebratory meals. In fact, when Regi’s wife Jaya first came to visit the family, I had cooked this biryani. Jaya has now taken the recipe from me and continues the tradition of making this home-style Thalassery Biriyani.”
Step 1: Marinate the chicken with a little turmeric, salt and lime juice.
Step 2: Soak the rice in water for 30 minutes.
Step 3: Heat one tablespoon of oil and one tablespoon of ghee. To it, add cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. Add hot water, salt (to taste) and bring the whole thing to a boil. Add the soaked and drained rice and cook on an absorption method. Once this is done, keep aside
Step 4: Heat oil and lightly fry the cashew nut and raisins, and keep aside. Fry the onion to golden brown, and keep aside.
Step 5: Add one tablespoon ghee to the pan with oil and sauté onion and green chilli till the onion becomes soft. Add ginger and garlic to the mix and sauté. To this, add turmeric powder, coriander powder and pepper powder. Add the chopped tomato and cook the masala for five minutes. Finally, add the marinated chicken and coriander and mint leaves.
Step 6: Take a thick bottom vessel and layer it with pre-cooked rice and the cooked chicken masala.Top it with fried cashew nuts and raisins. Cover the vessel with a tight lid and keep a tava between the vessel and stove flame for 10 minutes.
Step 7: Serve hot with Raita, pickle and papadum.
The iconic Hyderabadi-style biryani, holding court from the time of the Nizams, puts up a royal fight with its regional counterparts. The branches of legendary biryani eateries like Paradise are usually the last pit stops that tourists make in the city, before they board flights carrying boxes of biryani packages to take back home. Legend has it that the Hyderabadi dum biryani was birthed as a blend of Mughal and Telangana cuisine, when it was developed some 400 years ago in the royal kitchen of Nizam-ul-Mulk, a Mughal viceroy who Aurangzeb appointed as the Asaf Jahi ruler of Hyderabad. Since then, the recipe has evolved, but still remains true to its roots.
Two different women share their home-style versions of this biryani. One of them stumbled upon a traditional recipe in a moth-eaten book that was found in a partition-era trunk, and the other learnt how to make the dish during a visit to the city.
Recipe Courtesy: Saleha Ahmad
“I found an old hardbound notebook in my mother’s house, many, many years ago. The book seemed ancient, one side of it was completely moth-eaten and some of its pages had turned yellow. But something about it piqued my interest and I opened it. Inside, I found an assortment of recipes written in Urdu, and by the looks of it, all of the recipes were of Hyderabadi cuisine.
At the top of the recipe book, was the name “Dastare Usmani”. Now, ‘dastar’ means table-spread and ‘Usman’ was the name of one of the Nizams of Hyderabad. I went to my mother and asked her where she had gotten the book from. She told me that the book had been found inside a metal trunk that had been bought by her brother from someone who was leaving India for Pakistan during the 1947 partition. This same book, unclaimed, was found inside the metal trunk, which has been in my family for years. What fascinated me the most was that we lived in Patna and somehow, this book filled with very elaborate, almost royal, Hyderabadi recipes, had somehow found its way into my mother’s house and then mine.”
Step 1: Boil basmati rice in five to six litres of salted water. Add whole mint leaves, coriander leaves and green chillies (optional) for flavour and aroma.
Step 2: When the rice is cooked, but still firm, drain the water from the vessel and let the rice cool.
Step 3: Add the juice of four lemons as well as two to three tablespoons of ghee and kewra water to the rice. Check the rice for salt to taste.
Step 4: Marinate the mutton with onion paste, garlic paste, ginger paste, thick curd, coconut paste, poppy seeds paste, red chilli paste, coriander powder, mint leaves paste, coriander leaf paste, homemade garam masala powder and set aside for two hours.
Step 5: Add half a cup of cooking oil to the marinade. Cook the mutton until done. Dry the mutton out on high flame until the oil separates.
Step 6: Take a dekchi (or whichever cooking vessel) and grease it with oil. Then spread the layers of rice and mutton in the cooking vessel. Pour some milk on top of this, cover it (either dum-style or with an oven safe lid) and put the vessel in the oven at 150 degrees celsius for one hour (a modern adaptation).
Step 7: Once it’s ready, make sure to garnish it with plenty of fried onions before serving. The biryani tastes even better when accompanied by raita and shikampur or shammi kebabs.
Recipe Courtesy: Narinder Kapoor
“This recipe came to me about 40 years ago. My younger sister was married and settled in Hyderabad, and she’s always had an affinity for cooking. This recipe was first passed on to her by her mother-in-law. One of the first times I visited, she made it for me and after the first bite, I knew I had to try my hand at it. I brought the recipe back to Kolkata and made it for my family, and that was that. Now on all special occasions and family gatherings this is the only dish that is in demand, nothing else. Despite living in Kolkata for over four decades, this is still my favourite style of biryani—I truly believe it’s the most flavourful.”
Step 1: Fry the onions till brown and crispy, and keep aside. Dissolve saffron in half a cup of milk and keep aside.
Step 2: Wash the chicken or mutton and dry it. Once dry, mix the meat with curd, half of the fried onions, ginger-garlic paste, salt, red pepper powder, garam masala powder (a crushed mix of cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, coriander and cumin seeds) and half cup of the oil used to fry the onions. If you’re using mutton, add the raw papaya paste as well.
Step 3: Place the meat in a thick-bottom container, and keep aside.
Step 4: Wash the rice and soak it for half an hour.
Step 5: Start boiling water in a cooking vessel and add cardamom, cinnamon sticks, shahi jeera, cloves, bay leaves, juice of 2 lemons and salt.
Step 6: As it begins to boil, add the rice. When the rice is cooked halfway, drain the water. Place this rice on the marinated meat and sauté the remaining brown rice, mint leaves and the saffron milk. Now put ghee on all sides of the mix and seal the container with atta dough and close the lid. Keep the pre-heated tawa on high flame for 10 mins, and then another 20 mins on slow flame.
Step 7: Once this is done, serve piping hot with raita.
Shabana Shaikh, who runs the famous Konkoni-Muslim restaurant ‘Ameez Kitchen’, traces the origin of Konkani-Muslim cuisine back to the recipes brought by Arab and Persian invaders of India. A small group of them decided to inhabit the Konkan region of Maharashtra.
While Konkani food is predominantly some form of fish and rice, Konkanis have an eclectic range of recipes, one of them being the famous Konkani Ghosht Biryani. In some respects, this biryani is similar to the Hyderabadi style of biryani, especially in terms of spices. This, Shabana says, can be attributed to the invaders who settled across different parts of India.
“My Ammee (mom), who is now 72 years young, picked up the art of making the perfect Konkani Muslim Biryani from her grandmother, so I can proudly say this recipe of ours has been in the family for at least a 100 years. Biryani has always been synonymous with large family gatherings and celebrations. Coming from a joint family, cooking was always done on a pretty big scale and the efforts would usually double on Eid, Muharram and days of Fatiha (puja). Gosht ki Biryani was cooked in our backyard on big coal sigrees in huge deghs, which we treasure till date. The two super cooks behind the vessels were always my Ammee and my grandad.”
Step 1: Mix in thick curd, lemon juice, oil, golden-fried onion (birista), dry spice powder and the wet masala paste with the meat, and give it a good rub. Marination should be at least for six to seven hours before cooking, or overnight preferably. Cook the marinated meat in a degh (cooking vessel) or a pressure cooker, till the meat is three quarters done. Keep aside.
Note: One must stir the masala on low flame after every new set of ingredients is added.
Step 2: Heat oil and ghee (in equal parts) in a degh or cooking pot. Peel, halve and lightly fry potatoes, and then keep aside. Add whole spices and let them crackle. After this, add tomatoes and once they soften, add in the wet masala paste. Sauté for a while and then add the dry spices (except salt and garam masala). Cook till the masala and oil separate.
Once this is done, add the meat without the broth and stir it on low flame. Add in salt (to taste), potatoes and then curd. Stir the whole mixture again (you can add little of the cooked marinade if the masala is too dry). Once the masala and meat are cooked well, sprinkle freshly chopped mint leaves on top.
Step 3: Wash one kilogram of basmati rice, and keep aside. In a big pot, add the whole spices (green cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, black cumin, black cardamom, star anise, mace, bay leaf), salt and ghee, and let it all boil. Add the washed rice to the pot. Keep boiling until the rice is almost cooked. Strain the almost cooked rice and keep aside.
Step 4: Soak saffron strands in a mix of milk, orange colour (we use natural colors) and rose or kewra water. Add two to three spoons of ghee to the pot in which the biryani will be cooked and sprinkle some cooked rice at the bottom of it. This will stop the masala from burning. Layer the Biryani Masala ensuring that the meat pieces and potatoes are evenly spread.
Sprinkle garam masala powder and freshly chopped mint and coriander leaves on the mixture. Now, carefully spread the basmati rice on top of the mixture (since cooked basmati is very delicate, you should use your hands to avoid breaking). Sprinkle saffron milk evenly on the rice and garnish generously with birista and mint leaves. Add small dollops of ghee on the rice (including the sides of the rice as well).
Step 5: Tie the mouth of the degh, or whichever vessel you are using, with a cotton cloth. Make sure to cover it with a lid that fits well. Keep a tawa on the flame and place the degh on the tawa so it gets indirect heat. Burn a few coal pieces and place them on the lid of the degh. Let it cook on the low flame for 15 to 20 minutes.
Step 6: Removing the biryani from the degh is a crucial step. The spoon should be big enough to reach the bottom of the pot. Loosen the biryani with the spoon only in a small section.In a serving tray, place the rice on one side and the masala on the other.Garnish with birista and mint and coriander leaves again. Serve hot with dahi raita.
The story behind the Dindigul biryani is one where ambition meets talent. Back in 1957, a man named Nagasamy Naidu ran a small restaurant called Anandha Vilas in Dindigul, which had been opened by his grandfather years before. Naidu’s wife had a unique biryani recipe, which he believed could end up becoming his restaurant’s USP. And sure enough, the ‘Dindigul biryani’ came to be and soon became so popular that diners across Tamil Nadu began to commute all the way to the Dindigul for a hearty plateful. The recipe was shared and began to be prepared in households across the region. While the original recipe is a bit complex, Padma Karri’s recipe, which she makes in her home in Chennai, is a simple variation.
“The homestyle biryani I make is similar to the famous Dindigul biryani, but I don’t like calling it that. I live in Chennai and my family usually refers to the biryani I make as “South Indian-style biryani” instead. It’s something that I picked up from both my mother and my in-laws over the years. And the recipe has definitely stuck around, because my nephew has now makes it!”
Step 1: Mix all the marinade ingredients in a bowl and coat the chicken. Let it sit for a minimum of three hours; it’s best left overnight in the fridge.
Step 2: In a heavy-bottomed vessel, add a couple tablespoons of oil and ghee. Once heated, add the cumin seeds, bay leaf and onions. Fry onions till they turn a pale, golden brown.
Step 3: Add the ginger garlic paste and fry till fragrant.
Step 4: Add the meat and fry the mixture for a few minutes. Add tomatoes, the powder mix of all spices and the puree mix mentioned above.
Step 5: Fry till the chicken until it is fully cooked.
Step 6: Pour boiling water onto the chicken.
Step 7: Add rice to the pot and mix it in.
Step 8: Top with mint, coriander leaves and a little ghee.
Step 9: Cover, and let cook for ten minutes on high.
Step 10: Reduce the flame to low and cook for a final ten minutes. Once this is done, your biryani is ready to be served hot.
Much like Kolkata biryani, the Bohri biryani is strongly layered with a generous serving of potatoes. While some trace the roots of Bohri cuisine, especially its vegetarian dishes, to Gujarat, its curries and biryani seem to have a distinct Afghan and Arab influence. By Bohra tradition, families sit around a large thaal and share their dining experience as they go through the different courses together. The authentic Bohri biryani is different from others, Riya Gabaji tells me. In this recipe, the meat is slow-cooked with the rice.
“The Bohri-style biryani recipe has been passed down from my Nani to my mother and then to me. When I was a child, I remember feeling like the whole summer passed by with us peeling, chopping, frying and churning onions to make biristas (golden fried onions) for biryani! Once the birista is ready, making the biryani feels like a breeze.
I picked up the recipe by simply watching my mom making the biryani and, also, because she’d often engage me by asking me to check if the rice is cooked, to make the birista, do salt tasting and the like. I will say, however, that I’ve modified or rather, simplified the recipe over the years, keeping with the times and the ingredients available.”
Step 1: Marinate the washed and drained chicken or mutton pieces with the ginger-garlic-green chilli paste, turmeric powder, red chilli powder and coriander powder. Keep it aside.
Step 2: About an hour before cooking, add yoghurt (strain out the water in the case of mutton) birista and potatoes to the marinade. For chicken biryani, fry the potatoes first and then add it to the marinade.
Step 3: Take a patila (steel vessel) and first heat the ghee. Then add in jeera and cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and black peppercorns, and let them cook. After this, add chopped garlic or grated garlic and sauté. Following this, put in whole cashews and wait for them to roast. Once this is done, add all of this to the marinated mutton or chicken.
Step 4: Meanwhile, soak the rice for about an hour or two in advance. Take a separate vessel and boil water in it. Add salt to it. Once the water comes to a rolling boil, add the soaked rice to it. Wait for it to reach a rolling boil again. Once it does, strain out about a third of the rice and check. If it’s slightly cooked, layer it on top of the marinade. Let the rice cook a little more and then put another layer with ⅔ cooked rice and finally add a layer of fully cooked rice.
Step 5: Take a lid that is slightly bigger than your cooking vessel. Take a wet cloth and cover the biryani patila with it and put some weight on top of the lid, so that no steam escapes.
Sanjana Ray is that unwarranted tour guide people groan about on trips. When she isn't geeking out on travel and history, she can be found walking around the streets, crying for Bengali food. She is former Digital Writer at National Geographic Traveller India.