If you pay attention, you’ll notice that each dish has a story to tell. Each meal has a tale that spans ahead of time and geography, and very few dishes in the culinary world have a more extended and more fascinating history than the famous Biryani. The dish’s origins can be traced back to Persia, modern-day Iran, and the phrase “Biryani” comes from the Persian word “Birian,” which translates to “fried rice,” yet how it arrived to influence the subcontinent cuisine remains an open question.
One narration of the origin of such delicacy recounts Timur, the Turk-Mongol conqueror, who brought the forerunner of Biryani with him when he arrived at India’s borders in 1398. A clay pot of rice, spices, and whatever meats were available would be buried in a heated pit before being pulled out and delivered to Timur’s troops as their battle campaign food. Another widely accepted account is that of Shah Jahan’s queen, Mumtaz Mahal (1593-1631), who once visited army barracks and noticed the troops were malnourished. Shah Jahan requested that the chef produce a unique dish with balanced nutrients. She consequently landed on Biryani as the ‘whole meal’ with meat, aromatic species, and fried rice, which could be shared in a single dish. While the dish has retained its essence of Persian influence, the question begs on how far the “Biryani” is of subcontinent influence or Persian cuisine. Tamil literature recounts “Onn Soru” as far back as 2AD, where Onn in Tamil refers to meat, and Soru refers to fried rice. The dish is consistent with Biryani, an amalgamation of flavors with rice, ghee, meat, turmeric, coriander, pepper, and bay leaf, considered a meal for soldiers after the War as a celebration by the King. It is also probable that the ‘Onn Soru’ was prepared by South Indian chefs for the mercenaries who later dubbed the dish “Biryani.”
Biryani’s popularity has remained seemingly unwavering from the Nawabs of Lucknow to the Nazams of Hyderabad. While the origin of Biryani remains a mystery, Pakistani have left no stone unturned in perfecting and developing every variation of this beloved dish. From the Angara Biryani to the Khusbodaar Basmati Rice Biryani, our Biryani looks different from Mumtaz Mahal’s or Tamil Biryanis. Still, the basic spices are the same at the heart of it. Biryani’s voyage has transcended countries and timeframes and has established a stronghold in Pakistani cuisine, so the next time you sit down with a plate of Biryani, consider its history and its impact on generations before you.