I wrote about the bigotry and myths that have come to characterise our attitudes to food and was gratified by the response that the piece generated on social media. But one aspect of the reaction struck me as particularly interesting.
Many people treated the piece only as one that distinguished between khichri and biryani. Which is not that surprising because any time I write anything about biryani, it gets an enormous response. Social media loves biryani and on Twitter, the debate about whether a biryani can be vegetarian just runs and runs. India has gone biryani crazy.
The responses to that column made me wonder how much we really know about the origin of biryani and its ancestor, pulao. Abhijit Iyer-Mitra tweeted to say that while he liked the piece, I should remember that pulao has been around in Tamil Nadu for centuries.
I checked my copy of K T Achaya’s A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food. Achaya walks a careful middle path: “The word is ascribed to the Persian and Arabic pilav, pulao and pallao, yet it would appear to have found its way long ago into both Sanskrit and early Tamil literature of the third to sixth centuries.”
But Abhijit went beyond linguistic similarity to argue that in ancient Sangam literature, there were references to a dish that involved the cooking of rice in meat stock. The dish was called Onnu Soru.
I asked Shri Bala, the Chennai-based food historian, if she agreed. Sangam literature is her speciality.
Well, she said, there was a one-pot dish called Kottan Soru. Soru means rice and Kottan meant a collection of things. She also pointed to Perun Soru, which was meat and rice, and corresponded roughly to what we call pulao today.
So was this an ancestor of the pulao? Or did the two dishes develop independently?
These are hard questions to answer. The Manasollasa (12th century) has a recipe for a dish in which pieces of meat were marinated in fruit juice, threaded on to skewers and then cooked on hot coals. Another recipe involved pounding pieces of meat till they became thin before cooking them with yoghurt.
Though the Manasollasa is a South Indian text, today’s North Indians will have no difficulty in recognising these dishes as kebabs and pasanda. So, were they really developed in North India as is generally believed? Did the kebab really come to us from central Asia?
There are no clear answers.
It is the same with ancient India. We know that the chicken was first domesticated during the Indus Valley Civilisation from where it went to Europe. But archaeologists have found ovens that look a lot like tandoors in Indus Valley sites. So did we send an early version of the tandoor to Central Asia? Or even: is tandoori chicken much older than we think?
When it comes to pulao, we must remember that until Alexander the Great arrived in India around 326 BC, nobody in Europe had heard of rice. It was Alexander’s Greek (or Macedonian, if you like) army that found rice in India and introduced it to the Western world.
But while the rice tradition in the rest of the world is relatively well documented, India has few records of how our great rice dishes developed. The Western view is that Arabs took rice all over the world. There is evidence for this. Paella comes from the rice dishes of Arab cuisine, and the Arabs planted rice in Spain. Even the Italians got their rice from Muslim travellers and traders, which is one reason why it only features in a few dishes (risotto, for example).
But where did the Arabs learn about rice from? Anissa Helou in her definitive Feast: Food of the Islamic World, offers two possibilities. “Muslims may have first learned about rice from the Persians of the Sasanian Empire when they defeated them in 635 AD,” she said. The Sassanids were Zoroastrians (like our Parsis) and claim to have invented pulao and other rice dishes, which the Muslim conquerors made their own.
But there is another possibility, said Helou: “They could have learned about rice in the Sind Province of India, which they conquered in 711 AD.” If she is right about the Sind connection, then perhaps the traditional view that Muslim kings came to India with pulao from Persia or Central Asia may have to be reconsidered.
They cooked pulao at the Delhi Sultanate but this could have come from merging their style of cooking with an Indian rice tradition. It is a moot point because I have never seen any research on that subject.
As for biryani, we have a recipe from Akbar’s court so we know that it was current then. But was it invented earlier? And was it created in India? Those who ascribe a Persian origin to the dish focus on linguistics; on what ‘birinj’ means in Farsi, etc. I am never fully convinced by linguistic explanations because Farsi was the court language those days and even if a dish was invented in old Delhi, it would still be given a Farsi name.
There are basic differences between a pulao and a biryani (the principal ones being that in a biryani, the meat and rice are cooked separately and then layered; a biryani is wetter and spicier, it is a main dish to be eaten on its own, etc.) so clearly they are two different dishes. Nor was our kind of biryani (wet meat cooked separately from the rice) found in the Arab world or Persia in that era. (Though Mohammed Althaf with whom I had a long Twitter exchange about this says that in Yemen, meat and rice are cooked separately and then assembled.) All this suggests that biryani was created in Delhi.
So, how did it travel all over India?
The usual explanation is that as the Mughal empire spread, biryani travelled with the army. It went to Avadh, where the cooks made it more aromatic and a little drier. And it went to Hyderabad where the sour flavourings of the Deccan were added.
So far so good. But even then, there are problems. Why is it called a pulao in Lucknow when it is clearly a biryani? Nobody has ever given me a good answer. Chef Imtiaz Qureshi was dismissive of the distinction. “We call it pulao,” he said. “Hotels call it biryani.” This doesn’t quite wash as an explanation.
If any place has the right to call it a pulao, it is Hyderabad, where they make a version in which the meat and rice are cooked together. But no, they insist that it is a biryani.
And how did the biryani reach the rest of India? One of the country’s best biryanis is made on the Malabar Coast. It has very little in common with Avadh or Delhi biryani. It tastes different and it looks different (no basmati). But it is recognisably a biryani – meat and rice cooked separately.
The standard theory is that biryani travelled to such places as Calicut from Delhi. But did it, really? And why is the rest of the cuisine relatively uninfluenced by North Indian flavours? Why did they only adopt biryani?
Ask a local and he will tell you that his ancestors have been making this biryani for centuries, long before they had heard of the Delhi Sultanate, let alone the Mughals. This may or may not be true, but Malayalis are hard pressed to explain why, if it is their own dish, they use the term biryani. And yet, it is true that they had few contacts with Delhi. In fact, they had much more to do with the Middle East because of ancient trading sea routes dating back to before the birth of the Prophet.
Honestly, I have no answers, just lots of questions. I am not entirely convinced by the pulao-came-with-the Delhi-Sultanate theory and I am even less convinced that every regional Indian biryani is descended from the biryani of the Mughal court.
Could it be that Indians have a tradition of cooking meat and rice together and that, at some point in time, we began to club all these different dishes together and used pulao and biryani as generic terms?
Now that India has gone biryani mad, some food historian should find us the answer.