This Must-eat Dish for Travelers Headed to India Is a History Lesson on a Plate
Few people have studied Indian cuisine in more depth and breadth than Anjum Anand, a food writer and television host who has crisscrossed the subcontinent learning about and documenting Indian home cooking.
Her recently-released cookbook,I Love India: Recipes and Stories from City to Coast, Morning to Midnight, and Past to Present, is a definitive collection of street foods, regional delicacies, holiday specialties, and indispensable recipes. And with India a perennial staple on T+L editors’ bucket lists, we wanted to pick her brain. So we posed a somewhat impossible-to-answer question: If someone were to eat one dish in India — just one — what should it be?
Her answer: Hyderabad-style biryani, a classic and easy-to-find dish with a backstory that reflects the history of India itself.
What makes this biryani special? Its preparation, for one thing: The meat, usually goat or lamb, is added without cooking it separately — earning this style the nickname of “raw biryani.”
“It has a lot of alchemy to it,” says Anand. “If you are a cook, you’ll know that rice cooks very quickly and meat cooks very slowly. And yet, in this dish, the meat and rice cook perfectly all at the same time.” The cooking pot is sealed with a lid of dough to help steam the rice, making it impossible to check on its progress. “There’s something really magical about that,” she says; “I almost don’t want to figure out how it works, because I like the fact that it’s a bit of magic.”
For Anand, eating this biryani in Hyderabad is a perfect introduction to the city's unique cuisine, which has flavors and ingredients that are notably different from those you'll find elsewhere in India. “Hyderabad is well known for its food,” she says. “It’s not spicy — it’s very aromatic, very refined. It doesn’t use heavy tomatoes and chili, but there is a lot of yogurt, so it’s quite tangy. And there is a lot of meat.” Her version of Hyderabad biryani, published in the book, follows suit — it’s flavored with cilantro and mint, as well as cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and saffron (and a generous amount of yogurt).
But this biryani is not just prototypical of Hyderabadi cuisine — it also weaves together the historical influences that have exerted their power in this cultural crossroads. For hundreds of years, the city was ruled by the Mughals, whose Central Asian and Turkic heritage left its mark on the regional cuisine. Anand identifies the Mughal-style biryani as part of a pattern that has shaped Indian cooking: “When I look at India,” she says, “I see a culinary patchwork that shows all the country has been through. Over a period of thousand years, there were the Mughals, and the Brits, the Portuguese, Arab traders, and other groups that governed or traded. Instead of shunning dishes based on a history that was sometimes brutal, they kept the best of what came in and ‘Indianized’ it.” Of course, this isn’t the only biryani on the table, Anand says. A typical vegetarian Hyderabadi version was developed when Mughal families lost their power and wealth, and relied on lentils and chickpeas to replace the meat they could no longer afford.
On the whole, India is a great tapestry of biryanis. “A lot of regions will claim to have the best biryani,” says Anand. “The other main heavyweight is a version from Lucknow, finished with floral essences. But you’ll have fantastic fish and prawn biryanis on the Malabar Coast. Gujarati Kutch biryani is light and fragrant with chicken and herbs. Bombay has a biryani that is spicier and reflects the city’s cosmopolitan population — trying to please all palates.” Still, for Anand, the elegant Hyderabadi style is a must-eat.
On your way to Telangana or southern India? Anand suggests Paradise, a local biryani-focused chain restaurant. “It looks like a really average restaurant, air conditioned for tourists,” she says, “but the biryani is great and the rice is cooked beautifully.” It’s hard to go wrong, though, with most restaurants in the city highlighting the local specialty on the menu. “I love the fact that people are so proud of it,” she says. “In this world where we’re all eating faster, easier food, it’s great when someone loves the ceremony and everyone gathers round the pot to smell the wonderful spices.”
Those without an India itinerary on the horizon can always borrow Anand’s recipe to bring Hyderabad home:
I Love India by Anjum Anand; $14 on amazon.com