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EPICURIOUS: Biryani versus pilau

EPICURIOUS: Biryani versus pilau

I might have written about my preference for a good pilau over a biryani previously: the former’s subtle fragrance and flavour beats the more robust taste of a biryani any day. But perhaps I’m old-fashioned and prejudiced. In Sri Lanka, where I am currently living, good meat is hard to come by, and trying to make yakhni, or stock, with fish for a pilau would completely dissolve it. So the other day, I decided to make fish biryani.

One reason I might have been put off biryani is that all too often, as served in most restaurants and weddings, the salan, or curry, and rice are stirred together so vigorously that the whole thing turns into an unattractive mush. Many use turmeric to obtain a garish yellow colour. Also, few cooks bother to add kewra, or screw-pine essence, star anise and saffron at the end. As one puritan foodie blogger put it: “If you don’t add these ingredients, you are cooking meat kichri, not a biryani.”




Luckily, I did have these ingredients, and made a thick sauce for the fish based on the usual sliced onions, garlic and ginger paste, red chilli, powdered coriander, cumin, curry leaves and salt. Chopped tomatoes went in, and the mixture was allowed to simmer until they were almost dissolved. Chunks of a kilo of seer fish (surmai in Pakistan; a firm-fleshed fish), measuring about an inch and a half across were added gently in one layer, and smothered in the sauce. They were allowed to cook gently on a low flame for about five minutes before being turned over. Take care that the fish is not overcooked and breaks up.

While the fish was cooking, a couple of cups of soaked basmati rice was boiled; but just before it was done — at the ‘kanni’ stage — the heat was turned off. In a heavy bottomed pan with a tightly fitting lid, heat a couple of spoons of ghee before placing a layer of rice, and then one of the fish and the sauce, ending with a final layer of rice. A couple of teaspoons of kewra go in, together with a pod of star anise and a generous pinch of saffron that had been soaked in hot water for half an hour.

The pot is then covered with a kitchen cloth before the lid goes on, weighed down with a heavy object to prevent the steam from escaping. This is allowed to cook on the lowest heat setting for around 10 minutes before the rice is checked for doneness: the grains should be separate and just cooked. Before serving, gently turn the biryani over to mix the fish curry and the rice, taking care that the fish does not disintegrate. There should be a delicious fragrance that the guests should be encouraged to inhale.

In the original version, whole spices were used to prepare the curry for biryani, but with the growing popularity of this dish since the 1980s, ground spices have gained favour. Much of biryani’s ascendancy can be traced to Karachi’s iconic Students’ Biryani that has served its hot, spicy speciality to hundreds of thousands of customers through its restaurant and catering service. The filling meat and rice dish, cooked in lashings of spices, goes down well with raita, and can be eaten on the go. But there is little that is elegant or sophisticated about this preparation.

For many years, pilau was claimed to be the ultimate rice dish in Lucknow, while Delhi foodies extolled the virtues of biryani. Many variations of both dishes were introduced to acclaim by sophisticates in the two cities. To this day, the controversy over which is better has not been resolved. But despite the popularity of biryani, I remain firmly in the pilau camp.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 12th, 2017

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