A Brief History of Biryani in Britain
A restaurateur, food writer, and historian chart the history of the marinated meat dish—from the courts of the Mughal Empire to your local Indian takeaway.
In the kitchen of a London restaurant, chef Dhruv Mittal is marinating lamb shanks in a heady mixture of spices, onions, and yogurt. Next to him, another chef drains a humongous pot of steaming basmati rice, which is studded with aromatic star anise, bay leaves, and cloves. In the corner, small cast aluminum pots are piled high and someone is carefully rolling out circles of dough.
They're busy making biryani, the marinated meat and rice dish enjoyed in curry houses, high-end Indian restaurants, and home kitchens across Britain. Mittal likes to call it "India's most famous one-pot wonder."
"There are various ways of cooking a biryani," he explains. "For example, a dum biryani is cooked by sealing the layered rice and meat (often goat in India) with an inedible dough. It's steamed together until it's cooked. A tawa biryani means it's cooked on a flat, round tawa pan. A chicken or lamb curry and fried rice are tossed together and served."
Here at DUM Biryani, Mittal's Soho restaurant, they specialise in the dum style of the dish, which originates from Hyderabad in central southern India.
He adds: "It's cooked all over India but the way it's cooked and spicing varies in every single region. Biryani in places like Hyderabad tends to be spicier. As you go further south, people use spices like mustard seeds, curry leaves, and coconut. It also tends to be cooked in the tawa style. If you go east to Kolkata, their biryani tends to be more mild than everywhere else."
"All of our food is inspired by the regions of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, and the city of Hyderabad which is the capital of Telangana," says Mittal. "Although the dish is cooked everywhere in India, Hyderabad, and Lucknow (a city in Northern India) are considered to be the birthplaces of the biryani."
Mittal brings out a tray of here's-some-I-made-earlier lamb shanks which have been marinating overnight, and starts cooking the meat with softened onion, spices, and herbs.
He continues: "My dad's family are from Hyderabad and I used to live there. You'd go out, it would be 3 AM, and you'd stop at a roadside stall and have biryani. You can get it everywhere. There's a place called Paradise in Hyderabad which is like McDonald's just for biryani. Everyone in Hyderabad knows somewhere nearby where you can get a Paradise biryani."
But, as Dr. Lizzie Collingham, food historian and author of several books charting the history of curry, tells me on the phone later, biryani wasn't always so widely cooked in India.
"When the Mughal Empire invaded and took over India from the early 16th century to the mid-18th century, they brought pilau with them. The dish was made spicier and in royal court cookbooks from the time, you start to see recipes for biryani," she explains. "Even though the Mughal courts weren't in Hyderabad or Lucknow, they become two of the places where Mughal cuisine was established and made something extra special. In Lucknow, you get much creamier marinades because it's a dairy-producing region. In Hyderabad, you get more southern notes of tamarind and curry leaves."
Collingham adds: "Courts are often the site where a cuisine develops and then dishes filter down. But it's a big effort to make a biryani properly so it tends to be a special occasion dish."
The amount of effort the dish requires is something chef Mittal knows only too well. He tells me about developing his recipe for DUM Biryani.
"It was an art to learn because there are a lot of skills required. You're cooking blind, without knowing what's happening inside the pot, and you're depending on the way you've layered everything," he explains. "You need to make sure that nothing can overcook and nothing can undercook. Then, when you're scaling it up for a restaurant setting, consistency is another skill you have to learn. When someone orders a biryani, it should come out exactly as if you were making it at home."
"A good biryani is one of the best things a human being can possibly eat in a lifetime," Sodha tells me over the phone. "In a great biryani, each grain of rice can be an absolute delight and full of flavour. It's a very special dish, it's a very celebratory dish."
The reason she loves biryani is threefold.
"At home, we'd make biryani for birthdays or special occasions, firstly because of the effort and how long it takes to make. And secondly, it contains some very special ingredients," Sodha explains. "In the Lucknowi biryani, expensive ingredients like a drop of kewra water (screwpine essence), rosewater, or some saffron are added to flavour a whole dish."
"I make a dum biryani (to me, the tawa style is more of a pulao because it's not layered) and one of the best things about it is the dough which you use to seal, cook, and reveal the dish. When cooking the rice and meat, you're trying to build in loads of layers of flavour, textures, and aromatics—I use lamb with garam (warming) masalas like cinnamon and black pepper, cloves and cardamom. On top of the rice goes lots of crispy onions and some kewra water."
Sodha sums up: "I think it's one of the most special moments when you crack open the top of a biryani and release this incredible fragrant smell which gives you a teaser of what's to come."
Back at DUM Biryani, Mittal has turned the big reveal moment into something even more special. After layering the now-cooked lamb and par-boiled rice in a pot, he places a circle of dough on top and carefully seals around the edges. The dish is then placed in the oven to cook.
"Usually the dough used to seal a biryani is inedible and you throw it away but we use puff pastry instead," he says. "When the dish is in the oven, the butter in the layers of the pastry creates steam and keeps it inside the pot to cook the meat and rice. You get the theatre of cracking open the lid and you can also eat it."
Something Mittal, Collingham, and Sodha all seem to agree on is the fact that biryani has been underrepresented in Britain.
Collingham tells me that her research into the first wave of Indian food in Britain has not uncovered any mention of the dish.
"In the late 18th century and early 19th century, an Anglicised version of curry (which no Indian would call curry) is picked up," she says. "In Victorian cookbooks, you see recipes for pilau but not biryani. It may be out there but I've never come across it."
Mittal has also noticed a lack of love for biryani.
"I think biryani in the UK has been quite misrepresented and underappreciated as a dish," he argues. "Short-cut cooking of the Bangladeshi and Indian food culture of the 1960s meant that four or five sauces were used to make all the dishes on a menu."
Mittal does concede, however, that some restaurants still make it the proper way.
"You'll be able to find tons of restaurants in suburbs that are doing dum biryani and have been doing it for years but in places like Central London, it's mostly only fine dining restaurants," he says. "It's good because it gets the word out but the younger generation tend to miss out on it completely."
Mittal brings out the finished biryani, its proud pastry lid teasing the tender meat and aromatic rice that lies beneath. More than 250 years old, this dish proves that patience will always be a virtue.