The History of Biryani

in Article
Published on: 14 August 2018

Nilanjan Hajra

Nilanjan Hajra studied at Children's Happy Home, Kalyani Central Model School, Ramakrishna Mission Deoghar, RKM Narendrapur and Presidency College. He dropped out of university to become a journalist, but ended up becoming an Information Specialist/Electronic Media Chief for the US Consulate, in which capacity he worked for 15 years. He is now Assistant Editor Ei Samay (Times of India group). Nilanjan learnt Urdu to read Faiz in the original. He has translated contemporary Pakistani poetry at length, from Urdu into Bangla. He recently received the West Bengal Bangla Academy's Leela Roy Memorial Award for his contribution to Bangla literature through translations. He is now learning Farsi to read Farrokhzad in the original. Nilanjan loves food and is nearing completion of his book on the global history of Kebabs. He has published seven books so far, four of which are translations, one is a travelogue of Iran, and two anthologies of his own poetry.


Rice, meat of young bull, ghee and salt. No. These are not the basic ingredients of the excellent Beef Biryanis served across the Indian subcontinent. For such a recipe you must refer to the following shloka:


Atha ya icchet putro me pandito vigeetah samitimgamah susshrooshitaam  vaacham bhaashitaa jaayeta sarvaan vedaan anubraveeta sarvam-aayur-iyaaditi maa(m)s-audanam  paachayitvaa  sarpishmantam-asneeyaataam-eeswarau janayitvaa aukshena vaarshabhena vaa||

(He who wishes that a son should be born to him who would be a reputed scholar, frequenting the assemblies and speaking delightful words, would study all the Vedas and attain a full term of life, should have rice cooked with the meat of a vigorous bull or one more advanced in years, and he and his wife should eat it with clarified butter. Then they would be able to produce such a son.) Brihadaranyaka Upanishada, Chapter VI, Brahmana IV, Shloka 18.


Utterances of the Upanishads are supposed to spell pure wisdom. Hence, over the next last 3000 years we Indians have been lapping up this basic recipe with unmatched zeal, albeit changing it to our tastes, religious customs and availability of ingredients.


It is still not known whether the bearded old man of Harappa was born out his parents’ fascination for such a recipe. Hence, we will take this Brihadaranyaka Shloka to be the first known rudimentary recipe of that immortal food, which has come to be known as ‘biryani’ in this subcontinent.


It also indicates that this food item has had its very special place in the kitchen since ancient times. It was not a staple food of the common people in those days. It could not have been, simply because ever since the Aryan speaking people had taken to agriculture they had realised the value of the bovine species. As much as they loved beef in all forms, cows and bulls were also sacrificed only on special occasions. It would therefore be safe to assume that opportunities to cook beef and rice with ghee must have been rare. When such opportunities came, people simply gorged on it.


People of this subcontinent, however, have always been gourmands. Just boiled beef, rice and ghee could not have kept them happy for years. In a land where recipes for the same food change every 50 km, our ancestors must have experimented with this grand combination. They had every opportunity to. After all, most of the spices that chefs use for today’s Biryani in specialty restaurants have been widely available in this subcontinent for ages. Ginger, onion, garlic, cinnamon, clove and bay leaf, for example, have been clearly mentioned in the Charaka Samhita of the 2nd century AD. It is difficult to imagine with such spices available, why gastronomes of those years would not experiment with the 'grand trio’ recipe as well.


For sure they continued enjoying this very special dish through ages. India’s foremost culinary historian K.T. Achaya informs us, ‘Rama and Lakshmana while in exile in the Dandakaranya forest hunted animals for the pot, and a favourite dish of Sita was rice cooked with deer meat, vegetables and spices, called mamsabhutadana.[i]


Sometime during the 800 years span, between 400 BC and 400 AD, during which the Valmiki Ramayan was being composed and recomposed, the grand trio of meat, rice and ghee had developed to a more elaborate recipe including vegetables and spices. Sita, however, wasn’t using beef, but fresh deer meat hunted by Ramachandra. Therefore, we clearly have at least a one-and-a half-millennia-old predecessor to the Wild Muntjac Biryani served at Karam Sethi’s Gymkhana restaurant in London!


The Mahabharata describes in great detail how the Kaurava and the Pandava brothers took great delight in barbequing meat chunks marinated with ghee, ground tamarind, pomegranate juice, various spices and flavoured-leaves. We also find Yudhisthira treating ten thousand pundits to pork and deer meat, and Payasam (dessert) cooked by boiling various fruits in milk, ghee and honey. But strangely the rice-meat-ghee grand trio is absent.


Then came the Manusmriti. In Sloka 49 it advised: Considering the sources of foods with meat and the cruelty of killing tethered animals, human beings should refrain from eating meat. We can assume, therefore, for the first time in history, the recipe must have received a serious hit, at least among the more devout elite. The stranglehold of Manusmriti on the north Indian subcontinent’s elite society is estimated to have lasted from 300 BC to 200 AD.


In the meantime, arrived the greatly popular rebel religions: Buddhism and Jainism. Did the Buddha bar people from eating meat? Not really. Noted Buddhist scholar Ajahn Brahmavamso Mahathera has discussed this in great details.[ii] Bhikshus, Lord Buddha had advised, must partake of food collected as alms. If anyone gave meat as alms, then it’s fine to eat meat. However, the bhikshu must not under any circumstances even hint to the alms giver what he loves or wants to eat. That itself was enough discouragement to eat meat, and at any rate Lord Buddha’s teachings of ‘ahimsa’ (nonviolence) would naturally dissuade his followers from killing animals for eating. Jains of course had far stricter ban on eating meat. These must have been very sad days for the recipe.


Around 200 AD, however, we find reference to a food in what is today’s Tamil Nadu, which certainly had the same recipe. Aimperumkappiyam, i.e. the great five epics of Tamil literature, are estimated to have been written between 100 AD and 1000 AD. These epics mention a food named Oon Soru. Gourmands of our times would find the food strikingly similar to today’s Dindigul Thalakapatti biryani. The grand trio had thus travelled from north to south. Fine rice, mutton, ghee, ginger, cinnamon, coriander leaf and coconut milk are standard ingredients of Oon Soru.


By the time our great literary ancestors had completed penning the Aimperumkappiyam, i.e. the end of the 10th century AD, peace on India’s northwest border had begun to be deeply disturbed. Marauding hordes from Turkey had begun to fulfill their expansionist aspirations across Indian borders. By 1193 Muhammad of Ghur and his brave slave Qutab-ud-din Aibak galloped into Delhi. In 1206 Qutab took control of Delhi’s throne and established the famous Slave Dynasty of the Sultanate Period, which was to last till 1526. Surely to a vast section of the people of the Indian subcontinent the so-called 'Islamic culture' appeared in the form of bloody swords. But far broader, deeper and long lasting were the influences of the lilting ghazal, the amazing sitar, the stunning carpets and the marvelous domes. Indian culture went through an alchemic change. The two could never be separated again. We carry it in our dresses, languages, music, literature, architecture and all forms of science and economics.


Why should the case of our recipe be any different? With tents and horses, swords and concubines, from Turkey arrived the pilaf or pilav. But then the Turkmen should really not claim to have invented the pilaf either. Much earlier, around 327 BC Greek invader Alexander reached Markanda, i.e. today’s Samarkand, in the Achaemenid Empire’s Sogdiana province, forced into the royal fortress and is said to have fallen in love with King Oxyartes’ daughter Roxanna on first sight. During the royal banquet that followed, Alexander found the next stunning surprise—the taste of plov. It is believed that soldiers from Alexander's army brought the recipe of plov back to Macedonia, after which it spread throughout Greece.


The 10th-11th centuries appear to be an important period for our grand trio ecipe. It was during the 10th century that the great Persian scholar Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna) undertook to do what the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad was attempting some 2000 years ago. He wrote down various recipes with their respective qualities. Avicenna was said to have been born in 980 AD in Afsana village near Bukhara, in today’s Uzbekistan. Among his great recipes was the Plov. In Uzbekistan one hears this wonderful legend: Long ago, the prince fell in love with a beautiful young girl. But she was poor and not fit to be married in the royal family. Upset that he could not marry her, the prince refused food and water. Then, his father sent for the famous healer, Abu Ali Ibn Sina and asked him to identify the cause of the disease and cure his heir. Carefully inspecting the prince, Ibn Sina discovered the reason of his illness—love. As medicine the great polymath prescribed Plov, a dish made with, rice, meat, onions, carrots, fat, salt and water. Perhaps the obligatory presence of the national dish at wedding ceremonies in Uzbekistan is connected with this legend.


It  may not be very far-fetched to assume that even as the recipes of plov and pilaf reached all corners of the earth, it didn’t arrive in India along with the Turkish conquest. And it would be great disrespect to assume that our gourmand ancestors didn’t incorporate the plov-pilaf influence into our own recipe. The recipe was taking in alien colours, we were proceeding towards the legendary biryani as well as the great India pulao.


Historically speaking, rulers of the Sultanate Period didn’t arrive in India only from Turkey. With great gusto another stream gushed into the subcontinent from Afghanistan as well. The four main dynasties that ruled during the Sultanate Period were the Slave Dynasty, the Khalji Dynasty, the Tughlaq Dynasty and the Lodhi Dynasty. The Khaljis were Pashtuns from Afghanistan. Behlol Lodhi, the founder of the Lodhi Dynasty was from the Lodi tribe, also from Afghanistan. The founder of the great Mughal Dynasty, Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur also rose from Afghanistan. Again, the only person who was able to dethrone a Mughal ruler for some years, Sher Shah Suri, was also from Afghanistan. Now, who doesn’t know the Afghans’ love for bor pilau? And there arrives our recipe again: poultry meat or mutton, oil and rice spiced up with onions, garlic and cardamom.


Then there was of course the grand Persian culinary culture. The list of the Safavids’ contribution to history would be incomplete without the mention of the berian. The berian that I tasted in Isfahan’s famous beryani chain Azam Beryani, however, seemed to have little to do with our own biryani. The food consisted two lumps of fried minced meat, both of which tasted heavenly, but with a slight difference in flavour; served with a large piece of bread. Incidentally the restaurant that serves berian is Beryani in Farsi.


For over three hundred years, the Mughals brought into India the finest of the examples of the art of cooking from Persia. This really began with Nasiruddin Muhammad Humayun. After being thrown out of Delhi in 1540 by Sher Shah and spending about four years in the wilderness, Humayun finally reached Persia and received shelter under the protection of the Safavid ruler Tahamasp in 1544. Eleven years later when he recaptured Hind, it would be foolish to imagine that he had left behind the taste of berian in Persia.


Influences and expertise, therefore, came from numerous lands, but just like Urdu, biryani is also a product of this subcontinent.


Humayun, however, never tasted biryani as we know it today, nor did his illustrious son Akbar the Great. One of the finest surviving cookbooks of this period is the Ni'matnama, a late fifteenth-century book of the recipes of the eccentric Sultan of Mandu (Madhya Pradesh), Ghiyath Shahi, collected and added to by his son and successor, Nasir Shah. While this book is a collection of a fascinating range of recipes, any mention of biryani is singularly not present.


The great Mughal royal kitchen truly flourished under the Great Jalaluddin Akbar (1542 – 1605). Directly supervised by none other than the Badshah’s confidante and Prime Minister, Abul Fazal; and his chefs (who were hired from different parts of the world) working round the clock, it must have been in the 16th century one of the greatest laboratories of culinary experiments. Abul Fazal, in his Farsi tome Ain-i-Akbari, has left us with succinct descriptions of the royal kitchen along with recipes of the Badshah’s favourite dishes. In that list the first dish is titled zerd birinj, which literally means ‘yellow rice’. Ingredients include: rice, sugar candy, ghee, raisins, almonds, pistachio, salt, ginger, saffron and cinnamon. ‘These,’ informs Abul Fazal, ‘will make four ordinary dishes,’ and then goes on to add, ‘there is also sometimes added flesh with other seasonings.’ Can this be counted as a precursor to our modern biryani? Even with the added ‘flesh’, a very distant relative of biryani it could be, if at all.


However, Ain-i-Akbari does mention one dish, which in centuries to come would evolve into a very special tradition of cooking: dumpukht. Ain-i-Akbari doesn’t give us the cooking procedure, but just the ingredients: meat, oil, onion, pepper, cloves, cardamoms and salt. From other sources we get to know that the Dumpukht method of cooking involves sealing of the handi with wheat flour paste and setting it over slow fire for hours. In dumpukht cooking, there is no opportunity to open the handi to check how far the food had been cooked. It all depends on the experience of the chef.


Legend has it that the right combination of spices, meat, rice and ghee, it is said, had to wait till the romance flowered between Sahabuddin Muhammad Shah Jahan and Arjumand Bano Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal. There is no documentation, but legend has it that it was at Mumtaz Mahal’s behest that the royal chefs after great experimentation came up with the first real version of biryani and presented it before the Badshah. If that were indeed to be so, one must concede such a gift could only be matched by the Badshah by erecting the Taj Mahal.


Well, the story of biryani being a gift to her beloved Shah Jahan may not have been completely an invention of romantic imagination after all. There is documented evidence that a dish, with five distinct varieties, was being cooked in Shah Jahan’s imperial kitchen, which without an iota of doubt was the immediate precursor to today’s biryani. For this we have to turn the pages of an anonymous 17th century Farsi manuscript: Nuskha-i-Shahjahani[iii]. This is the text from which Salma Husain has collated the recipes printed in ‘Nuskha-E-Shahjahan: Pulaos from the Royal Kitchen of Shah Jahan’ and many of those in her book ‘The Emperor’s Table’.


This significant text is a treasure trove of delicacies far beyond what Husain offers us. The ‘contents’ section of the text contains a whole chapter titled: Beriyan. The chapter has recipes of five varieties of a dish named Zer beriyan: Zer Beriyan-i-Paneer (gourmands with a natural urge to dismiss ‘vegetable biryani’ as an oxymoron, take careful note), Zer Beriyan-i-Noor Mahali (was this the delectable dish, that has been referred to in our legend? We can never be certain), Zer Beriyan-i-Roomi, Zer Beriyan-i-Mahi (once again, a revelation for many who have dismissed fish Biryani for long as an unwelcome recent interpolation of Bangladeshi chefs) and Zer Berian-i-Noor Mahali Nu’ Digar (this repetition of the Noor Mahali variety—Nu’ Digar meaning ‘new variety’—certainly entices me to conclude that there indeed may be a grain of truth in our legend).


Two of these recipes demand a special attention in the context of our discourse: the Noor Mahali and the Roomi. Make no mistake, although Roomi literally means Roman, in this context it certainly refers to a Turkish dish of a similar vein. Ever since the Byzantine Empire spread across vast areas of Anatolia, later part of the Turkish Empire; persons and things associated with the region has often been called ‘Roomi’. This Zer berian, therefore is ‘Roomi’ exactly in the same sense in which the great Sufi poet Mevlana Jalaluddin Muhammad is also known the world over as Rumi. Beriyan, as we have already seen, refers to a Persian tradition of cooking which involves frying. Therefore, we can safely conclude that the most immediate precursor to the legendary biryani was drawing heavily both from Turkic and Persian traditions, while being evolved to its final shape in royal Indian kitchens.


Besides the Roomi variety, Noor Mahali is the other Zer beriyan that, besides a host of other ingredients, uses our grand trio combination: meat, rice and ghee. It must also be noted that Nuskha-i-Shahjahani doesn’t specify the type of meat, but just mentions gosht, meat. That’s wonderful in one sense: it leaves space for chefs to experiment in keeping with her/ his social, religious and cultural tradition. A look at the Zer Berian-i-Noor Mahali proves how close we had moved towards the modern biryani version (though there is no ‘final’ version really, because the world of food is in a continuous flux). Here it goes, with very minor adjustments, to suit our modern cooking and measurement standards:



Meat: 1Kg

Ghee (Rughan-i-Zard): 125 Grams

Rice: 1 Kg

Cinnamon: 2 Grams

Cloves: 2 Grams

Cardamoms: 2 Grams

Saffron: 1 Gram

Ginger: 20 Grams

Garlic: 250 Grams

Salt: 60 Grams

Coriander: 20 Grams

Black Cumin: 2.5 Grams


PROCEDURE: Cut the meat into pieces. Mix salt with ginger juice. Wait for a few minutes. Mix the garlic. Wait for a while. (In a pan) Fry onions in 100 grams of ghee. Put the (chopped) garlic on the onion. Keep adding water soaked in cumin until all the water dries up. Put the chunks of meat and add cinnamon, cloves, cardamoms and cumin.

(In a separate pan) Half-boil the rice. Mix a little rice with ghee and saffron. Wait for a while. Put (all) the rice under the meat. Pour (the remaining) ghee from above.

Seal the lid of the pan with wheat dough. For five minutes keep on full-blown flame. Move the (sealed) pan (upper) on the flame.[iv] Let it be on Dum for 45 minutes.

If the rice has to take the colour of saffron it must be fried.[v]


The grand trio recipe had never before experienced such elaborate intervention. With the advent of the Mughals, this magic food spread far and wide across the subcontinent. What is now India, has at least 40 different documented recipes of Biryani. There are several more in Pakistan and in Bangladesh.


Of all the types of biryanis that have flourished in India, the Awadhi biryani, with its Kolkata variety, and the Hyderabadi biryani must find their rightful places on any discourse on this divine recipe. Dumpukht style of cooking had reached Awadh during Akbar’s reign. The Badshah recognised Lucknow as a major centre of his power-networks across Hind in 1590. Yet it was only during Shuja Ud-Daula, and his successor, Asaf Ud-Daula’s reign, in the 1750s, that Awadh’s dastarkhwan was decked with its own culinary offers. The royal paraphernalia included six kitchens, where hundreds of chefs drained the royal exchequer over culinary art. Thus, emerged the Awadhi variety of biryani from long experiments of experienced chefs. A century later, when the dethroned Wajid Ali Shah was packed off to Kolkata by the British, his entourage brought the Awadhi biryani to the city of palaces. The Kolkata biryani’s defining mark is the invariable chunk of a large potato. There is really no documented evidence, but it is assumed that with rising expenses and eroding of experience over generations meat chunks were reduced and potato pieces added instead. A true biryani lover today would rightfully complain if a plate of Kolkata biryani was served without the potato chunk—it indeed has added a delicious dimension to biryani.


Biryani reached Hyderabad with Aurangzeb’s southern aspirations. He had left behind Nizam-ul-Mulk as his representative in the Ara Kadu area. It is said that the Nizam’s chefs developed 47 varieties of biryani. Among these, for the devout Brahmins, who had still not been able to leave behind the worldly maya of the taste-bud, was the Tahiri biryani, in which carrots, cauliflower and green peas bravely sought to replace the lamb or poultry.


Besides the territorial varieties of biryani there are also two other varieties: the Kuchchi biryani and the Pukki biryani. Indeed, constituting all these avenues and alleys, biryani is that labyrinth, which can hardly be explored in a single lifetime. But one must start somewhere. Take your pick.




[i] K T Achaya’s Indian Food Tradition: A Historical Companion, published by OUP, in 1994.


[ii] Refer to: Vinaya - What the Buddha said about eating meat. By Ajahn Brahmavamso. Source: (Accessed 04.04.2018. 4:08 IST)


[iii] Anonymous authorship


[iv] For Dum the original text instructs the pan to be ‘moved to a distance’ (Door kunand). I have assumed it means adjusting the distance between the flame and the pan. By moving the pan higher, a slow heat can be ensured


[v] a. I have made minor alterations in the weights. For example: The original text says: Cinnamon “Du Masha”. 1 Masha = 0.97 grams. I have suggested 2 grams of cinnamon.

b. There is a discrepancy in the original text: the ingredients’ list doesn’t contain onions. But the procedural part does. I have kept it unchanged.

c. For the time unit Ghadi used in the original text I have used approximations based Indian traditional time units, by which 1 Ghadi = 24 minutes.


** Cover photograph by Manjari Chowdhury