Cuisine leaves its own imprint on history. India has witnessed many invaders; with every invader came a different culture and new cuisine. Muslim invaders like Turks, Arabs, Persians, and Afghans introduced the culture of feasts to India. The Mughlai cuisine that India is famous for developed from the 15th century to about the 19th century during the reign of the Mughals. The Mughals raised cooking to an art form, introducing several recipes to India like biryani, pilaf, and kebabs.

While biryani is popularly associated with the Mughals, there is some historical evidence to show that there were other, similar rice dishes prior to the Mughal invasion. There is mention of a rice dish known as “Oon Soru” in Tamil as early as the year 2 A.D. Oon Soru was composed of rice, ghee, meat, turmeric, coriander, pepper, and bay leaf, and was used to feed military warriors.

The famous traveler and historian Al-Biruni has precise descriptions of meals at the courts of Sultans who ruled parts of India prior to the Mughals. These also contain mentions of rice dishes similar to the Mughal biryani. However, there is no doubt that Islamic Persians inspired and popularized the dish.

The word “biryani” comes from the Persian word “birian” which means “fried before cooking.” One could conclude that the biryani originated in Iran (previously known as Persia). Another interesting story traces the origins of the dish to Mumtaz Mahal (1593-1631), Shah Jahan’s queen who inspired the Taj Mahal. It is said that she once visited army barracks and found the army personnel under-nourished. She asked the chef to prepare a special dish that provided balanced nutrition, and thus the biryani was created.

When the British deposed Nawab Wajid Ali Shah to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the Calcutta biryani was created. Nizams governing small territories in Northern India encouraged regional variants like the Hyderabadi biryani and the Arcot Nawab biryani. Biryani recipes of the Mughals can still be found in places where their empire had a foothold.

biryani on a plate
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Once a dish for royalty, today the biryani reflects local sensibilities and traditions and is a popular and common dish. Here are two biryani recipes that reflect the predominantly vegetarian Indian society.

Methi Biryani (Fenugreek Greens and Rice)

1 cup short-grain rice
2 cups fenugreek leaves (discard roots)
2 cinnamon sticks
3-5 cloves
3 cardamom pods, seeds scooped and crushed
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
5 green chilies, slit down the middle
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 inches ginger, finely ground
6 cloves garlic, finely ground
1 small tomato, chopped
10 mint leaves
1 teaspoon chili powder
juice of 1 lemon
¼ cup ghee
salt to taste

Heat ghee in a heavy vessel. Add cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, and cumin seeds and let sizzle for 10 seconds.

Add green chilies and fry for a minute or two. Add onions and fry till they turn golden brown.

Add ginger-garlic paste and fry for a few minutes till the raw odor is no longer perceptible. Add tomato, mint leaves, salt, chili powder, and lemon juice and continue frying till oil separates.

Add rice. Fry the rice for a few minutes, till it gets well coated with oil.

Add fenugreek leaves and two cups of water. Stir, cover, and slow cook over low to medium heat for about 10-12 minutes. Once the rice is fluffy, remove it from heat.

Serve warm as a main course.

Eggplant Biryani

2 cups long-grain rice
6-8 Indian eggplants
6 green chilies, slit down the middle
1 onion, sliced
2 tomatoes, chopped
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 fistful of mint leaves
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
¼  cup ghee
salt to taste

Spice Mix

3 cloves
2 sticks cinnamon
6 cardamom pods, seeds scooped and crushed
3 bay leaves, crumbled
2 star anise
1 black cardamom
a few strands of saffron

Wash and clean the eggplants, removing the stalk. Slit them twice in the middle without slicing all the way so they retain their shape. Leave the eggplants in cold water until cooking. This will avoid discoloration.

Heat ghee in a wide vessel. Add the whole spices and let this sizzle for a minute.

Add chilies and wait till they sputter.

Add onions and fry for two minutes, until golden brown. Adding salt at this point will hasten the process.

Add tomatoes, cover and cook. Once the tomatoes wilt, add mint, cilantro leaves, chili powder and eggplants. Stir fry the eggplants for 4-5 minutes.

Add rice to the mixture. When you see the oil separate, add four cups of water.

Cover and cook over low-medium heat for 10-12 minutes. Once the rice looks fluffy, remove from heat.

Let biryani rest for 2 minutes before serving.

Serve warm as a main course.