I really love biryani. It has to be mutton biryani, but at a pinch, I am willing to make do with chicken. Boneless chicken is for wusses, though - cowards in the world of the unforgiving non-vegetarian. Vegetable biryani is an appeasement strategy for vegetarians and is nothing more or less than a regular pulao. However, it is possible to debate the glories of a yakhni pulao over a biryani.
The biryani of the sort cooked up by Ujjwal Nikam, now that’s the sort of biryani we can do without. The much-feted public prosecutor very proudly informs us that he made up the story about Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab demanding and being given biryani in jail. The inference was clear Kasab was a Muslim and Muslims like biryani. File pic
There are many kinds of biryani available in India and enough debates about which is greater. Having eaten a good number of them (or a bad number if you speak to my cardiologist), my personal choice would be for the rightly famous and worshipped biryani of Lucknow. It is light and fragrant, like the first flowers in springtime - delicious and fleeting, a will-o-the-wisp mouthful that leaves you reaching for the next till your plate is empty.
Now you can look at my name and make an assumption about my next choice but you would be wrong. It’s just that the Calcutta biryani is very close to the Lucknow biryani in its delicate flavour. However, the Calcutta biryani must have a potato in it and this upsets the purists. But the aroma is enough to shut naysayers up permanently.
In close competition with the Calcutta biryani is the Hyderabadi biryani. Years ago, when my sister got married in Hyderabad, our plans for a traditional Bengali wedding feast were destroyed when advisers told us that Hyderabadis would not attend a wedding that did not serve biryani. We were furious then but soon a plate of flavourful biryani from Nizam Club, redolent with pudina and somehow meatier than its cousins, put that right. And now one hears biryani is often served at Bengali weddings in Calcutta. Hyderabadi biryani at its best can fight with all the rest and even win. If Lucknow denotes spring, then Hyderabad gives you summer - heavy, rich and fulsome. Like a mango.
All over the rest of India, you get approximations of what constitutes a biryani. There are variations and there are cooking styles. There are additions and omissions. There are fights over cooking under pressure - dum - and in a pressure cooker - glum. There is that rich, unctuous yakhni pulao. There are egg and even fish biryanis.
And then there is, I’m sorry to say, Mumbai at the bottom of the pile. Our childhood favourite was Alla Beli at Kemp’s Corner but that closed down decades ago. Delhi Durbar and Jaffer Bhai’s will do when there’s nothing else. The Dum Pukht biryani is excellent but it’s got nothing to with Mumbai. You are better off eating in someone’s house.
These biryani fights are fun fights and must be accompanied by plenty of tastings and samples otherwise anyone can claim just about anything.
But the biryani of the sort cooked up by Ujjwal Nikam, now that’s the sort of biryani we can do without. We don’t want to taste it and we don’t want to understand it. Because it’s the sort of biryani that destroys, that creates fissures and makes you feel ashamed. The much-feted public prosecutor very proudly informs us that he made up the story about Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab demanding and being given biryani in jail.
The inference was clear - Kasab was a Muslim and Muslims like biryani. Nikam felt that a “sympathy wave” was being created around Kasab and he wanted to scotch that. And how better to do it than to stigmatize Kasab and Muslims? And yet, where was the doubt that Kasab was guilty? Nikam had very little work to do here. There was ample evidence against Kasab, not least in his own words. Some people may have felt he was a foot soldier in a larger game and others may have been against the death penalty per se. But neither of those had anything to do with Kasab’s culpability. The biggest hero in Kasab’s capture and subsequent fate, as far as India is concerned, is Tukaram Ombale not Ujjwal Nikam. As for Nikam’s prowess, while Kasab got the death penalty, the two Indians named with him were acquitted for lack of evidence.
We swallowed Nikam’s story hook, line and sinker and that was our blind, prejudiced foolishness. The only way to combat the Nikams of the world is to eat more biryani. This once, I’ll even approve of a vegetable biryani.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona