I am a bit of a biryani snob. Oh, all right, I am an awful biryani snob. I am of the opinion that the Only True Biryani is made in Hyderabad, and you find the best biryani in selected joints in the Older parts of the city. Yes, I am so full of it that I consider Paradise – a restaurant that is usually posited as the go-to place for biryani in the city – to be sub-standard. Paradise was good once upon a time, but now it’s gone all mainstream, catering to tourists and skimping on the spices and the chicken.
You could say that I am to biryani what the Jack Black character in High Fidelity is to music.
My friends know about this fine quality of mine, and they usually take it into account when they speak about this dish in my vicinity. The majority of them roll their eyes when I launch into one of my scathing diatribes on it. Some are taken aback. The vegetarians get the worst of it. “I just had some biryani for lunch“, one of them may say. “No, you didn’t”, I respond. “You had pulao. Or maybe spicy rice of some sort.” “You are rude and obnoxious, and you should go jump off a cliff.” “I will, someday. But you did not have biryani for lunch.” And then everyone but me rolls their eyes. Another lady and I were talking about cooking at home, and when she mentioned that she had cooked biryani for her husband a few days ago, I gently corrected her. She not-so-gently asked to something anatomically impossible. We agreed to disagree.
My reaction stems from the fact that it is a devilishly tough food to cook. The spices have to be in the right proportions, and the different layers of the meat-spice-rice have to be carefully added. Even the cooking time matters, and so does the time that you eat it after cooking. A little too less, and the heat messes with the taste. A little too much and you are having oily rice. And if you do not control your water proportions, you have destroyed the dish.
The worst biryani I had was the Bay Area, in 2007. That particular dish got every single thing wrong – the final product did not taste, look or smell anything like biryani. It hurt even more because expectations were high. Not only because the place came highly recommended by local colleagues, but the fucking dish cost $15.99! I shall remember the tonsil-humping, soul-crushing experience to my dying day. I finished every bit of it, though, even though I whimpered inwardly. Just to remind myself to take future recommendations about this specialized dish with a sackful of salt.
To this day, whenever I go to a restaurant and am about to order a biryani, my default mental state of mind is “I just ordered myself a pulao, it will be basmati rice that’s been fried with some spices and meat, and in all likelihood, it will taste and feel like something-that-is-not-biryani”. Having adjusted expectations that way, every dish becomes slightly elevated in quality from that unfortunate Bay Area sample, truly the apogee of the biryani-pulao orbit.
But sometimes I falter. Last year led to another near-catastrophic experience at a Pakistani restaurant. It was called Bilal’s, and that apostrophe in the name should have given it away for me. Authentic sub-continental restaurants have null or low apostrophe usage. A few months of non-indulgence made me order a biryani and be fairly optimistic about the results. When the waiter laid the bowl down in front of me, I did not have to eat any of it to realize the end of my hopes and dreams. A few stabs of the fork confirmed the non-biryaniness of the rice dish. My companions commented on my sigh and the look of dejection. When I explained, they rolled their eyes. I sighed some more.
My friend Sasi is a little more understanding of this fussy nature of mine. Probably because he’s a biryani connoisseur on his own, albeit a more tolerant one. He is more willing to take biryani of the non-Hyderabadi kind in his stride. Thanks to him and his wife Shilpa, I found a few good places in LA. A great restaurant in Artesia whose name I forget, but where we dropped in for lunch 15 minutes before a screening of The Girl In Yellow Boots. We gobbled up the piping hot rice in 10 minutes flat, not wanting to miss the beginning of the film and also trying to savor every bite, every tiny explosion of flavor. Later on, we figured we should have just finished the biryani in peace – the movie sucked beyond belief. Then there is Zam Zam, a small smoke-filled hole-in-the-wall place on Washington Boulevard. It is open for business only between Friday and Sunday, and biryani is available between 2 and 6. Chances are they will run out if you are not there by 5, or if you do not call in advance to let them know you’re coming. The biryani’s sublime, as are the kababs.
All of last month, Sasi has been tantalizing me about the pulao recipe that he and Shilpa perfected over a few weeks. As I mentioned a few posts ago, I was vegetarian in January, and could not pop over to their place when invited. The kind souls therefore invited me again today, and this time, I had, as they say in Axomiya, one leg braced to jump across. A 30-minute wait at the bus stop did not faze me, and when I got there, sources (my nose and eyes, and Sasi’s hesitant explanations) confirmed what I had suspected – that the pulao was more of a biryani-in-waiting. As in, the only reason they were referring to it as pulao was because of my heightened suspicions/expectations at the definition of the word.
It was biryani. It was awesome biryani. I may have had the first non-Hyderabadi restaurant biryani that tasted like the real thing.
This post came about because this historic experience had to be recorded.