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By Ayesha Noor

Biryani is a traditional desi dish eaten in almost all parts of the modern-day countries of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. One can travel throughout the world yet hardly ever come across a South Asian who does not like it. Its immense popularity earned it a status akin to being the queen of South Asian cuisine. Traditionally, meat is cooked in oil with spices on low heat until it makes up a rich saucy curry and then mixed up with boiled rice.This dish, along with its super appealing taste has a mysterious history full of legends widely untold.

History and Origins

In the 16th-century a Portuguese traveler, Duarte Barbosa, wrote about a dish that was cooked with rice, spices, chicken, and saffron in South Asia with the name of ‘Biriani’ leading some to debate that it would not be incorrect to assume that the dish, or a rather primitive version of it, has been in consumption for at least 4 centuries.

The word ‘biryani’ seems to have derived from the Persian words ‘berenj’, which means rice, and ‘biryan’ which means fried before cooking. This evidently supports the theory that this dish originated in modern-day Iran or had roots in the Persianate world. However, there are other theories and stories that circulate about the birth of biryani.

A popular tale is that once upon a time when the Mughal Queen Mumtaz Mahal visited an army barrack she found the soldiers to be malnourished. She subsequently immediately supervised the making of a new dish, biryani with neutralized nutrition which could be fed to the soldiers dealing with malnourishment during service.

E. M Collingham, a culinary historian wrote in her book ‘Curry, a Tale of Cooks and Conquerors’, writes that “the delicately flavoured Persian pilau met the pungent and spicy rice dishes of Hindustan to create the classic Mughlai dish, Biryani.

Mughals are also credited for introducing dum biryani. The word ‘dum’ means steam, so making this dish involves cooking rice and meat in a sealed pot on low heat, to let the steam spread inside and make it more tender.

Some other theories suggest that biryani was first made in the Southern India by the Muslims that ruled there. There it was known as ‘one pot meal’ or ‘Oon Soru’. Later the Mughals adopted this dish and with its dispersal in the North Indian heartland of the Mughal empire it has since then been eaten in the northern parts of India as well.

A number of traditions lay out another tale of Asaf-ud-daulah, a Nawab of Awadh. It is said that when a famine hit modern-day Lucknow, to counter its adversities he ordered the construction of the Bara Imambara. This required a large number of workers. To feed them; rice, meat, and vegetables were cooked together for hours and then served. The Nawab couldn’t contain himself when he found the dish to be uncontrollably mouthwatering and ordered it to be a part of the royal menu. This dish was the Biryani.

It could be either that one of these theories is true and formed the basis of biryani, or that they all to an extent are real and just different stories of the origin of different types of Biryani.


The mutation in the taste of this dish never stopped. Arabs made their own less spicy version, While the Bombay’s has always been as spicy as ever and the Calcuttans started serving potatoes with it.

Biryani is a dish least likely to be ever forgotten by the future generations. It’s every grain comes with a tiny but wholesome amount of South Asian pride and a taste of homeland for many South Asians which any part of Western cuisine is unlikely to serve.

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