The Birth of ‘Biryani’: Iran to India

The Birth of ‘Biryani’: Iran to India

Biryani is derived from the Farsi word ‘Birian’. Based on the name, and cooking style (Dum), one can conclude that the dish originated in Persia and/or Arabia.

In Farsi, Birian means ‘Fried before Cooking’. The Persian word beryā(n) (بریان) means “fried” or “roasted”.

In the olden days, rice was fried (without washing) in Ghee (Clarified butter). It did two things:

1. It gave the rice a nutty flavor

2. It burned the outside starch layer gelatinizing it. After the rice is stir-fried, it was boiled in water with spices till half cooked.


  • An 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 which provided balanced nutrition, and thus the biryani was created.

    Mumtaz Mahal

  • 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 about 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.

Oon Soru

  • One legend has it that Timor, the lame brought it down from Kazakhstan via Afghanistan to Northern India.
  • Another legend say the Nomads would burry an earthen pot full of meat, rice and spices in a pit, eventually the pot was dug up and there was the Biryani.

However in conclusion, as the name stems from Persian origins, we can safely imprint that this flavorful treat garnered it’s popularity and spread from Iranian(modern day Persian) soils to the regions that the vast empire conquered over time including India, with the invasion of Mughal Empire under Timur.

Imperial Mughal Army

How did Biryani spread in India?

I.         AWADH BIRYANI: During Mogul empire, Lucknow was known as Awadh, giving rise to Awadhi Biryani.

Dum Biryani

II.         CALCUTTA BIRYANI :In 1856, British deposed Nawab Wajid Ali Shah in Calcutta, giving rise to Calcutta Biryani.

III.         HYDERABADI & ARCOT BIRYANI: Aurangzeb installed Nizam-ul-mulk as the Asfa Jahi ruler of Hyderabad, as well as a ‘Nawab of Arcot’ to oversee Aaru Kaadu region (Six Forrests) south of Hyderabad. These moves gave rise to Hyderabadi Biryani and Arcot Biryani.

Asif Jahi Dynasty

IV.         TAHIRI BIRYANI: The Biryani spread to Mysore by Tipu Sultan of Carnatic. They hired vegetarian Hindus as bookkeepers leading to the development of Tahiri Biryani.

    V.         OTHER BIRYANI STYLES WORTHY OF MENTION INCLUDE: Turkish Pilaf, Iranian Biryani, Quaboli, Malaysian Biryani, Indonesian Biryani, Sindhi Biryani  Idiyappam Biryani from Sri Lanka, and and Kashmiri Yakhni Biryani.

Needless to say what began as a nutritional dish to feed the appetites and strength of the military warriors & armies in the Northern &Southern Indian soils, over time became a royal dish for Nawabs and Nizams.

Whose soul did it really strengthen, the man behind the sword or the crown? The indulgences of pleasure versus protection.

Why is Biryani considered a North Indian dish? A popularized assumption

“Biryani is not really a north Indian dish. It is essentially a south Indian dish. If you were to put together all the north Indian biryani recipes, you would end up with about four basic recipes and a few others with minor variations. If you go to the south however, the full richness of biryani dawns on you. It isn’t just the famous Hyderabadi biryanis, it is also the richly spiced biryanis of Kerala, the masaledar Andhra biryani (which is not the same as Hyderabadi biryani, but is a less refined, much earthier dish) and the biryanis of Tamil Nadu.

The reason for this is simple enough. The people of the north are essentially wheat eaters. It is the south that prefers rice and that is why south Indian biryanis frequently go beyond the north Indian obsession with basmati and use more interesting breeds of rice. In fact, wherever there is a community of rice-eaters, the biryani is likely to be more interesting. The biryanis of east Bengal (now Bangladesh) are delicious and unjustly ignored as is the mutton and potato biryani of Calcutta which delights everyone who eats in that city but which is hardly known outside of Bengal” Vir Sanghvi****







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