Giving the underrated pulao its due

Chicken Tikka Masala has long displaced traditional Fish and Chips as the national food of Britain. Similarly, if a referendum was conducted today about what is the new national food of India there will be a keen contest between Biryani and Chow Mein in which the former may win by a whisker. However, the scale may tilt soon as 'Maggi' and 'Wai-Wai' noodles inveigle their way into the menu cards of respectable restaurants. But for now, Biryani is an almost mandatory entrĂ©e at banquets and weddings in its myriad versions – including the oxymoronic vegetarian variant. In the process what we have lost are the long tradition ethnic pulaos including ones cooked with meat.

What is the difference between Biryani and a meat Pulao? Ask a Biryani aficionado and she is likely to tell you – Pulao is badly prepared Biryani. That is, of course, not true. Though real Biryani is an elaborate art form, making Pulao requires a great deal of skill and experience too. The distinction lies in the method of cooking. Explained in technical terms Biryani is prepared with half-cooked par-boiled rice after draining off the starch and then placing it in layers, alternating with masala and meat allowing the aromas and flavours to be absorbed into the rice during finishing it in the ‘dum’. As a result, the grains of rice in a Biryani remain separate. In a good Biryani, the rice must never be soggy. In contrast, for a Pulao, the rice is cooked in the stock and then the meat or vegetables (usually either, not both) are added into it. The two are cooked together for some more time for the flavours to be absorbed in the rice. Pulao, therefore, takes less time to make as it is cooked in medium flame (sometimes even in pressure cookers) unlike Biryani which is matured over slow fire to bring out the subtle aromas. While there is greater intermingling of the meat and rice -- a Pulao is neither soggy nor a khichdi as some Biryani purists unfairly diss it.

I first saw Meat Pulao being commercially sold at a shack in Delhi’s Connaught Place -- Rama Meat Pulao -- which, I believe, has since closed. Along with Mutton or Chicken Pulao they would also serve a Chicken Soup -- more like a broth made with the leftover bones and the morsels of meat stuck on it. Our older colleague Naunihal Singh Sodhi aka Sodhi-saab would take us there for lunch on some winter afternoons. But, to be honest, it was like having a fiery mutton curry and rice with onions on the side. But a more recent discovery was Hanumanthu Pulav in Mysuru courtesy my friend and adopted younger brother Saumitra Bhattacharya.

Now there are more than one Hanumanthus -- but the original is on Akbar Road near Mandi Mohalla. Surely, the restaurant has its own proprietary recipe with a secret ingredient method of cooking developed and perfected over time and cooks trained over generations but I am told the basic character of their signature dish is the pulao typically served in a “mess”. What sets this pulao apart is the use of coconut milk mixed with ground spices unlike versions in the North where some whole elements like star anise, cardamom and cinnamon remain in the rice. The Andhra Kodi (Chicken) Pulao too has Coconut milk but it uses a plethora of spices, cashews and peanuts in addition to whole spices, green chillies, curry leaves and curd. Left to me, I would prefer the Coastal Andhra Biryani which is less complex and more compact.

The very interesting and now almost extinct varieties are the Bengali Fish Pulaos. Partly because their origins are from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and most use Ilish (Hilsa). One can find them only at Food Festivals in specialty Bengali Restaurants like Oh Calcutta or at Bangladeshi eateries in East London unless one is lucky to be invited to someone’s home in Dhaka.

The gold standard in Pulaos is of course the Yakhni Pulao. Originally from the North West Frontiers now in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- now the best is only available at Kashmiri Restaurants unless you are lucky to be invited to the home of a Delhi Kayastha originally from Chandni Chowk. The Pakistani Degi Pulao, I have heard, is a more evolved version of the Yakhni Pulao famous in Pakistan. But never had the fortune of trying it.

The story of Pulaos can never be complete without talking of the Iranian Berry Pulao made iconic by the iconic Britannia & Co restaurant at Ballard Estate in Mumbai. Many consider it overrated. The distinguishing factor from an ordinary Parsi Pulao is the use of zereshk berries from Iran. Though dried and candied cranberries would make a decent substitute, it is worth a try if you have never tried it if only to encounter the timeless owners of the restaurant with their cultivated eccentricity.

To end I must mention my maternal grandmother’s homely version of Yakhni Pulao, which she called “Pish Pash” in all modesty. It remains a family favourite especially of my daughter who hardly ever met her. It’s uncanny how my mother passed on the recipe to me over a phone call just a few months before her unexpected and untimely death.

The formula is as simple as it can be. Wash Basmati fine grain rice and mix it with a few spoonfuls of yoghurt and whole spices - cinnamon, cardamom(black and green), a wee bit of nutmeg, bay leaves, whole black pepper and dried red chillies. Broil the mutton with salt to taste. Lightly fry the rice and the spices in pure ghee and then add the stock of the mutton. After the rice is half cooked, put in the mutton and pressure cook for a couple of whistles till done. It won’t be a perfect pulao but will taste divine on a Sunday afternoon... And, you will thank me for sharing this family heirloom.

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