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  • Biryani is the signature special occasion food item of muslims from the Indian subcontinent. In India, biryani and weddings, or biryani and Eid are inextricably linked – like turkey and Thanksgiving here in the U.S.

    Origins of this dish can be traced back to our forebears who came down from Central Asia around the 11th century. In time, as it moved further south and east into the subcontinent, it evolved and became Indianized and took on many distinct regional flavors and variations. In essence, it is a very simple dish made with a meat – mutton or chicken – cooked in spices that is then steamed-cooked with rice. But that's like saying pizza is simply just dough, tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. But, we know there is good pizza, great pizza and then there is sublime pizza. Haven't had sublime pizza? I have. But that's a story for another time.

    Of course, every region, city, community claims their version was the best, or the way their mother made it was to die for. The best biryani of all, in my most humble and unbiased opinion of course, was the one served at muslim weddings in my home town – Bangalore. Shaadi ki Biryani. How do I know? My father said so. He should know.

    My dad was what they called a "palao basha", or biryani king. During wedding season in Bangalore – which was pretty much year-round – he would get invitations to a muslim wedding practically every weekend. Some times two or three. And he went to most of them, if not all. Not necessarily because he was a glutton, but largely out of social obligation and to some degree to check out who had the better biryani. He got all these invitations because he was a very well-known and influential personality in the Bangalore muslim community. He knew everybody and everybody knew him. From the butchers and shopkeepers in Russell Market to the movers and shakers at Mayo Hall and the Waqf Board. And more than likely, he would have helped them all in some way or the other at some time. These were his people. His constituency from his days as a political leader, community activist and a lawyer. To them he was their Mayorsaab or Lawyersaab. How could he not be on their guest list. And how could he not accept. It would be a major social faux pas and an insult in either case.

    The upshot of his popularity was that my brothers and I, or sometimes the whole family got to go along to some of these weddings. Not because we really knew these people well or cared to honor the couple with our presence at the ceremony, but because there would be good biryani. Wonderful, fragrant, flavorful biryani. Shaadi ki biryani. We were willing to put up with all kinds of discomfort in anticipation of this treat. The wedding ceremony was invariably outdoors and it was usually hot and sticky, if not raining. We'd have to dress well – dress shirt, long pants, dress shoes, tie, etc., all in then-fashionable terylene or terrycot – basically polyester. And we'd sit on hard wooden chairs, under a shamiana, among a crowd of mostly strangers. Then there was always the delay before the ceremony started – some time up to two hours. I.S.T. – Indian Stretchable Time. Fortunately, the religious ceremony – Nikaah – is usually very brief and then it was time for.... Biryani!

    There was something about that particular biryani served at weddings – it's complex flavor and taste – that could never be replicated in anyone's home kitchen or a restaurant. That difference was the magic touch of a professional chef - the bawarchi. The wedding bawarchi was always a male, generally about 30 to 40 years of age, who learned his trade from his father, who learned it from his father, who's grandfather probably came from Afghanistan by way of Persia to cook for Mughal royalty.

    These guys were artists, indeed masters. Their art was biryani. But the amazing thing is they made this one dish in huge quantities. Sometimes enough to feed over a thousand guests! They cooked it in these giant cauldrons called deghs, over a wood burning fire, out in the open, almost single-handedly. Top that Iron Chef! The whole cooking process was a four to five hour affair and was fascinating to watch. Imagine finely chopping something like 20 lbs. of onions and 5 lbs. of cilantro. No Cuisinart here, just really sharp knives and the speed and skill of a Samurai. There was no recipe to follow, not even any measuring devices. Everything came together from the bawarchi's head, heart and the deft touch of his magic hand.

    My mother made great biryani too, but on a smaller scale. She made a mean biryani that was to die for. But it was not shaadi ki biryani. The real pleasure of eating her biryani came two days later. Yes, baasi biryani. Quite literally, stale biryani. To a true biryani connoisseur that was sublime biryani.
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