November 04, 2015

India: A tale of two biryanis (Serish Nanisetti)

The Hindu, November 4, 2015

A tale of two biryanis

by Serish Nanisetti

Rickshaw pullers, newspaper wallahs, job aspirants, and struggling artists dig into the famous Kalyani, or beef, biryani in Hyderabad, which is not meat but food, a cheap source of protein.

‘Bade ka’, ‘broad guage’, ‘buff’ and ‘kalyani’ are some of the euphemisms for dishes crafted out of beef. In Hyderabad, you can walk into many small wayside restaurants where the name Kalyani Biryani dominates over the name of the restaurant. Sometimes, the signboard is just Kalyani Biryani. It is a sign for many people to step in and have a bellyful of grub for one-third the price. And to say it’s delicious would be an understatement. In other cities where I have travelled and lived, the euphemism is muttered but never uttered. Only in Kerala, the beef fry is beef fry.

Can the word beef be used for buffalo meat? Nah! Beef, the dictionary tells us, is the French-loaned word of ‘boeuf’. That too was an accident, as the nobility in England who could afford to eat meat were Norman-French while the farmers who raised the animals were Anglo-Saxons. Mutton, which we use as a label for most meats, is drawn from ‘mouton’ in French — meaning sheep.

Between these two loanwords hangs a tale.

On the sea spray-swept walkway to Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai or the cacophonous crowded lanes near Jama Masjid in Delhi, the roasting kebabs are so easy on the pocket that nobody asks for the origin of the meat. It is all too obvious at a time when lamb or goat meat costs Rs. 500 for a kilogramme.

It is only in Hyderabad that the name Kalyani Biryani has become a byword for beef biryani. Years ago, I discovered the name by accident while driving on the broad road near Charminar. In an inner lane, there was an open graveyard with elaborate tile work on the walls with goats grazing on the side. I was told this is the maqbara (grave) of Kalyani Nawab and the area was called Kalyani Nawab ki Deori.

Was there a link between the name and biryani? A little genealogical digging led to a tale that was gut-wrenching and at the same time heart-warming.

An old retainer told me about how Kalyani Nawabs, who were the fort keepers of Basavakalyan (now in Karnataka but was part of Nizam’s territory), maintained their sprawling deori (mansion) in Hyderabad. “This was home for anyone who had a petition in the Nizam’s court and had to make a trip to the city. Everyone was served sumptuous food in the evening,” he told me. But things changed dramatically in the 1940s when the Independence movement and then Operation Polo unravelled the fortune of the Nawabs. The visitor flow was constant but the flow of money wasn’t, as the lands were usurped and taken away by the government. Then someone in the kitchen tweaked the main dish. Instead of the regular meat for the biryani, they added the much cheaper beef.

“Sometime in the late 1940s, when the fortunes of the Kalyani Nawabs dwindled further, one of the chefs named Dawood moved out and started selling the cheaper biryani from behind the Murgi Chowk Masjid just beyond the Charminar. While there were other biryani sellers, true to his salt, Dawood named his outlet Kalyani Biryani. And a legend was born,” says Mohit Balachandran, a food blogger.

Today, Hyderabad has countless Kalyani Biryani outlets. Some of them don’t close for the night. Bonhomie and camraderie echo inside the closed doors as rickshaw pullers, autorickshaw drivers, newspaper wallahs, job aspirants, and struggling artists step in for a tuck in.

As the diners walk out of Prince Hotel in Mehdipatnam in darkness searching for their vehicles at 3 a.m. or near Rumaan Hotel in Tolichowki at 1 a.m., I realise the truth about beef. Beef is not meat, it is food. A cheap source of protein in these days of soaring prices, which helps people keep their body and soul together.

To think anyone can have animosity towards this item of food for whatever reason is beyond belief and humanity.