Despite growing competition, each restaurant across the city averages 1,000 plates of the spiced rice a day, making it not only Chennai’s favourite dish, but also its most profitable.
This weekend, the aromas of spiced mutton and boiled rice will tickle your nostrils at pretty much every street corner of the city. It’s Ramadan weekend and restaurants across Chennai are preparing to double biryani production to meet festival demand. Interestingly, this increased production of the dish is also seen during other festivals like Christmas and New Year. And on a regular day, no restaurant sells less than 100 plates of it. We set out to see why this dish enjoys the cult following that it does.
The number game
On an average, the non vegetarian Chennaiite needs a plate of biryani at least once a week. Going by our small survey at the food court of a local tech park, it is the first preference of working professionals too. And no matter how many players pop up (many of them selling only biryani), the dish continues to make business sense. “Teams from companies like PayPal, HP and Accenture place orders with me at least twice a month,” says Murad Shahuna of Fill Belly, who makes Tamil Muslim and Hyderabadi biryani (Rs 1,500 a kilo) on order only.
Restaurants share figures that point towards a consumption of nearly 1,000 plates each, on any weekday. “We sell 150 kilos a day and on Sundays it’s a minimum of 200 kgs,” says C Masoothu, the manager of Hotel Virudhunagar, whose turkey biryani on Sundays has customers making a beeline. Buhari, one of Chennai’s oldest restaurants, sees a minimum of 75 biryani orders a day at each of its five branches across the city. But it’s Ammi’s Biryani with 15 outlets in the city that makes the most — nearly 2,000 kilos. “We do an average of six and a half lakh rupees per store, per month,” says Navaj Sharief, the man behind the Bengaluru-based chain. All of them unanimously agree that biryani is their most profitable dish. The only exception seems to be Prabhu, one of the directors of Hotel Junior Kuppanna, who insists that at his chain, biryani is not the most profitable, despite being the most sold. “This is because we have been following a standard for the past 50 years, using ghee from Erode and rice from West Bengal. And we make only two kilos at a time to ensure consistent quality,” he says.
Even top hotels across the city agree that there can be no multi-cuisine buffet without a biryani. “At 601, we do a pot biryani that is one of the fastest moving items among our Indian cuisine. We sell around 40-50 portions a day,” says Rajesh Radhakrishnan, regional director and acting GM of The Park, while Prashant Chadha, the F&B manager at ITC Grand Chola, insists that 10 out of 10 banquets they do must have biryani.
Despite it being a hit across the country, no one can pinpoint where biryani might have its origins. Popular belief is that it came with the Mughals, who served the dish to their armies, but photojournalist S Anwar, who has researched Muslim history in South India for his documentary Yaadhum, advises we take that story with a pinch of salt. “Imagine soldiers going to war after eating biryani — a dish that lulls you to sleep,” he observes, while Praveen Anand, executive chef at Crowne Plaza, points out that there are Tamil texts as old as the poet Avvaiyar that refer to a dish called oon choru which is also a mix of rice and meat. That said, Hyderabad is the inevitable biryani capital for many. “The Kacchi biryani of Hyderabad is one of my favourites. Try it at Four Seasons or Paradise,” says Rajesh Radhakrishnan, while Anand suggests trying the kodi pulao of Andhra Pradesh. “It is the only biryani with chicken that I will accept,” he smiles. Delhi-based food critic, Anoothi Vishal recommends hunting for the rare kachara biryani in Hyderabad. “It is made with the leftovers of the animal, but is not commercially
available,” she says. For more, we suggest picking up Pratibha Karan’s coffee table book, Biryani, that has thorough recipes of Hyderabadi gems like the doodh ki biryani, keeme ki biryani and bater ki biryani.
Food writer Vikram Doctor points out that profitability is not the only thing that biryani is capable of. If Helen of Troy was the face that launched a fleet ships, a parcel of biryani (coupled with a ‘quarter’ of alcohol and a generous tip) is capable of mobilising a crowd of people for any purpose (read political). Such is the power that the spiced rice possesses. “India is a rice eating nation. If you don’t want complexity in your meal, biryani is the answer. It is portable (when compared to the South Indian ela sapaadu) and makes perfect sense for political rallies, making it the ideal bait and lure. And finally, it is fantastic value for money,” says Bengaluru’s brand expert Harish Bijoor, on why it makes an instant connect with the brain. We contact psychologist Dr Mini Rao, to see if she could help us decipher this connection, but she admits to being equally stumped, but admits, “In my house, Sunday has to be about biryani.
It is a ritual that brings the whole joint family together. My only explanation is that it’s because biryani is comfort food.”
In fact, biryani has replaced the pizza as a form of reward in the corporate sector. “If team targets are achieved, it used to be mandatory to celebrate with a pizza party. But by popular demand, that’s become biryani now,” says a senior HR professional at a leading IT company in the city. And let’s face it. There’s no debating that we love anything in large quantities. “No matter how good your Ambur biryani is, there has to be enough to fill your stomach and take home a parcel,” jests stand-up comedian Naveen Richard.
Mapping the dish
Ambur, Vaniyambadi: Muslim biryani
The Muslim biryanis of Ambur, Arcot and Vaniyambadi are all made with basmati rice. The mutton is soaked in curd for a long time and cooked into a thick gravy separately. The Muslim-influenced biryanis have more ginger garlic and are generally spicier and heavier, says author Sabita Radhakrishna, adding that the Ambur biryani uses around eight whole spices. While there, ask for a popular hotel called Star Biryani.
If you’re in Coimbatore, ask for the Angannan Biryani hotel, where this seeraga samba biryani is a delicacy. Using similar powdered spices as the Thalapakattu style, this biryani has small mutton pieces that are usually boneless, so you find mutton in every mouthful. They use stock to boil the rice.
Arcot: Paccha masala biryani
Popular at homes in North Arcot is a greenish biryani called paccha masala biryani. “The secret is a masala made with coconut milk, that results in the green tinge and unmistakable taste,” says Radhakrishna. Again, not commercially available, we suggest befriending the author, whose family is one of many that still make this version.
Around 40 kms west of Trichy, this small village is home to a family that has been making biryani for many years. Yet another seeraga samba biryani, it is distinct for its masala and is made over woodfire. It cannot be compared to another biryani, says chef Damodaran.
One of celebrity chef K Damodaran’s top recommendations, this special of the Sourashtrian community goes by a 1:2 and a half kg of mutton ratio. Made with a generous amount of ghee, but little onion and tomato, it is distinct in flavour and found only in Sourashtrian homes. Good luck!
Similar to the biryanis made in Erode, this seeraga samba biryani uses powdered star anise, black cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and is finished with pepper. Served in an enamel bowl at a shop called Dindigul Biryani, it attracts nearly 2,000 people a day.
Kilakarai: Mewa biryani
Made using dry fruits and khoya, this is a speciality of the Muslim community in the coastal town of Kilakarai. They also make the Sutriyaa biryani — a combination of meat and riceflour dumplings.