Mumbai-based entrepreneur Sankeerth Bhargav confesses that his love affair with vegetarian biryani started with wanting to fit in. His college friends were non-vegetarian, so each time they sat together for a meal, he didn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb.
“I’d always have the vegetarian alternatives of whatever they were having and biryani was on top of that list,” said the 26-year-old. “I’ve [heard] people talk about the burst of aromatic flavours right from the first bite.”
But the hate towards the very existence of vegetarian biryani is near-universal. Famous people have gone on record to deny its very existence, hardcore meat-eaters are often triggered just by its very namedrop, and it’s been the butt of endless memes and forwards.
Amidst all the clamour, there are dedicated groups hating on it and supporting it with the same vigour. In 2018, VICE interviewed a vegetarian biryani “supremacist” who protested at the India Gate to get the dish the recognition he believes it deserves. Editorials supporting these amusing protests followed shortly after. One columnist wrote: “My hate for veg biryani is not just infantile. It’s problematic. Almost like how conservative heterosexual couples feel that allowing gay marriage somehow negates the sanctity of the institution, a lot of hardcore biryani lovers feel that veg biryani is an attack on their culinary choices.”
But… is vegetarian biryani a legit thing? And if it is, is our collective hate towards it really infantile, bordering on problematic? What do we end up losing in all the noise? And from historical, anthropological, and personal perspectives, what do we invalidate?
Food anthropologist Kurush Dalal confirms that the dish not a made-up thing like many believe. He defines veg or vegetable biryani as an aromatic Indian dish that consists of rice and vegetables flavoured with a blend of spices including cumin, turmeric, cardamom, and coriander. Typically, peas, carrots, potatoes, and capsicum (green bell peppers) are the veggies that make their way into a vegetable biryani. Special ingredients can include paneer, a type of Indian cheese.
The rice and vegetables are first partially cooked, separately. For the final cooking stage, the rice and vegetables are arranged in alternate layers in a large, thick-bottomed vessel that is covered with a lid and then sealed with a dough made of whole wheat flour. The dish is garnished with freshly chopped cilantro or coriander leaves just before serving.
Dalal explained that this process of slow-cooking, known as “dum,” is to help ensure that the ingredients are evenly cooked under pressure. “So, the origin of the Indian biryani is an incredibly simple dish where meat and rice were cooked together in the morning, put in a sealed pot at the back of a bullock cart with the travelling army, and eaten on the go or at the end of the journey where it was served hot,” said Dalal.
“There are very rarified biryanis in India such as the lasoon ki biryani where entire garlic cloves are the ‘meat’ of the matter, so to speak,” he said. “When the rice and meat [in a traditional biryani] are cooked together, it’s called kachche gosht ki biryani (literally, raw meat biryani, though don’t be scandalised – the meat is not raw when you ultimately eat it). The more common [cooking method] is to pre-cook the meat separately, and then layer it with rice.”
Chef Hussain Shahzad, who works with popular Mumbai restaurants The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro, shares the theory that the idea of biryani came about when a Mughal queen, Mumtaz Mahal, visited the army camps and found the soldiers looking weak and malnourished. “She instructed the [cooks] to make a preparation of rice and meat to provide the soldiers with a balanced meal – the result was biryani,” he said. “Vegetarian biryani came into being when the nizams (Muslim rulers) of Mysore hired bookkeepers,” he added. These bookkeepers were Hindus by faith and followed vegetarian diets. In order for them to be fed, the royal kitchens had to incorporate their dishes into the menu.
Dalal clarified that it’s a misconception that biryani is only a north Indian dish that needs to be cooked with long-grain rice. In southern and central India, the most popular biryanis have short-grain rice, or sometimes even tapioca cooked with meat (kappa biryani), a variant found in Kerala, popular because it’s more affordable. “So, biryani is process-based and not solely related to the ingredient. There are a whole slew of biryanis across the nation, so if people want to eat veg biryani, more glory to them.”
The ideal Sunday for Aditi Gupta is inseparable from vegetarian biryani, particularly the soybean variant of it. Almost every Sunday, the family – including her cousins who eat non-vegetarian food too – congregates around a steaming pot of soybean biryani.
“This is our family’s traditional biryani. My cousins will cancel all plans and drop by to have our biryani,” said the 24-year-old journalist based in Kolkata. “The soybean is fried separately in mustard oil seasoned with spices and subsequently layered with rice. When you lightly squeeze the soybean chunks, the dripping, aromatic oil is also beyond the beyond. It’s not chewy like mutton and the biryani is easy on my stomach.”
Prateek Sadhu, a Mumbai-based chef who has received global attention for the foraging techniques he brings to the table, told VICE that Indian food literature is brimming with how vegetables made their way into biryani. Some accounts, he said, suggest that potatoes became a key ingredient in biryanis in India (particularly the ones found in the West Bengal state) because there was a scarcity of meat during long periods of famine.
The biryani and pulao debate
A running joke among biryani lovers is that vegetable biryani is not a biryani, to begin with. Never mind that the process of layering and slow-cooking is the same, the lack of meat just doesn’t cut it. In reality, the difference is more nuanced and has nothing to do with the lack of meat.
Sadhu, who is a Kashmiri Pandit, shares that the two most popular biryani dishes in his hometown state of Kashmir, a Muslim-dominated region, are vegetarian.
“Because we are so diverse, every region has its own personal history associated with all things biryani,” he told VICE. “So, tehri has flavoured rice, cooked in mustard oil with crispy potatoes on the top, and then there’s the gucchi pulao which is equally popular. In the gucchi pulao, the star ingredient, or the meat counterpart, is a variety of spongy mushrooms known as gucchi — grown in the wild and popular for its nutritive and medicinal properties. It is also considered one of the most expensive varieties of mushrooms with a kilogram costing up to Rs 36,000 ($450).
The biryani and pulao are both dishes that are made with rice and a variety of other ingredients, such as meat, vegetables, and spices. However, one of the main differences between them is the way the rice and other ingredients are cooked. In a biryani, the rice and other ingredients are cooked separately and then layered together and cooked again, often with the addition of yoghurt or other liquids such as rose water. This results in a dish that has distinct layers of flavour and texture, with the rice being partially cooked by the time it is layered with the other ingredients. In contrast, in a pulao, the rice and other ingredients are cooked together in the same pot, which results in a dish that is more homogenous in flavour and texture.
Another key difference between the two dishes is the spices used. Biryani is typically made with a mix of strong, aromatic spices such as cumin, coriander, cardamom, and turmeric, which give the dish a bold and complex flavour. In contrast, pulao is typically made with fewer and milder spices, such as bay leaves, cinnamon, and cloves, which give the dish a more subtle and delicate flavour.
However, food anthropologist Dalal said that biryani and pulao often roll into each other in India. What one family might call biryani, the other one might call pulao. “If you look at the origin of the word biryani, it’s biryan from Persia (which translates to ‘fried before cooking’). So, the word has no rice in it, but it was served as a paste of meat served on a flattened disc of bread. So, dishes travel and change form.”
As far as India is concerned, Dalal explained that being a vegetarian is a privilege in every sense of the word. The less privileged among us, including Indigenous communities, cannot afford to be purely vegetarian. According to various scholars, one of the primary reasons for the same is that the land, on which these vegetables would grow, was an asset accessible only to the privileged castes. So, pork and beef became easily available because the privileged castes didn’t want them. “Only the upper castes and upper classes in India can be vegetarian.”
In the case of Pragati Jindal, a 26-year-old fashion designer based in Delhi, the painstaking process of putting together a vegetarian biryani gives her satisfaction second to none. Only recently, she followed her grandmother’s recipe, minus the meat, for her friends and family, who just wouldn’t acknowledge the beauty of the veg biryani. She marinated the paneer overnight with hung curd, turmeric, and chillies, much like how the meat would otherwise be prepared.
“From the star flower (star anise) to the bay leaf, I used every exotic spice in the paneer biryani, sealing the rim with raw wheat flour dough and slow-cooking it for hours,” she said. “When I made my friends taste it, they could taste how I’d replicated the process and been loyal to the slowness and finesse of it all.”
Bhargav, the entrepreneur, has made peace with people invalidating the presence and worth of vegetable biryani. He cited the example of an intercollegiate debate competition where he participated with his friend – betting that they would travel all the way to Hyderabad to have the best veg biryani, should they win. And win they did.
“Someone might say that it’s unfortunate I had veg biryani in a city like Hyderabad famous for its [mutton] biryanis,” he said. “Now, I don’t know if that veg biryani was all that great, but it was definitely instrumental in forging a stronger bond [with my friend]. How do I give this context to someone who’s being ignorant?”
As Indians, Dalal said that we are often too highly opinionated, with no scope for change. “Opinions are like an arsehole — everyone has one, but you don’t need to necessarily air yours in public. Why would you want to hurt someone on something as happy as food?”
Chef Shahzad, for his part, admitted that while he won’t necessarily seek out a vegetable biryani, he cannot discount the intricacies of putting one together. “That someone can take a vegetable like lauki (bottle gourd) and make a biryani with it using traditional techniques and present it in an opulent form is staggering.”
The way Dalal sees it, when it comes to food, family traditions come first. “The truth has many flavours to it, so why would you make fun of someone else’s tradition? Just as much as you wouldn’t like your tradition being run down, why would you run down someone else’s?”
Tell that to the next person who scoffs at your veg biryani order, throw some history nuggets their way, and shut them up for good. If that doesn’t work, just stuff their face with some veg biryani.