Cuisine leaves its own imprint on history. The Indian Subcontinent has witnessed many invasions; with which came a different culture and a new cuisine. Muslim invaders like Turks, Arabs, Persians, and Afghans introduced the culture of feasts. The Mughals raised cooking to an art form, introducing several recipes to the Subcontinent like biryani, pilaf, and kebabs.
While biryani is popularly associated with the Mughals, there is some historical evidence to show that there were other, similar rice dishes prior to the Mughal invasion and their rule. There is mention about a rice dish known as ‘Oon Soru’ in Tamil as early as the year 2 A.D. ‘Oon Soru’ was composed of rice, ghee, meat, turmeric, coriander, pepper, and bay leaf, and was used to feed the brave and illustrious military warriors.
The famous traveler and historian Al-Biruni has precise descriptions of meals at the courts of the Sultans who ruled parts of India prior to the Mughal invasion. His descriptions of that time also contain mentions of rice dishes similar to the Mughal Biryani. However, there is no doubt that Islamic Persians inspired and popularized the dish.
The word biryani comes from the Persian word birian which means “fried before cooking.” One could conclude that the biryani originated in Persia (modern day Iran). Another interesting story traces the origins of the dish to Mumtaz Mahal(1593-1631), Shah Jahan’s queen who inspired the Taj Mahal. It is said that she once visited army barracks and found the army personnel under-nourished. She asked the chef to prepare a special dish which provided balanced nutrition, and from then on, biryani started its journey.
When the British deposed Nawab Wajid Ali Shah to Calcutta (Kolkata), the Calcutta Biryani was created. Nizams governing small territories in Northern India encouraged regional variants like the Hyderabadi Biryani and the Arcot Nawab Biryani. Biryani recipes of the Mughals can still be found in places where their empire had a foothold.
Once a dish for royalty, today the biryani reflects local sensibilities and traditions and is a popular and common dish.