Book Review: Biryani, by Pratibha Karan

It’s probably a bit late in the day to be writing this as the book has been out for a few months now, but better late than never I guess. A big ‘Thank you’ to Random House for sending me a copy of Pratibha Karan’s Biryani.

[singlepic id=1124 w=220 h=140 float=left]Biryanis are probably one of the most discussed Indian dishes and Pratibha Karan’s book comes as a welcome addition to a crowded landscape. Welcome, because it demystifies many aspects of the dish that sorely required clarification, like the difference between a pulao and a Biryani to begin with, which she clarifies in the introduction.

Let’s get the stuff I didn’t like out of the way first. To start with, the editing really could have been better. For example, the introduction to the first section, ‘North’ begins with ‘… [Mughals] their seat of powder…‘. My second grouse is the nearly complete lack of Hindi names of spices. The book refers to screwpine, nutmeg and mace among other ingredients in English but doesn’t provide Hindi translations for readers who may not know the English names of spices or for those who know it but need the Hindi translations to buy it from the market. Finally, the photography and styling could have been far better. I understand there’s just so much you can do with Biryani, but raw rice with pearls (page 23)?

Now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the parts of this excellent book which I liked.

[singlepic id=1125 w=220 h=140 float=right]One of the nicest things about this book is the manner in which the culinary, cultural and historical aspects of Biryani have been explained. It doesn’t talk down to you and imparts knowledge in a very conversational manner, which I loved! Another aspect that endeared this book to me was the part in the section ‘Tips for the reader’, which clarified the cooking of rice. I’ll admit I’m not very good at cooking rice and thought this part was very useful. For example, Mrs Karan tells us that rice that has been soaked for 20 minutes takes 5 minutes to cook up to 50%, 6-7 minutes to cook up to 90% and so on.

Further, the sheer scope of the book is awe inspiring – so many Biryani and Pulao recipes in one place? Brilliant! There are dishes in here that I’ve only heard of and never tasted or found the recipes for. Finally, the complexity of the recipes and the number of ingredients in the average Biryani would probably be overwhelming for the average home cook. The manner in which ingredients have been arranged and then referred to in the cooking method make the whole procedure so simple, I’m quite sure anyone would be able to cook any of the Biryanis in the book.

Pratibha Karan’s Biryani cookbook is almost at par with her earlier book ‘A princely legacy of Hyderabadi Cuisine’. Almost, but not there. Its a nice collection of biryanis with offbeat recipes such as the Mutanjan Pulao (which is fast disappearing), Bater Biryani (she should have mentioned the way to wash the bater to get rid of the offensive smell – all game birds and animals need special prep). What seemed lacking were a few details on biryanis which are common place in Muslim households.

Take the case of the Mutton Biryani (Delhi) on Page 29 for example, which is actually the Yakhni Pulao, which is very common in Muslim households. Yakhni is the Urdu word for stock because the rice is cooked along with the meat in the stock. Bihari Muslim cuisine has a very popular vegetarian version of a vegetarian biryani which is made in a pulao fashion called Tehri. In fact, it used to be made every Sunday at my in-laws place. Surprised she missed out on that one or maybe the source from Bihar was not generous with recipes!

One of the surprises, as I am not too familiar with southern Indian cuisine, was mutton biryani upside down from Goa. This is what we have in the middle east (more specifically Palestine) and its called Maqlooba. Maqlooba in Arabic means upside down. She also seems to have repeated recipes with slight modifications – like the Gosht Biryani given on page 56 and Katchi Biryani on page 76. The Gosht biryani recipe is essentially a Katchi biryani. Katchi biryani is defined by the used of raw meat (traditionally mutton but now chicken as well).

But I would definitely say that it is a well researched book with a good collection of recipes and I, as an avid collector of rare and Muslim cookbooks would definitely go out and buy it.

– Nikki

All in all, Biryani by Pratibha Karan is an excellent buy at Rs 795 and you must buy a copy. I promise it’ll be one of the stars of your cookbook collection.

– Sid

Sid Khullar

Sid Khullar is the founder of Chef at Large, a blog that began in 2007. He enjoys cooking, writing, travelling and technology in addition to being a practising Freemason. Health and wellness is a particularly passionate focus. Sid prefers the company of food and animals to most humans, and can be reached at sid.khullar@chefatlarge.in.