If all of South Asia were to be characterized by just one dish, we’d argue it should be biryani. In case you’re not familiar with it, at its most basic, biryani is a rice casserole: one that’s layered with meat, seafood, or vegetables, then flavored with warm spices, herbs, and gravy, then cooked over a low flame, sometimes with a cover made from dough.
While Westerners often inclined to lump all of the food of South Asia together, the reality is that food on the subcontinent is highly regional. Northern India and Pakistan are known for their breads and meats made in traditional clay ovens; cooling yogurt plays a large role at tables in West India; Southern India is famous for its rice-based street snacks. But one cultural aspect that all of these regions share in common is a love of biryani; the dish has a prominent place on menus from Kashmir to Kerala.
Because of its labor-intensive process, biryani has traditionally been a food reserved for special occasions, although these days it’s a common option on takeout menus. And unlike rice dishes in other cultures, it’s not a side dish at dinner, but rather the star of the meal itself.
There are many theories about where the dish came from. Some say it originated in South India from noble pilgrims. Others believe it first came to India with the Mughals. It’s also thought to have evolved from a Tamil rice dish called oon soru that was fed to military warriors as far back as 2 A.D. But given that the word itself can be traced back to the Persian phrase “birinj biriyan,” which means “rice fried before cooking,” it’s believed that biryani originated in Persia, or modern-day Iran.
Today there are countless regional biryani variations across the Indian diaspora, from the North to the South of the subcontinent, across neighboring countries like Burma and Nepal, and even as far as South Africa. Many utilize heady spices like cloves, cardamom, cumin, and coriander, as well as fresh and dried fruit, nuts, and fresh herbs. Unlike the rice of East Asian countries like China and Japan, expect the rice in biryani to be fragrant with fluffy, distinct, individual grains. Some versions involve different cooking methods. Northern Indian variants are often mild in flavor, with landlocked regions incorporating chicken, goat, beef, mutton, or other livestock. In contrast, coastal areas frequently cook biryani with fish, shrimp, and other seafood.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a part of the world with a diverse South Asian population, keep an eye out for regional biryani styles. Particularly famous renditions include tangy, spicy Sindhi Biryani from Pakistan; Kolkata (Calcutta) Biryani, a yellow rose water-flavored biryani made with potatoes; Kacchi-style or Hyderabadi Biryani, one of the most prevalent versions, often made with goat meat and coconut; or the milder, often vegetarian style of Bohri Biryani that comes out of Mumbai.
For the most traditional biryani experience, look for dum biryani. A biryani that’s “dum cooked” or made using the dum pukht method means that vegetables, meat, gravy, and partially cooked rice get added to a heavy mud cooking pot called a handi, then sealed with raw dough to trap steam and flavors during the slow cooking process.
Here’s a sampling of where to try biryani in San Francisco: