The headlines, a few months back, caught my attention “National War Memorial at Princess Park set to be unveiled on Independence Day 2018”. Like a dam had burst open, memories flooded back to yesteryears. The reason is that when Dad got his posting in the Service Headquarters in New Delhi, we were given accommodation in 12, Princess Park. These yellow painted, barrack-style houses were built during the World War II and were home to officers since 1947.
Unlike today, where the servant quarters are attached to the house itself, the quarters in Princes Park were a cluster of rooms on one side of the complex. Anisha, our 65-year-old Muslim maid had been living there for the last 47 years and was attached to our house. Frail with deep wrinkles and heavy glasses sitting on her delicate nose, Anisha or Amma as we lovingly called her, looked far older than her age. Clad in a clean cotton salwar kurta and her head covered with a white dupatta, she would walk in every day to give Mom a helping hand. Her lips were forever red because she never stopped chewing paan. Once in a while, she would cook too. Then, Amma would check the kitchen containers for the ingredients needed and give Mom the list of the missing ones beforehand. She needed them all for her weekend cooking.On Sundays, the house would be filled up with aromas wafting from the kitchen. I would run to the kitchen to remind her “Amma! Wah Biryani! Par muh mein elaichi – laung nahi aane chahiye”. Then, I hated whole spices in my food. She would laugh and put the spices (the cloves, peppercorns, cardamom pods, cinnamon, cumin seeds and bay leaves) in a muslin cloth to make a ‘bouquet garni‘ and carefully drop it in the boiling water before adding rice. Once cooked al dente, she would keep a handful of the rice aside to add food coloring to before the assembling process. In a heavy pan, she would first place the chicken followed by layers of fragrant rice and a shower of chopped coriander, mint and desi ghee fried onion slices. The final blanket would be the colored rice and a stream of saffron soaked in warm milk all over. The vessel was sealed and cooked on medium flame till all the flavors were infused with the ingredients.
From then to today, I have seen, eaten and learned the different methods of making Biryani- Easy chicken recipes to the complicated mutton biryanis with double marination; the yakhni and the Dakhni style of cooking, the kachchi, and the pakki biryani. There are cities that make their own version of it and proudly give it a name. However, the Biryani of Hyderabad, Kolkata, Kashmir, and Lucknow tend to be more popular in India.There continue to be debates, forums, and lengthy articles written, proving their claim to its origin. I’ll leave the discussion to another day and the decision making to the stalwarts of the food industry. For me, Biryani is a treasure pot of love and each has a story of its own. With a flexibility of accepting a variant of ingredients in its recipe, it is savored by people all over and continues to find a prime spot in every ceremony across the globe.