The Search for Authenticity in a Pan of Biryani

Who am I to tell you that this biryani isn't authentic?

Recipe from Recipes from Many Lands (1976)

I was surprised not to find many spices in the Oxfam cookbook recipe for biryani - not even canned curry powder!

I'm not from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh (the three countries which Recipes from Many Lands claims are "one area...from a culinary point of view"), nor have I ever been to any of those countries. My grandfather worked in Karachi, Pakistan for a few years in the 1960s, but the stories my family tells about their time living in a British diplomatic compound there -- of a constant stream of embassy parties and a school run by Irish nuns -- leads me to believe they didn't spend too much time eating the local food. I don't think I ever ate Indian food until I was twelve or thirteen years old, and I certainly didn't crave it until I was a university student. Nothing in my background gives me any right to criticize this dish.

I have to admit, though, that I couldn't stop complaining about this rice-and-meat pilaf. A few days ago, I was eating bibimbap with friends at a neighbourhood Korean restaurant, looking for empathy after my frustrating biryani-making experience. "There was no spice to it - just a cinnamon stick, salt, ginger, a handful of cloves and a few cardamom pods. No cumin, no coriander, no chiles, not even black pepper!" I said. "I had to brown the chicken in oil after I'd made broth from it, which made no sense. It was sad white people biryani."

All the aromatics used in this biryani, save some ginger paste

Now, these were strong words coming from me. Have I ever tried to make biryani before? Well, not only do I work a fifteen-minute walk from a lovely Indian take-out place, but I just moved to Montreal's Park-Extension neighbourhood, where I hear Hindi on the street more often than I do French. You can understand, then, why I don't attempt to cook Indian food very often; I'm surrounded by people who do it very well. The gold standard of biryani for me is Bombay-style, particularly as made by my friend Lucile. She marinates chicken legs in spice-flecked yogurt until the meat is a rich red, then layers them with fried potatoes, Basmati rice and whole eggs. Her biryani is a feast in a pan, as welcome on a humid summer night as it is in the dead of winter. With this dish in mind, the blander Oxfam recipe seemed more like a "bore-yani".

And, yet, how do I actually know that the recipe makes "sad white people biryani?" Perhaps there are parts of South Asia where a plainer biryani like this is common - just because I'm used to the creamy sauces of Punjabi cooking, or the heat of South Indian-style biryani, doesn't mean that these are the only ways to make Indian food. I was struck, reading online reviews of one of the many Indian restaurants near me, that so many people lambasted the food for not being authentic enough. Of course the food won't be the same as it is in Dhaka or Delhi, just as a poutine eaten in Vancouver probably won't taste like one wolfed down on Montreal's rue Rachel. When I finally travel to India, the food won't be just like the butter chicken and mango lassis I enjoy at my favourite take-out joint.

It could be that the recipe in Recipes for Many Lands was tamed from a spicier version; after all, as Marie-Luise Ermisch explained, the book was designed for use in classrooms, and a recipe too spicy for children to enjoy, or with several ingredients which were difficult to source in the average British grocery store, would not have had the educational impact the Oxfam aid workers had in mind.
For me to assume, however, that this biryani needed to be spicy in order to be "authentic" was wrong. If I had sourced the recipe from someone whom I know to be well-versed in Indian cooking, whether that was Madhur Jaffrey or one of my friends who have lived in India, I would have assumed that it was an accurate representation of Indian cuisine. The name "biryani" also suggests a dish with more exotic flavours than cinnamon and cardamom; indeed, if someone had sent me this same recipe and called it "Christmas Spiced Chicken and Rice", I would have thought that it was perfectly fine. My decision to judge this dish because it came from an aid cookbook says more about my assumptions of aid workers and the British palate in the 1970s than it does about the actual recipe.

I doubt that I'll use the biryani recipe from Recipes from Many Lands the next time I tackle this dish. Yet my initial complaint that I'd made "bore-yani" wasn't quite fair. After all, to make biryani, which has been eaten in South Asia since the days of the Mughal empire, follows the same basic procedure as making a Persian pulow or a Spanish paella. In all of these dishes, the brown crust of rice on the bottom of the pan is the best part. I'd like to think that perhaps making this dish opened the eyes of some British schoolchildren to what food from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh is like, leading them into balti houses, into London's Southall or Brick Lane, or even on a journey to Karachi or Kolkata. After all, butter chicken and mango lassis fueled my desire to explore South Asian cuisine. If the discovery of a new favourite food can serve as a gateway to another culture, who cares whether those first bites are "authentic" or not?

For more reading on the place of Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi food in contemporary Britain, I recommend this article by Mark Hay: Who Owns Chicken Tikka Masala?


  1. You could always ask a robot-taster ...

  2. What a post


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