Biryani’s arrival and its documentation in culinary history

Food 13 Jan 2021 Contributor
Biryani's arrival
© Feroze |

Biryani. The name immediately conjures up in the minds of millions in the Indian subcontinent a matchless dish, cooked across India, Pakistan and India. Now, the million-dollar question is, when did Biryani arrive in this subcontinent’s culinary imagination? For Biryani’s arrival, it is impossible to put your finger on a particular year. Food historians have widely differed in their surmise.

My own long research has convinced me that this delicious contribution of Islamic culinary tradition to Indian food arrived at sometime in 17th Century. During the reigns of two Mughal emperors Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, who ruled between 1628 and 1707.

Why am I convinced that Biryani, in its more or less present form, was created in the 17th century? In support of it I shall present three sources: two cookbooks, and a collection of letters. The first one is Nuskha-i-Shahjahani. Recipes of Shah Jahan’s Kitchen. I have written a whole piece on this anonymously compiled collection of recipes, so here I shall simply rest by pointing out that it is generally considered to be compiled by a person who had clear knowledge of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s kitchen.

Documentation of Biryani’s arrival

This book lists hundreds of dishes. While there is no food by the name of Biryani. There is a dish named Zer Biryan, that can certainly be termed as the immediate predecessor of Biryani. So, it is fair to assume Shah Jahan never tasted Biryani, as we know it today, but something very very similar. On the other hand, there is nailing evidence that his son, emperor Aurangzeb adored a dish named Biryani.

For this we will turn to a book titled, ‘Ruaka’at-i-Alamgiri or Letters of Aurangzeb, with Historical and Explanatory Notes’. Translated by Jamshedji Hormasji Bilimoriya. The collection was published in English from London by Luzac & Co. in 1908. In 1704, Aurangzeb wrote a letter to his eldest son Muhammad Muazzam, in which we come across to these illuminating sentences,

“Exalted son, I remember the savour of your ‘khichidi’ and ‘biryani’ during the winter. Truly the ‘kabuli’ cooked by Islam Khan does not surpass them (in point of relish and savour). I wanted to have from you (in my service) Saliman, who cooks ‘biryani’; but you did not allow him to serve as my cook. If you happen to find a pupil of his, skillful in the art of cookery, you will send him to me.”

Do we need a more convincing proof that Biryani was created sometime after Aurangzeb ascended the throne, i.e. 1658 and before 1704, following up on the Zer Biryan, experimented in Shah Jahan’s imperial kitchen?

Biryani’s mention Aurangzeb’s cookbook

But what kind of Biryani was Aurangzeb savouring? For this we will turn to yet another amazing cookbook, Alwan-i-N’imat, translated from Persian to Urdu by Bulaki Das. This cookbook, for various reasons, merits a more detailed discussion, which we shall in another column, but for now just this much: Alwan-i-N’imat is the first cookbook of the Mughal imperial kitchen, compiled during Aurangzeb’s era, which mentions a named Biryani. But there is a catch: Here is no explicit mention of Biryani’s arrival.

It is mentioned just once, as title of a chapter: Tairai pukht Biryani-hai, meaning ‘preparing Biryanis’ (Vol I, Page 28). Mark carefully, not Biryan-hai, but Biryani-hai. Surprisingly, however, in the sub-heads the recipes are listed as Zer Biryani. Again, note that unlike in Nuskha, it’s Zer Biryani, and not Zer Biryan! I am assuming that while the dish had begun to be called Biryani conversationally, formally it was still being termed Zer Biryani.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)