Biryani Is Not Pulao  —  Let's Settle It Once And For All

12/09/2016 5:19 PM IST | Updated 13/09/2016 8:40 AM IST
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As a devout biryani fan it irks me that people and even restaurants confuse this elaborate preparation with the humble pulao. Each time a restaurant passes off a pulao as a biryani, the foodie in me gets mighty peeved! Being an ardent biryani fan I'm often asked how the two are different; I mean, both are just rice and meat right? WRONG! The biryani and pulao are as different as chalk and cheese, as any true foodie will tell you, and don't let anyone convince you otherwise.

Restaurants  —  biryani-making is an art form; don't besmirch it by selling pulao in the name of biryani.

As the saying goes, biryani is the food of the gods. It is a complete dish served with accompaniments, unlike the pulao which is a side-dish that is eaten with a curry or as part of a larger Indian meal. The differences don't end there, so I've decided to dispel the myth once and for all!

Different origins

Pilaf or pulao is said to be a dish of Persian origin, although the word "pilaf" is said to be derived from the Sanskrit word "pulaka". In his book Indian Food: A Historical Comparison, K.T Achaya claims that both the Persians and Arabs invented the terms pallao, pulao and pilav, yet it was referred to as pallo or pulao in Sanskrit as well as Tamil, much before the Muslim invaders entered India. In his article on pilaf that featured in the Los Angeles Time, Charles Perry outlines five great local schools of pilaf, namely Central Asian, Iranian, Indian, Turkish and Caribbean. All of them cook the pilaf by letting the rice, meat and vegetables stew together in a single pot. The only difference is in the ingredients, which are subject to the availability in a particular region. Also, in the Caribbean pilaf, the meat is first marinated and then mixed with the rice.

The more complex biryani too has historians divided on its true origins. Some claim that the biryani was born in Persia and travelled to India with the Mughals. This could be true considering that the Mughals, who were patrons of fine cooking, influenced the Indian culinary heritage in a significant manner. Yet others say that it was the legacy of Timur, who bought it from Kazakhstan. There is another school of thought that asserts the Indian origins of the biryani. There is a mention of a dish "oon soru: in Tamil literature as early as the year 2 A.D. which comprised rice, ghee, meat and condiments. Whatever the origins, post the Mughal invasion, the biryani gained a cult status as the food of the royals.

Cooking techniques

Pulao follows a fairly simple cooking style wherein the meat is cooked first (or the vegetables are sautéed, in case of a veg pulao), the rice is added and then both are cooked together in a predetermined quantity of water. Therefore, the pulao is essentially a one-pot dish cooked using the "absorption" method.

To make a biryani, a "layering" technique is used. The meat is cooked separately with spices, while the rice is par-boiled. The two are then arranged in layers in a pot and cooked (dum) on low heat. Alternately, the two may be cooked together in the same pot but the layering technique is always followed.

Biryani vs. pulao

Use of spices

Compared to the biryani, the pulao is a more humble dish in terms of ease of cooking and complexity of technique. Generally pulaos are not very heavy on spices and may use some whole dried ones along with dry fruits to enhance the taste of the meat or vegetable.

When it comes to the biryani, spices are an integral part of the preparation. This rich dish may have strong or subtle flavours depending on the region, but the elaborate use of spices and condiments is the binding factor.


The pulao can have umpteen variations depending on what it is cooked with. The ingredients may be meat and vegetables or a combination of vegetables and legumes and sometimes just a single vegetable, like a simple pea pulao.

Here's an age-old test -- drop a handful of biryani on a hard floor; if no two grains of rice stick to each other, you've probably got the real thing.

Unlike the pulao, the biryanis of different regions vary in their taste and flavour. So you have the Sindhi biryani, the Hyderabadi biryani, the Calcutta biryani, the Lucknow biryani amongst the famous ones. Thalassery biryani (Kerala), Bhatkali biryani (Coastal Karnataka), Ambur and Dindigul biryani (Tamil Nadu) are not so well known but also highly regarded by those who have had them. Different biryanis use different varieties of rice; depending on whether the rice and meat were cooked separately and then layered, or just arranged in layers and then cooked together, biryanis are categorized as either kacchi or pucci. Out of all these, the Calcutta biryani uses the least amount of spices and is always served with a fried/boiled potato.

So there, consider this article my sincere ode to the biryani. And restaurants — biryani-making is an art form; don't besmirch it by selling pulao in the name of biryani. And next time you see rice and meat together in a dish, know exactly what you are eating! To twist a popular saying, "all that's rice and meat is not biryani." To conclude, here's an age-old test -- drop a handful of biryani on a hard floor; if no two grains of rice stick to each other, you've probably got the real thing.

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