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The rice and meat dish, biryani, which traces its origins to the pilafs of Persia can be called the national dish of India. Each part of India has its unique take on biryani. This extends to what is eaten with the biryani too.
The two popular Mughlai side dishes in Kolkata biryani restaurants are the curd and ghee-based sauce, rezala, and the poppy and cashew paste cored slow cooked dry dish, chaap. These could be made with mutton (goat) or chicken. They are often had as sides with biryani or with fluffy white rotis from the tandoor. Raw green chilies on the side are a must with biryanis here. They are meant to be bitten on in between bites of biryani and are best followed by the Gelusil which every red blooded Bengali carries.
Biryanis in Hyderabad are traditionally served with a dahi (curd) raita and a mirchi ka salan. The mirchi ka salan is a spicy and tangy curry made with desiccated coconut, crushed peanuts, sesame seeds and tamarind and have whole green chilies (mirchi) in them.
A dahi chutney or raita is served with the biryani in Lucknow too. A popular accompaniment with biryanis here are the small, flat disc-like, minced meat shammi kababs which could be made with goat or beef mince. Even the humblest of biryani shops have flat tawas (cast iron griddles) where shammi kababs are made fresh to go with the biryani.
Biryanis are pretty popular in Kerala too and are made with short grained rice here. Many would say that the perfect accompaniment to the Keralite biryani would be a steaming glass of tangy, peppery rasam.
Mutton pulao dal is a popular wedding dish among the Parsis of Mumbai. While it is called a pulao and not a biryani, this rice and meat dish is fairly similar to a biryani. Incidentally, the Parsis don’t have a specific type of biryani of their own so the pulao can be approximated as one though a Parsi purist might argue against this. The Parsis combine the pulao with masala ni dal. This dal is the same as that in the dhansak except dhansak has meat in the dal while here the masala dal doesn’t have meat in it. This is possibly the only example in India of people mixing a biryani-like meat and rice dish with a dal. The quintessential Bohri originated biryani of Mumbai’s Muslim-run restaurants are eaten without any sides though. This is possibly due to the liberal dose of masala (yakhni) which the biryani contains which makes it a complete dish by itself for those who love their food spicy.
So next time you dig into a biryani think whether you have got the pairing right.
Kalyan Karmakar authors the popular award winning blog, Finely Chopped and is an authority on the food of Mumbai. His extensive knowledge of the city's food scene has been featured in publications such as Femina, Mumbai Mirror and BCC Good Food. He was one of the founding critics of EazyDiner's Mumbai team.