The Malabar Biryani

Hari Nair in his blog mentions about his newly acquired taste of the ever famous Malabar or Calicut Biryani and wondered about its origins and preservation. Thanks to CKR for the link. Well I do not want to get into the cooking aspects and recipe preservation part myself; others like Indiandoc have done quite a bit of that over the years. Youtube has some hotel or cooks doing it (mass production). But really, it is very difficult to replicate the taste one gets in hotels for various reasons though the general Malabar Biryani cooking methods can be found in Ummi Abdullah’s books.

My sons maintain that the Sagar (next to KSRTC stand, not the new one) version is the best, my brother in law states that The old ‘Bombay hotel’ near the Calicut Beach is the best, others say that Sain-ithatha’s at the Beach has a better variety, yet others mention versions by the Paragon near the P&T office or the refurbished Top Form on SM street. Anyway sitting many thousands of miles away from those divine culinary delights, I decided to carry out a little research into this food which is a family favorite. Unfortunately this is a non vegetarian dish and I have to date not come across a Malabar vegetable Biryani.

The word Biryani is from the Persian word beryā(n) which means "fried" or "roasted". There are of course many kinds of biryanis in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and almost all of them have an Arabic, Persian or Afghan origin. Many stories abound of it having come down the passes with the first invaders like Timur the lame or across the water with the early sailors and settlers.

It has been a Mediterranean area dish from historic times and some say that ‘Nomads’ buried an earthen pot full of meat, rice and spices in a pit surrounded by the warm sands of the desert and eventually the pot was dug up containing the earliest version of the 'Cooked Biryani'. While that was one version, another puts it that Mumtaz, wife of Shah Jahan, not happy with the nutrition level of what was served to the army invented this dish as a "complete meal" to feed them, as a kind of fast food. In Arab countries they had the Kabsa ceremonial lunch where flavored rice with meat is the main fare. Such rice dishes in my opinion form the basis of the Malabar Biryani which therefore is assumed to have been brought across the Indian Ocean by Arab Seafarers and traders. I am almost sure that a parent of the Malabar Biryani is the Hadhrami Mandi, for Yemeni Hadhramis’ were some of the early forefathers of the Moplah’s of Malabar.

The cuisine of Malabar, also referred as ‘Mappila cuisine’, boasts of a distinct flavor and taste that has been influenced by the Arabs as well as by the locally available spices, products and culinary traditions. Traditional Malabar cuisine is mildly spicy, characterized by the use of spices like black pepper, clove, cardamom, and almost always, cooked in fragrant coconut oil. The meat is cooked tender, the rice flaky and delicately spiced with the right blend of seasonings, to leave a lingering taste in the mouth. The papads are fried in coconut oil, and the biryani is a softer variety, light on the stomach and really has little relation in terms of taste to the other biryanis in the country.

I am sure there are many biryanis, but some of the popular biryani’s are Hyderabadi, Kutch, Lahori, Malabar, Bombay, Lucknowi, Chetti and Bhatkal. As one can imagine, the differing ingredients and differing methods of preparation constitute the many types and flavors. Each person likes one or the other, be it the highly flavored Bombay Biryani or the lightly flavored Malabar Biryani. One who is interested in some details of the various types can check the linked Indiamarks site.

The Mappilas of Calicut have perfected many variations of this biriyani – rice, spices and yogurt cooked with mutton, fish, chicken, eggs or shrimp, to name a few. The ingredients change with the types of meat and could have tomatoes, onions, ginger, garlic, ghee, spices, yoghurt, coriander, and so on…Biryani is also cooked in differing methods. Sometimes the meat and masala and the rice (not the long basmati, but the shorter variety) are cooked separately. They are then layered & steamed, ensuring that the flavors of the meat completely blend with the rice. Sometimes saffron and fried onions are added to provide additional flavor. Sometimes they are cooked separately and mixed later.

As all of us know, rice is the staple diet in Kerala. The Muslims of Kerala first perfected Ghee rice or Neychoru with a separate curry. It could have been that the Biryani evolved later where the two are mixed, in differing ways. Many say that Biryani is a mughal dish, but the mughal variety is only one of the many as explained earlier. Like Ravi said, a great Hyderabadi biryani is as much worth killing for as its great Kozhikodan equivalent is worth dying for. According to Tahseen, the Moplah biryani follows its own style of making too. “The water isn’t drained out but retained and even the meat is allowed to soak and steam in the water unlike in the Kozhikode regions where it is poured out”

To make a good biryani, the vessels (aluminum or cast iron chembu’s), rice (Wyanad Kaima, Jeerakashala or Basmati), the ghee or coconut oil…all have to be right, just like the fire that is usually a slow burning coconut husk fire.. For Calicut Biryani, the Handi is placed on the embers produced by coconut shells and the rice should never be overcooked. Accompaniments – Kerala papadam (not appalam or the Lijjat variety), Biriyani Chammandi (coconut, little vinegar, chilli & salt) and Karakka (Arabian dates) pickles. Now as I wrote earlier, you cannot complete a proper Malabar Biryani meal without Biryani Chaya – You can possibly still find it at the old Sagar.

Ummi Abdulla herself has this comment - Cooked rice was the staple diet of Kerala. Boiled rice was cooked in the usual way but the average Moplah household preferred par-boiled rice to raw rice. Fried rice called neichoru or ghee rice, was a delicacy meant for special occasions. This dish has now "graduated" into biryani or pulav which must have originally come from Samarkhand with the Moghuls and migrated through the Deccan and the rule of the Arcot Nawabs into Kerala. The Moplah genius has developed many variants of the biryani, some of which are spicy hot to suit local palates. I would maintain that it possibly came through the Yemeni Arabs who first came to Malabar.

Look at some of the Middle Eastern brethren to the Biryani, the Iranian versions and the Arabian Kabsa or Mandi. The nearest relative to the Calicut Biryani is the Arabic Kabsah or Yemeni mandi, and eating a kabsah lunch is an experience in itself. I will never forget the one I went through, together with a few Swedish colleagues of mine at an Arab’s feast, while working in Saudi Arabia. The great big plate in the center with the cooked and stuffed goat surrounded by the fragrant biryani style Kabsah rice. The host picking out the succulent parts of the goat and tossing it across to the startled Swede, and his having to figure out how to use his fingers to eat the rice and meat, casting a side glance to see that we were enjoying it, at the same time sitting cross legged with aching knees, bursting hamstrings and trousers that could soon split at its seams due to the squatting position… It is a priceless memory. I still enjoy telling that story in full, the way it should be told – as my wife puts it ‘with all the pidippum thongalum’ and… (Some masala added to the true bits & loaded with lots of exaggeration)…

I am feeling hungry now; have to figure out the best way to persuade my wife to cook one this week end. She always makes it as we all like it, and jusssht perfect…

Malabar Biryani –
Sri Pillai


mathew said...

loved reading quite a fan of biriyani myself...and was lucky to have biriyani once at Sagar....this dish is an all weather dish..the perfect no flop meal you can order when you are absolutely hungry...;-)

Nikhil Narayanan said...

You missed to put a [DROOL ALERT] :D

I want more posts on food.
Thanks for the post,Maddy.


Pradeep said...

Took my memory back to the days in Ahmedabad. Near Relief Road there was (must still be there I guess) a very simple Keralite restaurant. I don't what variety they served, but it was simply yummy...

Jina said...

Wow..:).Its difficult for me to replicate it.But when I manage it, its always more than worth the effort..

Anonymous said...

Great post ! but you forgot to mention Andhra Biriyani. Most people assume Hyderabadi and Andhra Biriyani is the same but its not. Andhra Biriyani is spicy and Hyderabadi Biriyani is non spicy. They way they are made is also very different.

gauri said...


You just made me hate you. And I don't even have a wife I could persuade to cook :P Very well, the recipe shall be looked up, it shall be cooked, and you shall be told how it turned out :-\


PS: //Unfortunately this is a non vegetarian dish and I have to date not come across a Malabar vegetable Biryani.//

How so? I mean, how it that unfortunate? :P

Maddy said...

Mathew - we hv been to some places where they managed to destroy it , but like you said, it is a great dish..

Thanks Pradeep, Nikhil, ursjina and anonymous...yup i missed the Andhra biryani, I am sure i have missed a few more..

Ah Gauri - don't shoot the messenger, you can find a link here for indian docs recipe...and hope u enjoy it.

as for the 'unfortunate' part, i was sympathizing with vegans..

Cynic in Wonderland said...

i want a wife too who can make biryanis. so does my husband.

can we borrow yours?

and seriously put a disclaimer no before posts like this. unfortunate souls traipse in thinking it will be innocuous post and end up feeling very hungry

asiftherock said...

Dude you just made me yearn for my mom's biriyani & naychor.... Yummy yummy !!!!!

Indrani said...

Some body said 'drool alert'.:)Yes a must. I keep trying out, yet to reach anywhere near perfection.

Sushil said...

Came across the post titled Biryani and I could'nt help read through as I am a great fan of biryani :-). Your post has indeed made me hungry and now I will have to bookmark this and either try this out on my own or pester someone to make it for me :-).


Great informative post. Though a non-veg dish , many homes, like ours, have invented their own veg. biriyanis. The taste may fall short of the original, but it still is fragrant and colourful....

Happy Kitten said...

and Sagar it has to be this time.. last time we were too late and they had already finished their biriyani..

but what a narration!

nd I thought coconut oil was a "no no" for biriyani's... nd Ghee always felt heavy.. so now I need to try out soon...

Maddy thanks for the sumptuous biriyani tale..

harimohan said...

dear maddy
arab biriyanis these days cant touch ours with a long pole

i remember delicous biriyani and small cute crunchy samoshas with recd couloured tea in the seventies in madras at Buhari hotel
but now thier standards have come down ,there is one in Dubai too now
another routine was when you went for tea along with it came tempting pastries kept on your table to take your pick and pay for it .one would automatically stretch for one cake !
malabari biriyani is not the layer type and the rice is not fine long basmati and it is a bit like neychoru i prefer the hyderabadi lucknowi one
Ambur in tamilnadu is well known for its excellent succulent biriyani
madras weddings those days of muslim friends was looked forwards to as it could be a rice in mutton ( costlier ) or mutton in rice variety
sorry for the long comment you touched on my favourite food
yummy and tks

Calicut Heritage Forum said...

After reading, we rushed to the new Top Form on Mavoor Road (opposite KSRTC stand) for tasting their fish biriyani. This is a branch of the SM street restaurant. Not as good as the Paragon one, but those who dont want it spicy may like it. So, heres one more stop for you, Maddy!

Rada said...

Recently, I had Biriyani at Sagar (near the KSRTC bus stand, not the one further down Mavoor Road) and I can tell you, it was absolutely fantastic. These days Paragaon gets better PR but I tell you, for Biriyanis, Sagar is the best!

Also while in Ernakulam, check out Kayee's. Excellent biriyanis. If you are having lunch, make sure you go before 2 pm. Everything gets finished by 2.30 pm.

Maddy said...

That's nice, i seem to have activated quite a few taste buds. As for me, i had to contend with equally good Ghee rice over the week end, the biryani day is not yet here..

Cynic - u are all lucky, you can just hunt out a local mallu joint to have it. we have to drive 100 miles to get desi food and that too not really good desi food.

Asif, Indrani, Sushil, HK...all thanks, hope you all get to enjoy a great biryani soon..HK - a small clarification, the coconut oil was for the pappadam..

raji - you are right - there are great veg biryanis, but the succulent taste of a malabar biryani is such...let me not go again..

Thanks hari & rada.. i have to try keyi sometime and

CKR - yes, i have to try top form next time. earlier they had the best malabar kurmas at the SM street joint.

Kamini said...

Ohhh you have really made my mouth water! Unfortunately I am the wife who has to make it...and it takes so much of effort, cutting all those onions, the masala, the countless steps - but so worth it in the end.

Maddy said...

Dont worry kamini, I hope the contended look on the faces of the happy eaters will hopefully satisy you and keep the spirit going..

At least that's what I tell my wife when she utters teh same words!! and she says - bah!!

Naresh said...

Just got back from a short trip to India (Calicut especially included). I made it a mission to eat Biriyani at Old Sagar, New Topform AND Paragon. Each and every biriyani was exemplary, nothing short of culinary art :)
I must say personally speaking, the Paragon biriyani was the best of the best. I have previously tried Bombay Hotel, Hotel De Paris and many other Biriyani's as well.
Happy feasting on Biriyani - would love to see other's experience with these exquisite biriyani's.

Maddy said...

thanks naresh..

I hope to visit calicut too, but not sure when, this year. have to try a few of those.

Anonymous said...


Am I delighted to have caused all of this drooly stuff with my comment on the Calicut heritage blog!

And to now introduce another dimension. While the Malabar Biryani is 'sweet' (as my sons say, substituting it for the last generation's 'cool'), so is the sea food, especially all forms of crustaceans.

Can we get a post on that too please?

Premnath.T.Murkoth said...

Malabar Biriyani has got a place it deserves.Thanks maddy

Anonymous said...

paragon biriyani really tasty

Maddy said...

Thanks premnath

phantom363 said...

i am surprised that 'kettle sahib' was not mentioned and his now rahmaniya's kethel kitchen spread all over kerala.

incidentally, for those who could read tamil, there is a heartwarming tamil story associated with kethal sahib, 'sotrukanakku'

wonderful blogs. getting addicted to it. thanks. :)

phantom363 said...

my wife make s great vegetable briyani, whose root recipe is from detroit tamil sangham :)