It was while reading Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, a seminal book by Colleen Taylor Sen, that I came across a mention of Qanoon-e-Islam, or The Customs of the Moosulmans of India. Published in London in 1832 and written by Ja’far Sharif, this fascinating book chronicles the rich food customs of the Indian muslims. What took me by surprise was this exhaustive list of 25 varieties of pulaos, listed by Sen that were prevalent at the time and were mentioned by Sharif. These included: the babune flavoured with chamomile; korma; mittha or the sweet rice made with rice, sugar, butter, spices and aniseed; the shashranga – a drier version of the mittha; tarl with rice, meat, turmeric and butter; soya; macchi; imli; dumpukht; zarda; koku with fried eggs; dogostha or two meats; mutanhan with meat, rice, butter and sometimes pineapple and nuts; haleem; lambni with cream, nuts, crystallised sugar and butter; jaman or made with jamun fruit; titar; bater; kofta; and khari chakoli with meat, vermicelli and green lentils.
Epicureans across the country have always been struggling to find a definition for the pulao, given that its origins are still shrouded in mystery. The Oxford Companion to Food defines it as a middle-eastern method of cooking rice so that every grain remains separate. According to Sen’s book, the descriptions of the basic technique appear in the 13th century Arab cookbooks, though the word ‘pulao’ was not used. The dish, with the actual word ‘pulao’ ascribed to it, might have been created in the early 16th century in the Safavid court of Persia. Over time, pulaos began to acquire lyrical names such as “gulazar, nur, koku and chambeli. Chefs sought to transform their pulaos into works of art. In one pulao, half of each grain of rice was coloured fiery red like a ruby and the other half was white and sparkled like a crystal, so that they together resembled seeds of a pomegranate,” writes Sen.
In culinary history, the pulaos have always served second fiddle to the biryanis, with the latter being feted and celebrated over centuries at royal courts, and later within fine dining spaces. However, pulaos have been quietly representing the rich tapestry of India’s community cooking. If one looks closely, you will see these historic rice preparations reflect personal memories, regional flavours, influences of past invaders and colonisers, customisation by families, and more.
It is while ruminating over all of this, that I decide to go on a pulao trail, looking at dishes from across the country which have been passed down through generations. The first on my list is the berry pulao, made popular by Boman Kohinoor of the iconic Britannia and Co, Mumbai. “This pulao can be traced back to Persia,” says Anahita Dhondy, chef manager, SodaBottleOpenerWala. For most diners, a meal at her restaurants is incomplete without a serving of the berry pulao. “Originally the rice was cooked in vegetable or chicken stock with mild spices. After this saffron, berries and a sprinkling of rose water was added to complete the dish,” she says. One can also savour this aromatic pulao at the Royal Vega, ITC Grand Chola, where it goes by its original name of zerasht pulao. There are many other pulaos and rice preparations that form a part of the Parsi culinary repertoire, which are mentioned in Vividh Vani, one of the earliest Parsi cookbooks written in the 1800s. “I have a copy of this book. Written in Gujarati, it contains a rice section and an egg section. All the pots and pans required for cooking are mentioned in great detail. The book was meant to be given to a newly-married girl or to someone who didn’t have much knowledge of cooking,” says Dhondy. It contains mentions of the mutton and chicken pulao, which are still cooked in Parsi kitchens.
While the berry pulao is not cooked at homes often – it’s more of a celebratory dish – the one dish which is cooked regularly in the Parsi household kitchen is the yakhni pulao. Versions of this pulao can be found from the Balkans to the subcontinent and has been cooked in Hyderabad and Delhi for centuries. Its origins can once again be traced to Persia is known for its nuanced, layered flavour. Sadia Dehlvi, in her new book Jasmine & Jinns, writes: “Personally, I prefer the yakhni pulao to the biryani as it is more nuanced…. Yakhni pulao is ideally had with arq-e-nana chutney, which is sweet. In summer, it is accompanied with simple raita. Yakhni literally means broth or stock. Since the rice is cooked in meat stock, it is called yakhni pulao.”
For Food & Wine India
By – Avantika Bhuyan
1. Bridget White Kumar
2. Anahita Dhondy
3. Odette Mascarenhas
4. Manjit Singh Gill