I still haven’t quite figured out the spelling. Is it Biriyani or Biryani? I tried the latter spelling on my last blog about it, its time to try the former one now. A rose by any other name…
In any case, I found myself in Kochi (or Cochin) which, interestingly enough, has its own direct claim to the original biriyani. There seems to be little doubt that biriyani, along with horses and melons and Taj Mahal domes came from tied to the coattails of Muslim travellers. in the case of the Malabar Coast, the travellers came in the form of seafaring traders, who seem to have teamed up with the Shettys and started their own biriyani outlets without bothering to consult the Lakhnavis. Indeed, Google tells me the Malabar Moplah biriyani bears a remarkable resemblance to the Yemeni Mandi (no, I haven’t tried the mandi myself).
Mattancherry is where many of Kochi’s Muslims settled down, and Mattancherry is also were Kayeekas started fifty years ago. To make life easier in the jet age, I didn’t even have to travel to Mattancherry for it; there was an outlet right around the corner from my office, and it even had a shorter, more jet age name – Kayees. Google told me their prawn biriyani is to die for, but I didn’t feel like putting my life on the line just yet (I’m allergic to prawns) and so was glad to hear that prawn is, for them, a “special item” (the person at the counter, in fact, did not seem particularly enthused about it). Their most popular version is mutton biriyani – they advised me to give it a try.
The biriyani was white (no saffron), had lots of nuts and raisins, came with pickle, raita and rather unusually – a date chutney (probably from its Arab influences). It was also incredible – significantly different from the lucknow-kolkata varieties but one of the tastiest biriyanis I’ve had in a while. A much milder biriyani, loaded with ghee and cashews, rich soft mutton smells permeating everywhere – its the perfect start to biriyani adventures in mallu-land. Adding the sweet-sour date chutney adds a whole extra dimension to an already great biriyani. Esctatic, I wanted to try the chicken biriyani too, but eventually wiser counsel prevailed.
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The first stop may have been great but I wasn’t about to end my biriyani adventures yet. The famed Malabar fish biriyani was still lurking somewhere, and I wasn’t about to let that pass. Surprisingly, fish biriyani isn’t as widely available in Kochi as we outsiders seem to imagine, but a bit of research by my colleague yielded The Woods Manor, a hotel loosely affiliated to the Woodlands chain of elsewhere in India (even the address is Woodlands Junction)but nevertheless (the manager assured me repeatedly) completely local in both decor and cuisine. They don’t believe in modesty (the hotel is advertised as a “heavenly stop-over”) and you get generous helpings of Malabar Baroque with your food, but they did have the fish biriyani which isn’t part of their regular buffet (which did have some incredible avial) but was made for us on “special request”. Not unlike Kayees, this whole “special request” business
Our special order Fish Biriyani landed up in a small container, sealed in a roti. Very different biriyani from Kayees the day before (which had come heaped on a plate, served from a huge degchi), this one was what is apparently known as the Malabar Moplah style – a much spicier, darker dum-biriyani with helpings of chopped mint. Again, very good, though a little too strongly spiced for me to put it on a favourite list (I have grown up thinking of biriyani as more smell than taste). The fish, though, seemed like an afterthought – as if the restaurant decided a fish biriyani was needed, took out the mutton and added the fish. The smells of the biriyani did not complement the fish entirely – I finally ate the (very tasty) rice parts and the (average) fish parts separately, to excellent results. Both biriyanis, I must say, were quite good – fragrant, tasty and definitely not curry-rice.
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Kayees was clearly a great biriyani (up there with the Shiraz’s of the world) but Woods, while still very good, was not great. Primarily, it wasn’t really a fish biriyani – more like a good mutton biriyani with the meat taken out and fish put in. I think fish biriyani should incorporate the aroma of fish in the same way as a mutton biriyani does – that I didn’t see happen in Woods. Cookbook research leads me to discover that Moplah Fish (or prawn or mussel) biriyani uses aniseed (similar to saunf or fennel but sweeter) as the primary spice, so maybe more exploration is required. Aniseed is a very unusual spice, common in the Mediterranean (though primarily as a way to get drunk) but not so frequently used in India. Kochi, here I come again… sometime…