The Mauritian Biryani is steeped in a rich culinary history dating back to the Mughal Empire but drawing its roots essentially from the Hydrabadi cuisine. The complexity and the skill required to prepare, cook and serve this dish marks it as one of the finest delicacies in Mauritius. Biryani, which is traditionally a Muslim dish for special occasions, has become a popular dish in Mauritius, cutting across all the cultural and ethnic spheres. It goes to the credit of the Bhandaris (lascar seamen working as cooks on ships) who spread the tradition of Biryani in Mauritius.
Biryani is a fragrant rice dish made from a mixture of spices, long-grained Basmati rice, meat and yoghurt. The name is derived from the Persian word, Birian, meaning "fried before cooking". Biryani was invented by the Mughals in the 1600s. It was an improvement upon the ordinary Persian pulao, which was a one-pot army dish mixed with rice and meat. The Mughal Emperors, who were fond of luxury, perfection, magnificence and fine dining, wanted to create a grandiose dish that can be cooked in large-scale and convenient to serve to thousands of guests at the royal court on special occasions. The Mughals tasked their chefs to prepare a perfect recipe using the best ingredients, the premium basmati rice, the prime cuts of meat, the most exotic spices and the highly prized aromas and scents, including the precious zafraan. They also conceived a special utensil in the form of metal pot known as Deg, for the cooking of Biryani. The Deg is designed in a conical shape, with large bottom and narrow neck such that it is very appropriate for cooking over a slow fire, known as "dum" style of cooking. The shape of the Deg allows the steam to condense and roll down the sharp slope back into the food and contributes to the spread of aroma, flavor and texture of the meat, spices and herbs to spread to the rice. In this respect, it is important to fill the Deg only to ¾ so that there is adequate space for the cyclic effect of the steam to occur.
The system of cooking food in Deg was first introduced by Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605). He got installed at Ajmer Sharif a huge Deg that could cook 2400 kgs of food. His son Emperor Jahangir (1605-1627) presented a Deg twice bigger in size that could cook 4800 kgs of food to be served to around 5,000 people at a single gathering.
During the Mughal rule, Luknow was known as Awadh, giving rise to Awadhi Biryani. The Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707) brought Biryani to Hyderabad when he invaded the South of India. It was Tipu Sultan (1750-1799) who introduced Biryani to Mysore. It was customary for the royal families and nawabs to be accompanied by their chefs during their travels and overseas trips and thus they left the imprint of Biryani in places they visited. Be it in the North or South of India, Biryani was par excellence a royal dish for the royal families, Nawabs and Nizams. Hyderabad was renowned for the spectacular way its aristocracy was entertained during the banquets. Tipu Sultan's envoys led by Prince Akbar Ali Khan, who sailed to Mauritius in 1798, must have been accompanied by their chef and must have surely introduced Biryani in their banquets to local guests during the couple of weeks their ships harboured in Port Louis.
While the style of preparing Biryani, with almost the same ingredients, remains the same everywhere, there are two distinct processes and methods of obtaining the end products: the Pakki Biryani and the Kacchi Biryani. In the Pakki Biryani, which is the footprint of Luknowi or Awadi Biryani in Northern India, the rice and the meat with sauces are pre-cooked separately and they are afterwards layered together in the Deg for the final stage of cooking via "dum" method. "Dum" means slow cooking in a sealed container placed on low fire. The best effect of "dum" can be obtained through wood fire in which the chef skillfully interplays between the flame and amber charcoal.
The Hydrabadi Biryani is traditionally made with raw meat and uncooked ingredients and is known as Kacchi Biryani. The raw meat and rice are both cooked together in the Deg to the right Degree. The meat is marinated for several hours in yoghurt and spices and is placed at the bottom of the Deg. It is then covered with several layers of rice followed by sprinkling of brown onions and zafran scents. After this delicate preparatory process is completed, the Deg is covered with its lid and sealed with wheat dough to prevent the steam from escaping and to allow the Biryani to cook to perfection in its own steam over a low flame. The seal is not broken till the moment when the Biryani is ready to serve.
The Mauritian Biryani is cooked according to the Kacchi (raw) method and resembles closely the Hydrabadi Biryani. There are several reasons to substantiate that the Mauritian Biryani originates from Southern India and not from Northern India despite the fact that the bulk of the Muslim immigrants came from North-eastern part of the sub-continent as from 1834 onward. Although the Biryani in Calcutta evolved from the Luknow style, it was not until 1857 that Biryani was introduced in Bengal following the exile of Lucknow's last Nawab, Wajid Ali Shah to Calcutta. The personal Khansama (Chef) who accompanied the Shah in his exile, came with his Biryani recipe which was essentially the Pakka style. It would be farfetched to assume that the poor and desperate indentured labourers at Calcutta port could have afforded to get the slightest hint of this new luxurious dish before embarking on ships to Mauritius.
Mauritius is probably the only place where the Chef of the Biryani is known as Bhandari. In Northern India as well as in the Hydrabadi tradition, the common vocabulary for Chef is Khansama or Bawarchi or Rakabdars. In the Glossary of Lascar Occupations kept by the Maritime History Archive, Bhandari is listed as the crew's cook or lascar seaman equivalent to cook. The Bhandari Community is concentrated on the sea-coast of South-West India and is traditionally engaged in sea-faring activities. The tradition of Biryani in Mauritius has been, no doubt, transmitted through the maritime connectivity and later on it was further enhanced by Cokni Muslims (sea-faring community originating from the Cokun region of the Malabar coast) and subsequent waves of Muslim merchants.
During the frequent docking of ships at Port Louis harbor, the Bhandaris had the opportunity to interact with the local people and few of them even settled in Mauritius after getting married to Mauritian partners. At the outset, Biryani was limited to a small circle of well-to-to families who always took the pride of hosting this luxurious dish at wedding functions. In the olden days, many of the Mauritian families who would have wished to offer Biryani on wedding occasions, could not do it either because they could not afford it or have the service of a genuine Bhandari. In the preceding generation, the Bhandaris were so scarce, that one could count them on fingers about their availability on the whole island. It was for this reason that in many weddings, the hosts had recourse to plain rice with dholl gosht (meat in lentils) and this practice was still in existence until the 1950s.
It was the Cokni families who played a bigger role in vulgarizing the tradition of Biryani in Mauritius. They have been the owners of traditional tea-shops, such as Pakistan Hotel, Hotel Providence, Hotel Soopee and Zamaney Hotel (just opposite to the harbour), where Mauritians from all walks of life could relish the delicious Biryani. The wealthy Muslim merchants had the means of not only retaining the services of chefs from India or Pakistan but also the generosity of offering Biryani to thousands of people thronging to religious events like Yaum-un-Nabi (birthday of Prophet Muhammad P.B.U.H) and Urs (ceremony of collective remembrance in honour of Sufi Saints).
The Mauritian Biryani, despite being of Hydrabadi style, has inherited one distinct feature from the Calcutta Biryani: the use of potatoes. At the time when Biryani was introduced in Calcutta, the city was facing severe recession, making it difficult to afford meat; hence the recourse to potatoes. The Mauritian Biryani distinguishes itself by making smart use of potatoes to absorb the stock of spices at the base of the Deg during the cooking process and to act as preventive buffer against sticking and burning.
The challenge in the art of cooking Kacchi Biryani is the skill to cook the meat till tender without overcooking the rice. The Bhandari or Chef must know the right proportion of each ingredient and item that are placed in the Deg. There must not be too much water or oil that will make the Biryani sticky or not too less of it that will burn the spices at the bottom. The golden rule of the Bhandari is never to open the lid of the Deg, once it is on fire, until the Biryani is fully cooked. A professional Bhandari can be able to know whether the Biryani is perfectly cooked just by smelling the wafting scent or by putting his hand closer to the neck of the Deg from where the steam leaks out of the seal – if he feels some moisture, he will know that there is still some liquid at the bottom of the Deg. If the steam is dry, then he must instantly starts controlling the fire to avoid the risk of burning the spices.
There is an art of serving Biryani to the guests. After opening the Deg, the Bhandari uses his "jharna" (a large spatula with long handle) to dig out the Biryani from the Deg in vertical order from top to bottom layers and load it on a "seni" (a large copper serving tray). When serving the dish, the Bhandari takes a bit of rice from the top layer which is normally fluffy, a bit of rice form the middle which is moister and some meat and spices from the bottom layer and dexterously mix them all together before putting it on the plates of the guests. A well-cooked Biryani may miss to give the optimum taste if it is miserved by an inexperienced waiter. It is an integral part of the mehman nawazi (etiquette of entertaining guests) to ensure that all the guests at the table are well served and with equal consideration to all.
In the recent past, the preparatory phase of Biryani was indeed a folklore. On the eve of cooking the Biryani, the entire family and relatives would assemble or a team of volunteers was constituted around the Bhandari to help him in the painstaking tasks of cutting, chopping, peeling or crushing the various ingredients. All these tasks were performed manually and at times till late in the night. Today, much of this folklore has faded out because most of the manual tasks are performed by fast-performing machines. With these new facilities at hand, a professional Bhandari needs a very small team of assistants to manage and supervise the cooking of dozens of Degs of Biryani simultaneously.
In the post-Independent Mauritius, Biryani became the popular dish accessible to every common citizen wishing to taste it. It is being notoriously used by NGOs and political parties to gratify and mobilize their audiences. There are several factors that contributed to the widespread outreach of Biryani: improvement in the living standards of Mauritians; exposure to the culture of Biryani through travel and modern technologies and communications; modern food-processing equipment and improved cooking facilities, availability of Basmati rice at affordable prices and wider circulation of Biryani recipes. However, cooking authentic Biryani is not as easy as it may sound in many recipes. It requires lot of attention and patience to make sure that the Biryani may not end up with over-cooked rice or under-cooked meat and that the taste and flavor do not get impaired by improper dosage of ingredients, spices and water. Certain tricks of cooking Biryani cannot be captured by recipes as they happen to be intuitive skills and experiences that are passed on from generation to generation.
"This article is a tribute to Abdool Rahman Toonah (1895-1965) alias Bolom Tonti, a genuine Bhandari of patriarch-style whom we affectionately called "Dada" (Grand-father). Without any child to inherit and emulate him, he transmitted his knowledge and techniques of cooking Biryani to a handful of privileged disciples of Triolet, including my late Dad, who have upheld his culinary skill till today. Abdool Rahman was a man ahead of his time who would discuss everything from politics to religion and cinema. He was a smart gentleman, always dressed in Western coat and trousers with a Turkish cap on his head. In the 1940s and 1950s, he was the rare village notable to have a chauffeur-driven car. His cosy house was surrounded by a garden of rose flowers and a small orchard of rare fruits. At a time when radio and electricity was not yet available in the villages, he possessed a hand-powered gramophone which used to play the discs of Kallu Qawal. He was indeed a man of refined taste. It goes to his credit to have democratised the cooking techniques of biryani which was, hitherto, a secret recipe among the aristocrats."