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Biryani is for all

By Muqbil Ahmar
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I looked around apprehensively as I slowly munched on my beef biryani. My furtive glances were met with derision from other eaters in the run-down Muslim restaurant. My mind was fraught with several questions. Did my biryani contain cow’s meat or buffalo’s as many people thought that it did? What if it actually contained cow’s meat? Is there really anyway to check, except for a scientific laboratory test? What if some bovine vigilante spotted me? What would my Hindu friends think if they saw me eating here? Would they boycott me?

Then my thoughts ventured to the other extreme? What if this is cow’s meat? Why should anyone get offended? I don’t take offence if someone has pork biryani. Can’t I eat of my own choice? What right do others have to impose their will on my culinary preferences? There are several regions of India, particularly the North East, where beef is widely consumed. And, it’s not that I only eat beef biryani; in fact, I am most often found gorging on chicken or mutton biryani.Beef biryani is popular among the middle and lower classes, particularly Muslims, also because of economic reasons. While chicken or mutton biryani would cost you anywhere between Rs 150 to 300 a plate, beef biryani usually comes for Rs 50. Cutting off beef will deprive a large chunk of the population of affordable animal protein. Anyway, it is indeed a sorry state of affairs that something meant to nourish had the potential to give me a headache. With the kind of vigilantism roaming the streets, there is terror in people minds. Isn’t this terrorism? If this isn’t terrorism then what is? Poor Akhlaq lost his life; little did he know that his food will turn into his killer. Paradoxical that our country continues to battle this question in the age of the Mars Rover.

Once, my mother packed me some beef meat balls for my train journey but advised me against eating in front of everyone. “Be careful son, times are not good.” And we talk about all kinds of freedom. Isn’t the freedom to eat as one wishes a basic human right? It is baffling to see the degree of politicization of an innocuous rice dish. Food has nothing whatsoever to do with religion and is a matter of personal preference. I have a number of Hindu and Christian friends who live to eat biryani every day.I love purisubzi as a lot of other Muslims. Does that make me less of a Muslim? Where does religion come into the picture unless of course we decide to make it the main course?

Historically, Biryani has been a symbol of the ganga-jamnatahzeeb, a meeting of cultures.That’s why it got assimilated into local cultures and people made it their own. No wonder, it is relished from the north to the south to the east to the west. From Pakistan (Sindhi Biryani) and Lucknow and Delhi in north India to Bengal in the east, to Telangana (Hyderabadi Biryani), Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala (Malabar and Thalassery Biryani) in the south, several distinct varieties of the dish have emerged, with each having its unique flavor—a testament to the universality of the biryani. Each region made the dish its own. So what if the dish came from Central Asia or Persia or Iran? it’s now India’s very own? The evolution of vegetable biryani is a case in point as many people in India are vegetarians. In fact, so much is the popularity that a Tamil movie was made called Biriyani.

Isn’t food meant to bring people closer? We eat to build relationships. A working lunch, a candle-light dinner—all of them center on the concept of breaking bread and making the other your own. Then, how did a dish come to cause rift between communities, leading to riots and conflicts—that too in a country that is one of the topmost exporters of beef. Ironical. A Christian person may want to have pork biryani or still further, a Chinese variation may have a good helping of reptiles of their choice. Similarly, there is fish or prawn biryani. Biryani like a huge canvas on which you can sprinkle any color. You can put in anything you want and make it your own. Maybe, it’s time to let the taste buds decide what they want on the palette.

The mind continued with its ramblings, even as I continued to stuff myself with my favorite dish.