Thalassery Biryani: The South Indian Cousin of the Famous Mughlai Dish

   |  Updated: July 21, 2015 18:16 IST

Thalassery Biryani: The South Indian Cousin of the Famous Mughlai Dish
Over the years, Thalassery biryani has made a name for itself in the biryani world, rivaling the best with its subtle complexity. The pièce de résistance of Mappila cuisine, Thalassery biryani differs from the Mughlai biryani in a few important ways. Unlike the Mughlai variant, where the meat is tenderised by marinating it in yoghurt for several hours (a classic Persian technique), Thalassery biryani does not rely on yoghurt to give the meat its characteristic fall-off-the-bone quality. Instead, the almost melt-in-your-mouth meat and soft, fluffy rice are a result of hours of keeping them on dum, which is a technique where a vessel is sealed, usually with a strip of dough, and heated from both the top as well as underneath.

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Another difference between the Mughlai and Thalassery biryani is that the ghee rice or nei choru is cooked separate from the meat and later layered along with the masala. And unlike the basmati rice used in the Mughal kitchens, Thalassery biryani gets its characteristic aroma from the short-grained jeerakashala (khaima) rice used. Finally, what sets the Thalassery biryani apart from all the variations around the country is the garam masala used - it contains eight spices, and oddly enough, unlike other types of biryani, it uses Thalassery black pepper with a much lighter hand, though some households omit it altogether.
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Patience is the Key

While we wait for the biryani to arrive, I ask if I can look around the restaurant. I’m graciously allowed entry into the pantry where I watch the cooks in action. On one corner sits a giant vat of onions with its thin papery peel almost taking over the entire floor, and two men propped up on stools peeling away with the precision and ease of those who have spent years doing just so. Through a window, I watch the men in the kitchen plating biryani from two gigantic chembe that sit next to a fireplace.

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With two plates in hand, they scoop the rice out of the vessel, letting it fall back in a second later and repeating this motion until he’s satisfied that the rice is now fluffy enough. He then scoops it out one last time, and transfers it onto a banana leaf that’s stacked up high next to the take away window. In one deft motion, he wraps the leaf around the biryani, and it is ready to go.

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I wander back to my table, ready to dig in, the sights and sounds of the pantry whetting my already ravenous appetite. Soon after, two plates of raita, mango pickle and coconut-coriander chutney are placed before us - the trusty accompaniment of the Thalassery biryani. It feels like a slow tease, but a few minutes later a waiter bustles in, unceremoniously plunks the biryani down on the table and hurries away.  

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It is a small plate of chicken biryani, the rice forming a great mound, with a few crispy onions and coriander garnishing the top. Without further ado, we serve ourselves. It smells of ghee, coriander and slow cooked meat. We taste our first mouthful. We are hooked. Another variation that leaves an impression is the one with prawns. If you would like to try it at home, here's the recipe: Shrimp Tellicherry Biryani


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