Two of the most popular rice dishes in Pakistan are vying for top place. Walk up to a group of Pakistani nationals, ask them whether they are team biryani or pulao and watch the drama unfold. The debate is passionate. The Gulf News Food team knows because it is an ongoing inhouse argument too.
Both dishes, cherished in their own right, have their distinctive charms, so why the squabble? On days when the house would smell of caramelised onions, you instantly knew biryani was on the stove; a universal pulao giveaway is, of course, the mouth-watering waft of ‘yakhni’ (meat stock). Admit it – we’ve all snuck a sip of the broth like good soup.
But almost always, Pakistanis will keep coming back to the one in their books, touting it as the best of the best. Which one, you say? We put on our tin foil toques and extended our mics to the expat population in the UAE to find out. And they had a lot to say.
Heated food debate on social media
First, let’s talk about where the debate recently surfaced – on social media, where people are not afraid to speak their mind.
There were those who thought the spicy, tangy biryani will always outshine pulao.
Tweep @XilleIlahi wrote: “Pulao can take the beauty pageant. Biryani will always win the race.”
Twitter user @itsaliahmd thought it’s a red flag if someone prefers pulao: “When they prefer pulao over biryani.”
However, there were also plenty of diehard pulao fans ready to express their love for the hearty dish. Some of them were so serious about their love for all-things-pulao-related, they even refused to consider biryani as a dish.
Twitter user @LahoreMarquez had a personal account to share: “This pulao vs biryani debate always reminds me of Nani (grandmother), who till her last moment, refused to accept biryani as a dish and kept calling it Salan walay chawal (curried rice). I love biryani to death but [there’s no match for] pulao.”
Tweep @oyebajwey shared a similar opinion: “Unpopular opinion: Biryani is good but overrated. Pulao is better than biryani.”
User @AverageKay also tweeted that biryani is “overrated”: “I just don’t understand this obsession with biryani. It’s just another food. Why does it have to be perfect or everyone has to like it? Pulao and kabuli pulao over biryani anytime, anyway. Biryani is just overrated."
Twitter user @omarali50, who has been familiar with pulao, contemplated the popularity of biryani in Pakistan.
“I never had biryani till I was like 15. It was not a dish in our world at all. Now it is everywhere. I wonder when and why this happened. (Pulao was the thing in our world. but I am no longer sure what world that was; just our family? or all of rural-ish background Punjab?),” he tweeted.
The regional divide
Pakistani chef Aamir Abbasi has been in the culinary game since 1998. Over the phone, he tells us this isn’t his first biryani versus pulao comment – we were the third curious bunch.
Years of cooking professionally in Islamabad, Murree and, currently, the UAE has made the culinary debate in Pakistan very clear for Abbasi. His take is that biryani is famous in Karachi while Islamabad and Punjab cities like Rawalpindi and Lahore love their pulao.
He leaves us with a neutral statement: “Nothing can beat Karachi’s biryani, and nothing can beat Rawalpindi’s pulao.”
The world may lump biryani and pulao under the umbrella of meat and rice dishes, but only those truly passionate about their food know they differ greatly. Abbasi lays it out for us: “Pulao is very easy to cook; biryani is a long process because the rice and the meat gravy are prepared separately, layered in three tiers then steamed.”
Not everyone shares this opinion, however. We'll get to that a little later.
When it comes to pulao, it’s truly a one-pot dish in every sense. Your choice of boned meat, chicken or mutton, is boiled in spices for the hearty ‘yakhni’, where the rice goes too. Not one drop is wasted.
Numerous regional varieties haven’t helped us iron out the kinks, either. Depending on where your parents are from back in Pakistan, every ‘ghar ki biryani’ (house’s biryani) or ‘ghar ka pulao’ (house’s pulao) will come with its own twist.
Karachi is where biryani rules, while pulao has a hold on Punjab
Zain Ul Hassan, a 24-year-old sales engineer in cyber security, has lived in the UAE all his life, but takes his plate of chicken biryani like a true Karachite.
“It must have potatoes in it – I know people will disagree – and it should have good raita (yogurt with chopped vegetables, herbs and spices) to go with it. If there’s no raita, I won’t eat it,” Zain told Gulf News Food. “I think most Pakistanis prefer biryani because we have that kind of spicy, flavourful palate.”
Walking down the streets of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, you’re guaranteed to find a new flavour at every turn. Zain draws the scene for us: “You do find pulao in Karachi, but it’s easily outnumbered by biryani. Almost like how you get Karak chai in UAE, a biryani vendor is on every street there. They will have it three times a day; it’s not just a dinner thing. I’ve seen people have biryani for breakfast. Some places in Karachi only serve the dish from 8am to 12pm.”
You do find pulao in Karachi, but it’s easily outnumbered by biryani. Almost like how you get Karak chai in UAE, a biryani vendor is on every street there.
Sindhi, Hyderabadi and even Bombay or Mumbai biryani famously rule the hearts of Karachi’s Urdu-speaking community, generally known as Muhajirs (immigrants), who migrated from all parts of India many decades ago. While the Bombay or Mumbai and Sindhi varieties alternate between the sweetness of dried plums and savoury potatoes, the Hyderabadi pot is slow cooked using the ‘dum pukht’ steaming technique.
But undoubtedly, Sindhi biryani is most popular in the southern city of Karachi. Whereas in the eastern province of Punjab, where the food culture is slightly different and less spicy food is preferred, pulao is more popular.
What came first, pulao or biryani?
Let’s cut to the chase: Pulao came first. Why? Historians and reports have called biryani "the modern pulao".
But if the Pakistani social circles get a whiff of this – that biryani is thought to come from pulao – we’ll not be forgiven easily.
In hindsight, it hardly matters which rice and meat dish was cooked up first. Still, knowing the origins might scratch a satisfying itch for some (and supply pulao lovers with ammo).
So we put our tinfoil toques back on, sought high and low, only to conclude that no one really knows where either plate comes from. Was pulao whipped up in old Iran? Is biryani a concoction of the royal Mughal kitchens? All unclear, but here is the general consensus.
Biryani emerged in 1398, as far as I know.
Cooking rice in meat stock, like in pulao, is not a novel method of cooking. It’s been around for hundreds of years. Abbasi points out that in fourth century BC, Alexander the Great was served ‘pilaf’ in Bactria, which is modern day Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Famous Arab staple dish ‘mandi’ from Yemen is also cooked in stock.
The Sub-Continent has always enjoyed some variation of pulao. Then the Mughals came in with their Iranian, Turkish and Afghan influences, adding colour to the traditional rice-meat dish with a variety of spices. In fact, ‘biryani’, write historians, is derived from the Farsi word ‘birinj’ for rice.
The royal kitchens of the Mughal era were, no doubt, cooking up some semblance of biryani and pulao. “Biryani emerged in 1398, as far as I know,” Abbasi said.
No matter your preference, then, pulao may be the origin of biryani.
It’s all in the skill
Manzah Rizvi, a 25-year-old UAE expat from Karachi, cooks her own pot of biryani, carefully layering the rice and the chicken with gravy in neat levels. Despite the effort, Rizvi finds it an easier feat than pulao. And then she comes in strong with a low blow.
“People in Lahore think they make biryani but it’s actually pulao… the colour of the rice is similar but the taste is mild,” she told Gulf News Food.
People in Lahore think they make biryani but it’s actually pulao… the colour of the rice is similar but the taste is mild.
Ali Ashar, 23, and a blockchain security lead in Dubai, shares a similar sentiment: “Pulao is more popular in the Punjab region. Their biryani tastes like pulao at times. Biryani is a flavourful combination of spices that pulao doesn’t even come close to. It’s just boiled rice with a bit of meat flavour.”
Biryani is a flavourful combination of spices that pulao doesn’t even come close to. It’s just boiled rice with a bit of meat flavour.
We did manage to find a biryani fan who did not hail from Karachi. Meet Waleed Butt, an entrepreneur in Ajman with roots in Jhelum, Punjab, who describes his favourite dish of biryani in detail: “On Fridays, when you come back from the noon prayers, there should be biryani. When I make it, I put a lot of plums, cardamom and chili flakes – with the raita. There should raita with be a lot of diced cucumber, tomatoes and chaat masala. I’ve made pulao, but to be honest I’m terrible at it.”
On Fridays, when you come back from the noon prayers, there should be biryani.
For Dubai-based banker Maisam Rizvi, 27, pulao is just “too dry”. “No one in the family likes pulao; it’s too dry and there’s no masala. I’ve tried many variations, from public kitchens to home-cooked, but pulao still doesn’t amuse me. I haven’t tasted any good pulao dish – even though we add spices, you just can’t get that flavour,” he said.
No one in the family likes pulao; it’s too dry and there’s no masala.
However, for pulao lover and home cook, Munazzah Tariq, her version of pulao, which her mother taught her to make is a source of pride. The Sharjah resident who hails from Karachi said: “I prefer pulao, especially mutton pulao. I think biryani is easily made and everyone makes it but the art of making a good, aromatic pulao is no child’s play.
“My family has a special recipe that my mother shared with my siblings and me. It was handed down by my grandmother and she probably got it from her mother,” she added. If you keep reading on, Tariq has shared her recipe with Gulf News readers.
I think biryani is easily made and everyone makes it but the art of making a good, aromatic pulao is no child’s play.
For Tariq, making and enjoying pulao is a whole ritual. “It’s always been a tradition in my family to make it on special occasions, and of course a plate of pulao has to be accompanied by Shami Kebabs and raita. The dish is so liked by my father that he dedicated a poem to it.”
Family connection and food memories
University student Emen Ali, who hails from Pakistan’s Punjab province, has an emotional connection to having pulao – it reminds her of her Friday family lunch in Dubai. Her aunt’s recipe, which she remembers eating practically forever, adds an extra element of nostalgia.
“My love for pulao stems from my aunt's special recipe, which in my opinion, remains undefeated. From the aroma to the taste it has carried on with it a legacy like no other,” the 21-year-old said.
Reminiscing about her family gatherings, in which a hefty pot of steaming hot pulao was almost always the centerpiece, she said: “Pulao is also symbolic of many fond memories I have with my family in Dubai. It was the dish that united all my extended family together for Friday lunches.”
Pulao is also symbolic of many fond memories I have with my family in Dubai. It was the dish that united all my extended family together for Friday lunches
She said: “I believe in this pulao-biryani rivalry, culture and where you're from, how you make the dish plays a major role. In Pakistan, people from Karachi are fonder of biryani and take pride in using it as a souvenir to represent their city. Whereas, people from Lahore and north-west part of the country enjoy making pulao in their own way and exhibit it like an artisanal creation from their region.”
While the debate continues on which Pakistani rice dish is superior, one thing is clear - spicy food lovers lean towards biryani and those with a taste for hearty, meaty dishes prefer pulao. Whatever your taste, we have recipes for you to make the delicacies at home…
Yakhni Pulao recipe
Recipe courtesy: Munazzah Tariq
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 50 minutes
1 kg rice
2 big red onions
250 gms yoghurt
1 tsp garam masala
10 to 11 whole green cardamoms
8 to 10 cloves
10 to 15 whole black pepper
2 to 3 bay leaves
3 tbsp ginger-garlic paste
2 to 3 tbsp kewra water
¼ tsp red powdered food colour
Ghee or vegetable oil as required
Salt to taste
3 cups of water
1 kg mutton
2 red onions
100 gms whole coriander seeds
4 tbsp fennel seeds
3 to 4 black cardamoms
3-inch piece of cinnamon
2 to 3 garlic cloves
2 tbsp ginger paste
1 tsp salt
1. To make the stock, add all the spices and meat to the water and boil until the meat is and tender. It takes around 30 minutes.
2. In a separate pot, slice the onions and fry it in ghee until golden brown and then remove the onions using a slotted spoon.
3. In the same ghee, add all the whole spices with the garlic and ginger paste and yoghurt. Then cook the mixture until it's aromatic.
4. Strain the stock with a sieve to separate all the whole spices and meat. Then discard the spices and separate the meat. Keep the clear stock separate.
5. Add the meat to the spice and yoghurt mixture and fry the meat for a few minutes before adding the clear broth and rice to the pot.
6. Boil the rice on high heat and add salt to taste. Once the rice starts to boil, lower the heat and cover the pot. Leave it to simmer.
7. When the rice is about to be done, add kewra water and sprinkle food colour on top. It can also be garnished with fried onions.
Chicken Biryani recipe
Recipe courtesy: Nabeela Tabassum
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes
750 gms rice
2 tbsp white vinegar
2 tbsp cooking oil
2 black cardamom
2 green cardamom
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
2 litres water
Biryani food colouring mixed in 4 tbsp of milk
For chicken gravy
750 gms chicken
100 gms ghee or clarified butter
2 red onions, thinly sliced
2 tomatoes, chopped
2 tbsp of ginger-garlic paste, equal portions
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp red chilli powder
1 tbsp coriander powder
1 tbsp cumin powder
A pinch of chilli flakes
A pinch of black pepper powder
A pinch of nutmeg and mace powder
1 cinnamon stick
1 black cardamom
8 to 10 dried plums
100 gms or a bunch of green coriander
100 gms or a bunch of mint leaves
2 green chillis
1 bay leaf
1 ½ cup of water
1 cup of yoghurt
1. Wash rice, soak in water for 20 minutes and keep it aside.
2. Wash your chicken thoroughly and prepare your chicken cuts as per preference.
3. Now chop your tomatoes, green chillis and onions; do the same with your greens: coriander and mint leaves.
For chicken gravy
1. Heat ghee or clarified butter in a pot over a medium flame. Add bay leaf, one black cardamom, one cinnamon stick with the sliced onions.
2. When onions are slightly brown, add your ginger and garlic paste and sauté for a few seconds.
3. Now add chicken to the pot and keep stirring for six to seven minutes until the flavours are absorbed.
4. Quickly add in your chopped tomatoes, salt, red chilli powder, coriander powder, cumin powder, black pepper powder, nutmeg and mace, and the chilli flakes to the pot.
5. Keep stirring on heat for another six to seven minutes, then pour in 1 ½ cup of water.
6. Cover with lid and let the chicken simmer for eight minutes.
7. Once the water evaporates, add a cup of yoghurt, dried plums, chopped green chilli and half of both fresh coriander and mint leaves. Reserve the rest for later.
8. Stir the chicken till the yoghurt thickens then remove from heat.
1. Fill a pot with two litres of water, add all dry spices (cloves, black cardamom, green cardamom, cinnamon stick and star anise), white vinegar and cooking oil to boil.
2. After the first boil, add in your rice to the water. Give the pot a stir, so that all your spices are distributed evenly.
3. Once the rice is 90 per cent done, remove from heat and drain the water. Test this by pinching a grain of rice between fingers, and when you release your fingers, only a tiny dot of the grain should be left behind.
4. For the next step, keep your chicken pot nearby.
Time to mix them together
5. To layer your rice and chicken gravy, put another empty pot on low heat and smear a layer of ghee or clarified butter at the bottom.
6. Now dole out half of your cooked rice and layer it at the bottom; then layer your chicken gravy on top. Spoon out the remaining rice for the final tier over the chicken.
7. Garnish with the remaining coriander and mint leaves, then randomly stain the rice with your food colouring milk mix in different corners of the pot.
8. Cover with lid to steam or dum the biryani on low heat for 12 minutes.
9. Once done, allow your pot to rest for a few minutes before serving with raita.
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