One of the many eternal food questions in Dubai is where to get the best biryani. Fat boulders of lamb, chicken or even tender fish fillet baked under spiced rice has won over the collective food conscience of this culturally diverse city. Such is the sway of biryani in this region – or even the world, since MS Word Auto-Correct seems to slap you on the wrist for spelling it as ‘biryouni’ or ‘baryani’ – that this luxurious dish of royalty has become a staple commodity on many an Indian, Pakistani, Arabic and Iranian restaurant menu.
Yet, since I started blogging three years ago, I have deflected the best-of-biryani bullet every single time it was shot my way. I have simply never come across a mesmerizing biryani experience like the one we have at home. Mum’s biryani traps you in its fragrant layers even before you pull up a chair at her table. The house wafts with the aroma of whole spices, basmati rice and slow-cooked meat, all of which collectively dangle a pocket watch in front of your taste buds, hypnotizing them through unrestrained gluttony until an overstuffed belly yanks you back to harsh physiological realities: a groaning stomach, or worse, an unconsciously undone zipper.
With its Persian origins, I figured the Iranians in town would have the key to the perfect biryani. They seem to have access to the best ingredients: the purest saffron, the highest quality rice, the best cuts of meat – all the makings of an enticing biryani mix. So I asked the owner of my neighbourhood Iranian spice shop, a discerning gentleman who has been coaching me on Iranian cuisine since the start of the year: Where do YOU get the best mutton and rice biryani?
His response was baffling: That is not Persian.
I nearly laughed, stuttered and spat at the same time. Preposterous! I was ready to dive into a detailed description of an Iranian biryani I had once enjoyed at Abshar – very different from the commercially over-spiced Indo-Pak biryanis and infinitely more fragrant in the way that Persian pilafs generally are. I was ready to pull out every historical reference, challenging him with the wisdom of medieval culinary books and etymology, when he shook his head and nonchalantly purred with his sugar-tipped Persian drawl: The only biryani I’ve had in Iran was in Isfahan. It has nothing to do with the biryani you get in Dubai – it has no rice. Just meat and it is very, very rich.
What?! But Biryani comes from Berenj, meaning rice!
Biryani comes from Beryan, which means fried.
At that eye-opening Farsi moment, the entire restaurant universe on Maktoum Street, a street I’ve walked on since 1989, suddenly came into sharp focus. I’d passed by a Beriani Isfahan restaurant a countless number of times over the past three years and never thought twice about it. Suddenly, I was ONLY thinking about it. Would they serve this peculiar Isfahani rice-less biryani?
They would. They would indeed serve the beriani that my Farsi mentor had spoken of and this is what it looks like:
No rice. Only a fried meat patty crowned with walnuts and almonds, snuggled into folds of a tender taftoon bread. The patty had a brutally browned crust which hinted of an overdone slab of rubbery meat, but it surprisingly collapsed into a soft moist lamb mince as we forked through it.
True to my Persian culinary tutor, the meat was incredibly rich and fatty. The overbearing taste of lamb enveloped every bite of meat that had been boiled on the bone in a broth of onions and spices, torn off of the bone, minced, fried and then baked right before serving. The boiling broth had been reserved and splashed over crumbled taftoon chunks, serving this moistened bread snack in a bowl alongside the patty.
The whole dish grunted with the strong gamey flavour of kashk (preserved goat’s milk yoghurt), even none had been used to prepare the dish. If I could stomach the sensation of sniffing through a barn of goats, I might have gone back for seconds of a kabab that was texturally intriguing and thoughtfully prepared.
If you think I've gone off my rails in a mad quest to boost blog traffic by sparking a biryani controversy, watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxc8SZcSrFM
Now that that's been proven, let's talk about the other dishes which are less shocking and conceptually easier to digest. We were admittedly roaring with hunger by the time we got to the restaurant, so we fell over the food like unruly hooligans who could devour styrofoam without a blink. Despite that vulnerable condition, I’d go back for…
The bamia stew, a meaty tomato broth that transformed slimy okra into plump fingers of flavour which touched my stomach in happy places I'd never normally allow okra to go.
We ravaged through rice pilafs and meats, occasionally pausing to praise a joojeh (chicken) kabab here, a skewer of lamb koobideh there. Or to praise the fat wobbly lamb shank as it dangled its creamy meat over a pool of homemade tomato sauce with – quite shockingly – sodden French fries.
I feel thoroughly disgusted with myself in admitting that the fries in the broth actually worked. Their sweet fried oils seeped out into the gravy, making the dish undeniably comforting even though this insolent Westernized move would have left medieval Persian cooks tossing about in their graves.
Let's be clear - I may not have found the dish that will help me answer the best-of-biryani question in the city. I may not have made twitter friends after announcing that I'd found an interesting Biryani in Old Dubai, and now sharing something that's light years away from the rice and mutton image that makes tongues weep with drool. But I have definitely found a dish that will help me dodge the biryani bullet with more grace the next time around: Don’t know the best biryani, but did you know that in Isfahan…
Phone: 04-234 0093
Right after you cross the Etisalat junction, Maktoum Street, Deira. See my google maps link.
By My Top 10 Food Surprises in Iran | I Live in a Frying Pan 23 Apr ’14 at 12:40 pm
You should try the Turkish version of “beyran”, from the Gaziantep region. Not sure it’s possible to find in Dubai though.
Hanim, now you’ve got me started me on a beyran hunt ;)
I rather suspect the rice was added once it left Persia :)
That’s what I suspect too Geordie Armani. But I need more sources of research….that, or I can just give up on the food history and eat more biryani. ;)
chicken kabab is luking awesome
Intrigued….slimy okra – no! Lamb stew with chips in – yes please. Learned many new things not just the beriani question, as always.
Now, now, slimy okra is good for you Sally. Have you had the Iranian way? If you did, I fear you *might* be converted.
I didn’t grow up in Iran but my dad is Iranian and at home we never ever had biryani. We had pollo – rice mixed with meat, veg, herbs, etc depending on the recipe. If you look at Iranian cookbooks, you won’t find anything called Biryani ;-) Interesting that biryani comes from berenj…there are loads of links between indian and persian cultures.
When I came to Dubai, I was surprised to find biryani and loads of other non-iranian food (hummous, etc) in iranian restaurants but they are not typical food from Iran as far as I know. In fact, I have tried so many iranian restaurants here and am so disappointed most of the time with their khoresh and pollos.
One iranian dish that is really nice and that reminds me of what you mention in this article is Khoresh Geimeh, with split peas, french fries sometimes and dried lemons. My mom used to make it when I was a kid and it was soooooooo good. And my mom being Belgian, she really knows how to make good french fries…mmmmmm…
What an honour to read your comment Ariana! Totally love reading your book and use it as my go-to source for Iranian food and stories. Gotta find a restaurant that does Koresht Geimeh…or I will have to get my cookery act together and just make it at home.
Now I’m hungry – this looks AMAZING.
South Asian biryani did Come from Iran. But we call it polo like in Pakistan and India they say pulao. Polo is rice that is parboiled then layered with other ingredients. The nawabs brought Persian chefs to India and they combined iranian flavours and methods with South Asian flavours to make biryani. But in Farsi like you said, beryani is a pattie of ground meat eaten with bread as a speciality of Isfahan.