Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The billion dollar Pulao – Biriyani – Fried Rice confusion!

The other day, I had been to a Darshini (one of the many standby restaurants in Bangalore) where I happened to order a 'Biriyani'. As we were waiting, the boy at the counter announced “Veg rice ready”. As expected, what came to the table was a blob of yellow rice with some under-cooked beans, tomatoes and carrots. Needless to say, it was miles away from a Biriyani.

In several parts of India, especially South India, the words ‘Veg rice’, ‘Pulav’, ‘Biriyani’, ‘Tomato Rice’ and ‘Brinji’ tend to be used interchangeably. To add to the chaos, there are innumerable posts in the blogosphere that chronicle about the ‘Best Pulao ever made with left over rice’ or ‘Instant cooker biriyani’ and one cannot help but wonder what is what.

I was in such a situation a few years back. However, I wanted to get a clear idea and hence decided to do a bit of research J. Here are my research findings peppered with a bit of history:

  • Pulao is derived from the Turkish word Pilaf. It is the Indian answer to the Turkish/Persian rice challenge. Pilaf/Polow is a staple in many middle eastern and Balkan countries. The traditional recipe calls for boiling aromatic long grain rice with vegetables or occasionally, meat. The criteria for the dish to be called a Pulao is that the rice has to be fluffy, long-grained and non-sticky and the flavours mild. Hereafter, you won’t feel stupid and left out when Vicky Ratnani teaches you how to make a great Pilaf on NDTV Goodtimes!
Veg Pulao with Raita

  • Biriyani entered India with the Mughals. In fact, it is said to have been invented in their kitchens. For a rice dish to be classified as Biriyani, it has to satisfy the following criteria:    

  1. Fluffy, non-sticky long grained rice to be used.
  2. Loads of spices to be used.
  3. Generally meat based, but can be vegetarian too
  4. Most important!!!!!! – HAS TO BE COOKED ON DUM! Rice and veggies cooked separately and then layered and cooked covered in low heat to infuse the flavor into the dish. This holds especially for the non-vegetarian versions.
Veg dum Biriyani, ready to be mixed and plated

  •  Fried rice is of Chinese origin. Ha! Don’t we all know that, courtesy, the many ‘Chainese Frid rice, Gopi Manchoori stalls’ all over the place? Fresh cooked rice is too moist to be fried. Hence, the best choice of rice for this dish is left over rice or rice cooked and cooled for a couple of hours.  The second most important and often overlooked need is a hot wok/kadhai/pan.  Thirdly, the sauces play a significant role too - soya, chilli, schezwan etc.  and oh yeah, vinegar shouldn't be forgotten. Just by adding gram masala and ginger garlic paste and frying rice on a hot wok, one cannot expect to have a plate of ‘Fried rice’!
Fried rice served with stir fried Tofu
  • Tomato Rice - This is quite popular in South India, especially as a lunchbox favourite. This can be loosely equated to a Pulao having only tomatoes, onions and garlic and devoid of all other vegetables.
  • Brinji or Veg rice - These terms are used mostly in Tamilnadu. They are the 'raw rice' equivalents of Pulao, but with fewer spices. Bay leaves and fennel are the commonly used spices.

Henceforth, if you are ordering a plate of biriyani at a restaurant, you will exactly know what to look out for! What’s more, you will know how to protest when someone tries to pass off a plate of pulao for fried rice!

Watch out this space for some delectable Pulao/Biriyani recipes!


  1. Good to know the different varieties of Vegetable name!

    Indu Sundaresan has written nicely about Mughal cooking in her 'Twentieth Wife' book. It was interesting!

    1. :) Not just the names, but the cooking methods are also different.