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RE-ENVISION: Biryani & Pilau

RE-ENVISION is an ongoing series of research memos produced by our associates at Appetite. We trace the cultural genealogies of food from around the world to challenge commonly held beliefs about origin and authenticity.

Biryani and pilau are two popular rice dishes commonly found not only in India, but also around the world, from Italy to the Caribbean. Given the immense variety in types of biryani and pilau, the two can overlap in many ways. 

Generally speaking, however, biryani features the layering of lightly fried and spiced rice with meat and vegetables, with the layers cooked in a slow pot. In contrast, pilau tends to use fewer spices, with more flavour coming from rice cooked in meat stock. Unlike biryani, pilau is rarely layered.1 It is served as a side dish, while biryani is more often the main dish.2 Regardless, the global reach of biryani and pilau is indisputable, given the extensive history of trade and exchange that underlies these iconic staples made popular in Indian food tradition. 

Native to the region, there is a long history of rice cultivation and consumption in India.3 As early as 2 CE, Tamil records have mentioned a rice dish known as “Oon Soru,” which has remarkable similarities to biryani. Originating from India’s southern Malabar coast and fed to military warriors, Oon Soru consisted of rice, ghee, meat, turmeric, coriander, pepper, and bay leaf.4 Oon Soru may not be originally Indian, however, as some attribute the dish to Arab traders who travelled frequently to the Malabar coast.5 Several centuries later, Iranian scholar Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni (973-1048) mentioned rice dishes similar to biryani consumed by sultans who ruled parts of India.6

Biryani and pilau did not become truly popular until the arrival of the Mughals, a Muslim empire with Turko-Mongol roots that ruled most parts of the Indian subcontinent between 1526 to 1857 CE.7 The Mughal Empire melded Persian, Islamic, and regional Indian cultures and cuisines together. Developed in the royal kitchens of the Mughal Empire, Mughlai cuisine is known for its distinctively spicy, rich, heavy, and aromatic flavours.8

Biryani thus has strong linkages to outside influences, and in particular, Persian culinary influence. Indeed, the word biryani comes from the Persian word “birian” (meaning “fried before cooking”), while “birinj” is the Persian word for rice.9 Modern-day Iranian biryanis do not contain rice, though. Instead, Iranian biryani consists of meat wrapped in a roti.10

Like Oon Soru from southern India, biryani’s origin stories are tied to its nutritional value for travelling armies. One theory attributes biryani’s inception to the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur (1336-1405 CE), from whom future Mughals would claim descendance. When Timur’s army arrived in India in 1398, their diet featured a “precursor” to biryani, consisting of an earthen pot of rice, spices, and available meats buried in a hot pit.11 Another popular theory credits biryani’s genesis to Mumtaz Mahal (1593-1631 CE), the queen who inspired the Taj Mahal. Upon visiting under-nourished army troops, Mahal ordered the chef to prepare a dish of balanced nutrition—a dish of meat and rice.12

Since the Mughal era, many variants of biryani have developed within India. Some biryani dishes are kutchi or “raw”—referring to the layering of uncooked rice with meat and vegetables in a pot—while others are pukki or “cooked.”13 Regional variation in biryani also abounds. North Indian biryanis tend to use long grain or basmati rice, curds as marinades, and spices like cardamom, cinnamon and bay leaf. Southern Indian biryanis instead rely on local varieties of rice like zeera samba, flavouring biryanis with coconut, tamarind, and more chilies.14 The movement of Indians worldwide has also brought biryani to new regions. Biryanis can be found in Malaysia, Philippines, Mauritius, and Africa.15

Like biryani, the Persian influences in pilau are evident. Although there is some evidence that pilau may have originated in the Indian subcontinent—the Sanskrit word “pulaka” comes from a verb meaning “to stand on end”, akin to pilau’s separate rice grains—pilau seems to have only appeared in India under Muslim rule.16 Some early records on Alexander the Great mention pilaf (the Persian name for pilau). In the 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great travelled to Bactria in Central Asia (modern-day Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), where he enjoyed a rice and meat dish, bringing versions of the dish to the Mediterranean. Persian pilafs have travelled across the world to Spain (with paella), Turkey (pilav), and Italians (risotto).17

In 1993, the long-time Los Angeles Times food writer Charles Perry characterised pilau as having five main styles worldwide: Central Asian, Iranian, Indian, Turkish, and Caribbean.18 According to Perry, Central Asian pilaus are the most simple, frying vegetables and meat and stewing with rice and water. Iranian pilaus prioritizes the tah dig method, “tah dig” referring to the rice crust formed on the bottom of the pot. Iranian pilaus rely on more aromatic flavourings from lentils, vegetables, and fruits like cherries, quinces, or apricots. Indian pilaus are more spiced and extravagant, augmenting flavours with ingredients like apricots, oranges, mangoes, nuts, and marinades of curry spices and yogurt. Turkish pilav is most commonly a side dish, relying on a central ingredient like eggplant, mussels, or toasted vermicelli. Turkish pilavs also tend to use more tomatoes. The final class of pilau—Caribbean—fuses European and African techniques with Indian techniques, manifesting in unique creations like pilaus of meat marinated with onions, thyme, tomatoes, red pepper, and brown sugar, and pilaus of bacon, celery, and Worcestershire sauce. 

The histories and flavours of biryani and pilau are thus incredibly complex. Biryani and pilau weave between regions and empires, entering royal kitchens, exiting aboard the ships of indentured servants, carrying new flavours and cooking methods along the way.   


Table of biryani variants19

Biryani Type

Key ingredients




Hindu variation of vegetarian biryani for Muslim Nawabs. Became prominent in WW2 when meat prices skyrocketed. Common in Kashmir. 

Hyderabadi biryani

Most flavour from saffron flavoured rice, rather than meat. 

Conceived as a dish under Nizam-Ul-Mulk (1671-1748), governor of Deccan. His chefs allegedly made over fifty different versions, using everything from fish to quail to hare meat. 

Calcutta biryani

Potato and boiled egg. Light and mild spices. Seasoned with rose water and saffron. 

Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, was exiled from Lucknow in 1856 to Bengal, bringing biryani to Calcutta. 

Lucknowi biryani

Similar to Calcutta biryani but without potato. Mild flavour. 

Cooked in the royal Awadhi style. 

Malabar / Thalassery biryani

Sweet and savory. Soft chicken wings, mild Malabar spices, and kaima rice. Use of sauteed cashew nuts, raisins, and fennel seeds. Use of Khyma rice grain. Little chili is used. 

Popular among Malabar Muslims. Originated in Kerala. 

Tahari biryani

Vegetarian biryani made with potatoes and carrots.

Allegedly created in Mysore when Tipu Sultan (1750-1799) hired vegetarian Hindus as bookkeepers. Popular in Kashmir. 

Mughlai biryani

Spiced meat with kewra scented rice. 

Biryani from Mughal royal kitchens. Commonly seen in Delhi.

Ambur biryani

Accompanied with sour eggplant curry and raita. More meat than rice. Often made with seeraga samba rice. 

Prevails in northern Tamil Nadu, which has a large population of Muslims. Introduced by Nawabs of Arcot.

Sindhi biryani

Rice, meat, vegetables, and spices. Many aromatic spices and flavours, including finely slit green chillies and roasted nuts. Use of aloo bukhara (plums) in spices and khatta (sour yogurt) in layering. 

Found in Sindhi and Pakistani cuisine. 

Bhatkali biryani

Meat is marinated in green chili and onion masala mixture. After biryani is cooked, topped with mashed onions, garlic, spices, chilies, and curry leaves. No oil is used. 

From Bhatkal, Karnataka. Important part of Navayath cuisine, often served at wedding feasts.

Kashmiri biryani

Use of asafoetida

Reflects the multitude of influences in Kashmiri cuisine. Mughal Emperor would frequently visit Kashmir as a retreat. 

Beary biryani

Very mild. Main flavours are ghee and spice mixtures, which are mixed with rice and left to seep in overnight. Preferred meats include chicken, button, prawn, and beef. 

From Karnataka’s Muslim Dakshin Kannada region. 

Kozhi biryani

Use of Khyma rice tempered with spices

From the trading community of Mappila’s

Assamese kampuri biryani

Use of many vegetables like peas, carrots, potatoes, capsicums, beans, as well as chicken and spices. 

From the Muslim town of Kampur in Assam. 

Bombay biryani

Accompanied by meat gravy. Sweetness from dried plums and kewra water. Contains more oil and fried onions. Often accompanied with fried spiced potatoes. 

Derived from Irani style. 

Dindigul thalappakatti biryani

Curd and lemon juice used with meat, spices, and jeera samba rice. 

From Dindigul, Tamil Nadu. Common in Chennai. 

Memoni biryani

Extremely spicy. Usually made with lamb, yogurt, browned onions, and potatoes. Compared to Sindhi biryani, it uses fewer tomatoes. 

Part of the cuisine of Memons of Gujarat and Sindh region.

Kalyani biryani

Small cubes of buffalo meat.

Popular in Hyderabad. Allegedly originated in Bidar, Karnataka; spread to Hyderabad through a Kalyani Nawab. 

Doodh ki biryani

Subtle flavours from milk, roasted nuts, and spices. 

From the regal cuisines of Hyderabadi Nizams. 


Includes pomegranate, prunes, and raisins. 

Popular in the Safavid dynasty. 

Dan Pauk

Similar in taste to other biryanis.

Burmese. Name derives from Persian dum pukht. 

Nasi Kebuli, Nasi Biryani

Rice, ghee, meat, and incorporates many elements of many cuisines.

Southeast Asian

Afghani biryani

More saffron and dried fruits.



Annotated Bibliography

Cultural India. “Mughlai Cuisine.”

This article from the website Cultural India explores the elements and history of Mughlai cuisine. The site explains how Persian, Muslim, and local Indian culinary traditions combined to form the distinctive spicy and heavy flavours of Mughlai cuisine. The site also explains many of the common ingredients found in Mughlai cuisine.

Gandhi, Malar. “Tracing the History of Biryani.” India Currents, September 16, 2019. 

This article by Indian food writer Malar Gandhi for India Currents gives a brief summary of the history of biryani. Gandhi includes histories of rice dishes before the Mughal Empire as well as the Mughal Empire’s influence. 

Pal, Sanchari. “The Story of Biryani: How This Exotic Dish Came, Saw and Conquered India!” The Better India, July 6, 2016.

In this article for The Better India, Indian food writer Sanchari Pal gives a detailed history of biryani. Pal traces the Persian linguistic predecessors for biryani, then explains the various theories of biryani’s movement to India (including the theories of Timur’s army and Mumtaz Mahal). Pal also expounds on the history of Oon Soru, an early potential predecessor of biryani. Then, Pal explains the various regional distinctions in biryani across India, and introduces 15 different biryani dishes. 

Perry, Charles. “Pilaf: The 5 Schools of Pilaf.” LA Times, December 9, 1993.

This LA Times article by food writer Charles Perry gives an in-depth look at the history of pilau, as well as the five main variants of pilau worldwide. Perry addresses the question of pilau’s origins, considering early Sanskrit words linked to pilau, but presents convincing evidence pointing to a Persian origin. Perry then spends the rest of his article describing the five “schools” of pilau (Central Asian, Iranian, Indian, Turkish, and Caribbean). 

Tirmizi, Bisma. “Food Stories: Pulao.” Dawn, March 4, 2014.

This article by food writer Bisma Tirmizi of Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper weaves together the history of pilau with Tirmizi’s personal reflection. Tirmizi explains how pilau spread to other parts of the world from ancient Persia, including Alexander the Great’s consumption of pilaf. 

Written by Kathy Mae Min


 1Biryani by Kilo, “Biryani Basics Every Food Lover Should Know – History of Biryani in India,”; Bisma Tirmizi, “Food Stories: Pulao,” Dawn, March 4, 2014,

2Chirag Taneja, “Biryani Is Not Pulao  —  Let’s Settle It Once And For All,” Huffington Post, September 13, 2016,

3Anoothi Vishal, “What is The Difference Between Pulao (Pilaf) and Biryani?”, NDTV, November 17, 2017,

4Malar Gandhi, “Tracing the History of Biryani,” India Currents, September 16, 2019,

5Sanchari Pal, “The Story of Biryani: How This Exotic Dish Came, Saw and Conquered India!”, The Better India, July 6, 2016,

6Gandhi, “Tracing the History of Biryani.”

7Britannica, “Mughal dynasty,”

8Cultural India, “Mughlai Cuisine,”

9Gandhi, “Tracing the History of Biryani”; Pal, “The Story of Biryani.”

10BBC, “From Iran to India: The journey and evolution of biriyani,” July 16, 2016,

11Pal, “The Story of Biryani.”

12Gandhi, “Tracing the History of Biryani.”

13Pal, “The Story of Biryani.”

14Pal, “The Story of Biryani”; Biryani by Kilo, “Biryani Basics.”

15Biryani by Kilo, “Biryani Basics.”

16Charles Perry, Charles, “Pilaf: The 5 Schools of Pilaf.” LA Times, December 9, 1993,

17Tirmizi, “Food Stories.”

18Perry, “Pilaf.”

19Crazy Masala Food, “24 Types Of Biryani, Every Foodie Should Know Of!”, September 12, 2016,; Pal, “The Story of Biryani.”