Richly spiced, steaming hot, a jumble of flavor and a variety of ingredients: is it any wonder one of Pakistan’s most popular traditional dishes is biryani? Available everywhere, from roadside stands to the finest five-star hotels, biryani is a ubiquitous delight that transcends the usual boundaries dividing this society. Whatever your caste, class, religion or sect, here’s one food we all find ourselves gathering for. One of the reasons for this is the versatility of the recipe. You can choose the kind of rice you use in it. You can choose the kind of meat you put in it, or none at all. You can choose which cooking technique you want to try–there are quite few ways to make it. You can choose how you want to eat it: with extra spice or with pickles; with gravy or with raita (yogurt sauce with mint or other seasonings added); with shami kebabs (flat patties, which themselves may be made with your choice of meat or only lentils) or with the Pakistani take on salad–another local recipe, comprising shredded cabbage, cucumber and tomatoes, generally provided without dressing–or even with sliced boiled egg. There’s a combination for everyone. The great adaptability of this dish to the peculiarities of palate and the limitations of resources means anyone willing to sample it is welcome to do so.
Biryani is also more than just a tasty dish good for any occasion; something about this fragrant concoction speaks to the Pakistani temperament, and often the act of making and eating it becomes an opportunity for self-expression. Whether you’re a home cook or a restaurant chef, how you make biryani can say a lot about you. From the ingredients you use to the combination of herbs and spices, and the way you prefer it to be served, every part of the process is an opportunity to leave your signature. I’ve been able to tell how well I’ll get along with someone simply from the condiment they ate their biryani with. Gentle and mild or fiery and hot, infused with many herbs and complicated mix of spices or plain and humble, biryani is one of the simplest ways to say: this is who I am; this is where I come from; this is what I like. It’s no surprise, then, that no two recipes come out exactly alike.
Biryani is a part of the nation’s fading history. As a dish invented to please the palate of Mughal kings, it reminds of us of the cultural glory that once was. Although the kings may be gone for good, but in kitchens throughout the country, a lost empire is revived once more in the aroma of rice and spice.
Pakistanis implicitly understand the symbolic meaning of biryani. As the layers of ingredients come together in perfect unity to create an unforgettable medley of flavor, so too does biryani represent the layers of society coming together for the greater good. Biryani is an allegory. It’s also an allegory often misused; we remark cynically upon the menu of certain political campaigns: biryani served up with a heavy dose of divisive political rhetoric. In the eyes of biryani lovers, it is unforgivable even if it is not uncommon. Suffice it to say that Pakistanis take their biryani very seriously. At once a lesson in history, an artistic statement, an opportunity to bond, and a symbol of hope and solidarity, it is also a warning how easily the greatest of our values may be appropriated by those who do not have our society’s best interest at heart. I pray the word of caution is not lost on us. Our future depends on it.
N.B. This task required us to write a single paragraph using transitions to improve the flow; I’ve edited it slightly into multiple paragraphs and removed the transitions for the sake of readability and because I kind of like choppy writing. My selected topic was to write four reasons explaining the cultural importance of any particular traditional food. I chose one that I’m always ready to eat some more of. (^_^)