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NEW DELHI: As Rafat Shahab prepares a variety of meals during Ramadan, one of them reigns supreme in her kitchen: biryani. Reflecting local traditions and tastes, it is the most popular dish of the Indian subcontinent, especially during the Muslim fasting month.

For Shahab, no iftar is complete without the fragrant rice with meat and aromatics such as cloves, cumin, cinnamon, and saffron.

“Biryani is a one-pot dish, and you can eat it as a full meal without the need for any accompaniment,” the owner of Rafat Kitchen, a home catering service in Delhi, told Arab News.

“During iftar, you invite several people, and you can’t prepare many dishes. If you serve biriyani along with just a few starters, that will complete the whole meal and people just love eating it.”

The legendary origins of biryani connect it with Mumtaz Mahal, the wife of Mughal Emperor Shahjahan, who on finding that her soldiers were undernourished, requested that their diet be changed to provide balanced nutrition.

While the legend is often cited to highlight biryani’s Indian ancestry, most historians agree that it came from Iran, with the original version of the dish being closer to fried rice.

“Biryani that we know in India is very different from the biryani in Iran and the word ‘biryan,’ meaning ‘roasted,’ comes from Persian. It’s very different from what is eaten here,” said Rana Safvi, a writer and historian of the heritage and culture of the Indian subcontinent.

“We have a reference to something which is similar to what we know as biryani in Shahjahan’s time … but it is not the biryani that we know today. The word biryani comes only in the late 19th century.”

Biryani combines rice with spices and meat, which can be chicken, beef, goat, lamb, or seafood. The way it is cooked and spiced varies across India.

“Kolkata biryani is different, Lucknow biryani is different, Mumbai is different, Hyderabadi is different,” Safvi said. “Every region adapts it to their needs.”

The biryani from Hyderabad in southern India is one of the most famous varieties of the dish, where the meat is sandwiched between layers of fragrant basmati rice and cooked on a very low flame in a sealed container. It gets its flavor as it cooks in its own juices.

In Kolkata, in India’s east, it is characterized by the presence of potatoes and eggs in it, which make it more filling and its texture more delicate than others. Additional sweetness comes from different herbs and nuts.

The way it is cooked in Lucknow, in India’s north, is similar to the Persian style of slow cooking. It is lighter than other versions and low on spices.

“It came to have so many varieties because regional tastes differ. People in Kolkata eat differently and people in Kerala eat differently. They will eat according to their spices and preferences,” Prof. Pushpesh Pant, food critic and historian, told Arab News.

While local tastes vary across India, the popularity of the dish does not, which Pant is owing to the fact that biryani is a one-pot meal — another reason it is an iftar favorite.

“I think it becomes easier to prepare a cauldron of biryani to cook when you are observing fast. You don’t have to work the whole day. You cut raw meat or vegetables, you soak rice in water and marinate the meat, then you put the cauldron on flame for a few hours,” he said.

“When you open it, it’s ready to eat … That’s why it has become a popular dish in Ramadan.”

But for some, it is not only about convenience. Savory and fulfilling, biryani is a perfect fit after a daylong fast.

For Dr. Anwar Sadat, senior assistant professor at the Indian Society of International Law, it is “more than a meal” during the holy month.

“Once you eat this sumptuous meal, you don’t feel the need to have other meals till sahoor in the morning,” he said.

“The aroma of biriyani at iftar is so satisfying and so uplifting that after eating, you not only feel satisfied but also content. Biriyani somehow acquires a spiritual aura during Ramadan.”

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