Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Biryani Specialist

In April New York Magazine kvelled about Sangam, a new West Village Indian hole-in-the-wall that offered only two main courses: chicken biryani and vegetable biryani. The article rightly claimed that a good biryani, the classic Indian all-in-one rice dish, is hard to find in New York (indeed, in many places it's little more than fried rice with some Indian spices), and implied that a biryani mecca had finally arrived. Another positive review came from the Daily News. Naturally, I was intrigued.

Sangam's owner, Ishrat Ansari, has run Caffe Vivaldi on Jones Street for many years. Caffe Vivaldi features live music of various sorts, with an emphasis on singer/songwriters (a moribund Greenwich Village tradition). One night several years ago, Ansari told us, they featured Indian classical music, and Ansari's wife prepared her family's biryani recipe as a special for the event. The dish was a big hit, and by popular demand it was added to the cafe's regular, otherwise non-Indian menu. Ultimately the couple had the idea to open a biryani specialty restaurant, for eat-in, take-out and delivery.

When I traveled in India I had the fortune of eating a Hyderabadi biryani in Hyderabad. Biryani is originally a Muslim dish, and it is especially popular and famous in traditionally Muslim areas of India, as well as, of course, Pakistan. Hyderabad is one of the rare cities of South India that has a Muslim history and character, and the spicy Hyderabadi biryani is one of the most famous versions of the dish. Having tried it once in its natural habit, it is the standard by which I judge all other biryanis.

The meat of choice for biryanis in many parts of India is mutton, so I was surprised that Sangam didn't feature lamb biryani on its regular menu. Well, they now have it as a special, and I suspect it'll become a staple. We tried both the lamb ($9) and the vegetarian ($6) biryanis. Though quite good, I must say they just didn't live up to the hype. The lamb biryani was rather stingy with the meat. And while there was a noticeable freshness and complexity to the spicing, it really needed to be more hot-spicy. The spiciness of a biryani may vary from region to region, but I suspect they're toning down the recipe at Sangam for local palates. Still, it's better than the bland, one-dimensional excuses for biryani served at most Indian restaurants in town (other than a few Pakistani cabbie joints, where the spice packs a sufficient wallop). I'm hoping that an entreaty to make it Indian spicy will have some effect when I visit Sangam again. All the biryanis are served with raita (yogurt with cucumber), which one mixes with the rice. The raita is supposed to mellow the heat, but the heat just wasn't there.

Another special, grilled chicken ($9), was a major disappointment. It was a very dry version of chicken tikka, served with very dry, tasteless, almost cardboard naan, indeed the worst naan I've had in quite some time. I wonder whether they have a proper tandoor. The vegetable samosas ($2 each) were good if unexceptional. There are a few other snack items on the menu, but the biryani's the thing. Just be sure to tell them to make it spicy, and let me know how you make out.

190 Bleecker St. (Near MacDougal)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Friend,

While Hyderabadi biriyani has its partisans, I think you are NOT very wise to review a classical Biriyani solely on the Hyderabadi style: it would be like reviewing Italian food on the basis of the American 'red sauce" redaction. Tasty to some, but not necessarily encompassing what Italy has to offer. Reprehensible to many Italians both in taste, and in the ways and amounts of sauce binding the pasta

To request the biriyani master to change his style to suit your OWN taste is very, very counterproductive, if you will forgive my opinion. This is because Western reviewers have great influence on nascent Asian restaurant owners, both psychologically, and in real $ owing to their communications reach.

You are invited to where there is a long running discussion on biriyanis. We have an expert on the Hyderabad style. Actually, while looking for an Avadh expert, I happened to chance across your piece, and felt delighted, precisely because we may be getting close.

Hyderabad is an outlier, from the biriyanis of the northern tier of India. When developed, Biriyani DID NOT have any heat or weird flavors like cilantro. One refined form of the putative original, the Avadhi, is evaluated on a range of points that are laid out in detail at Gourmet India. There is a particular spice balance that characterizes Avadh biriyani.

No doubt Mian Ansari hails from Pakistan, and it remains to be seen whether he cooks Lahore, Gujrat, Hyderabad-Pakistan, Sindhi, Karachi, Karachi-Bombay, or the Pakhtun style of biriyani.

Just as pizza has NY Sicilian thick crust, deep dish Chicago Italian, Greek east coast thick crust, NY Italian brick oven, New Haven thin crust brick oven, New Haven White, Neapolitan, Roman etc. so does the nuances of biriyani vary.

You have thrown a stone into a hornet's nest by calling Hyderabadi biriyani the defining style. Even in the south, there are more than one Kerala styles, Tamil Nadu styles, Telengana Hindu keema biriyani style etc.!!!! Then we can go up the west coast and explore the Ismaili Muslim communities.

I feel perturbed when the narrative of subcontinental foodways gets peremptorily hijacked by some who claim expertise and try to change authentic experts to their way of thinking. Rather, they should be asking and learning, training their much unschooled palates to the cookery being offered. It is ridiculous and ignorant to shoehorn Mughlai cooking to be "spicy." This is the reason we have such crap restaurants in the US. Please read Jay Jacobs' patronizing and extremely idiotic review of Mitali restaurant in a 1985 Gourmet magazine. It propelled Mitali to dizzying commercial success.

I have never, ever eaten such badly cooked, amateurish food ever in my life. Jacobs knew nothing about Indian food: he wanted his biriyani "jazzed up" [exact wording] and they obliged, with whatever he wanted: coconut, eggs, what have you. Then, everybody began asking for the same awful nonsense, because Jacobs, the lofty Gourmet gourmet should have known what he was talking about, should he not? Just as you are passing yourself off as a pretty solid expert on biriyanis in general, having eaten but one in Hyderabad. This poor man may now try to bowdlerize his native style to please influential reviewers such as you, and another authentic place will be lost for ever.

Just like that foolish Jacobs, and later the folks at Chowhound who would not know the slightest bit about HOW to distinguish the nuances of East Bengali cooking, that they now have persuaded themselves & others they are experts at. They never even recognized a real master hand at Swagat [next to Pongal, for a short few years], nor would they be able to eat that truly authentic, superb home-style food with relish, that bunch of worthless poseurs. It would mean eating very bony fish with fingers!! Fish liver and float bladders, heads, and more frames!

We need, collectively, to encourage every hole-in-the wall. Enjoy just whatever they specialize in, because that is their reason for opening: to serve really authentic food, unmitigated by the western customer's preferences


1:07 AM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...


Thanks for that very intersting, comprehensive and provocative comment. I'd certainly be interested in hearing other opinions about this place, as well as thoughts on biryani in New York in general.

I am sure that any positive review of Mitali would have been idiotic as its popularity was always a mystery to me, it being in the same league as the other mediocre East Bengali places on 6th Street. For some reason the mediocre Haveli in the East Village also got the reputation as being better than the rest. A rave review by Jeff Weinstein in the Voice some years ago may have helped its early reputation.

I've enjoyed biryanis in Kerala too, and indeed that style is very different from the northern or Pakistani versions.

On another note, the biryani I recently had at the Sri Lankan restaurant Nirvana was the only decent thing I tried there. There was an achar (pickle) element; I don't know whether this is common to either a Sinhalese or Tamil style of biryani.

2:58 PM  
Anonymous md majumuderji miah said...

dear,mr cherches,i am from probhandir a small village in bangladesh i find it too often westerners often have the thought that indian food is supposed to be super spicy otherwise its not authentic stuck in their heads.i am a bangladeshi who also lived in pakistan i can say that biryani is rarely spicy and the same goes for home cooked indian food.most true indian food is only medium spicy. westerners love to say this isnt spicy that isnt spicy soley to impress others.

sincerely dissapointed,
Hossain MD Majumuderji miah

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