I was never really a biryani person. I say. Absurd and totally unacceptable. Whenever I’m asked why exactly I’d rather have a regular dish than biryani, I go back to blaming whatever I can possibly assign blame. A lack of taste buds, difficult parenting, an overall feeling of craziness, take your pick. Everything changed three years ago. And all because a friend of mine thought the world of his culinary skills. He wasn’t bad at concocting new dishes from time to time. Never. He just wasn’t as good as he thought he was.
That day, however, he completely outdid himself. And, the best part was the fact that the recipe he tried that day was something completely foreign to him. I don’t know how you did it, Tia. But thank you for introducing me ‘Bamboo biryani‘. Needless to say, I toasted him on the recipe and he pointed me in a general direction.
Pretty soon, I realized that bamboo biryani wasn’t just some kind of new wave culinary innovation. No. It is rooted in history, dating all the way back to colonial India. It was, by any measure, a part of this country’s identity for the longest time, with the recipe only gaining popularity recently.
Bongu Chicken: How Did Bamboo Biryani Become?
About 100 kilometers from the Araku valley in the Visakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh lies a humble village called Chaparai. The village itself is lined with stalls and makeshift huts, locally called “Pakas”. Most vendors manning these stalls only have a few dishes to sell, the main one being ‘Bongu Chicken’.
Chicken Bongu, cooked in a manner similar to bamboo biryani, is basically chicken that has been marinated in natural spices before being stuffed into a bamboo stick and roasted over an open flame. The spices used in the dish are all locally sourced, of course. It wouldn’t really be an authentic dish otherwise. Most chicken bongu recipes eschew dried spices, preferring freshly ground variants and aromatic herbs. Think freshly ground ginger and garlic paste, cilantro and green chilies.
Once the meat has soaked up the marinade, it is stuffed into pieces, with a square of bamboo leaves separating each portion. A single stalk of bamboo can actually hold up to one kilogram of chicken. Once the bamboo is stuffed with meat, the cook places it over an open fire where he tends to it constantly, turning it every ten minutes or so. During cooking, the moisture and natural oil, present inside the bamboo stalk, seeps into the meat, giving it a very distinct flavor.
The real reason I went on this tangent is that you understand this is not a dish that just happened. It has found popularity recently, yes. However, the recipes and the way the dishes are cooked were all born out of necessity.
The Araku Valley in the spotlight
The Araku Valley is home to many native tribes, communities of people with a history rich in culinary traditions. When India was still reeling from its colonial masters, communities such as those living in the Araku Valley had to think of ways to feed themselves in a way that depended on nothing but what they knew. Enter the humble bamboo. To be frank, bamboo, for many rural and indigenous communities in India, is one of the most versatile tools at their disposal. At the time, given the economic climate in which the majority of India found itself, bamboo was much more accessible than traditional utensils. It was practically free and grew almost everywhere. It stands to reason then that, quite early on, some tribes living in the Araku Valley used it in their cooking techniques and habits. The bamboo biryani was therefore a natural evolution of these habits.
Consider what biryani actually is. At its most basic definition, it’s just rice and meat. This is exactly how it all began for the tribes of the Araku Valley. Why waste time and resources cooking multiple dishes when one dish would suffice? Of course, meat was often a luxury for most locals. However, there are many examples of small game being used as a substitute for the traditional meat that was eaten at the time. From then on, the only question regarding the bamboo biryani was what exactly was inside.
They had the two main ingredients and the utensil they would use to cook the dish. All they needed to figure out was what they would use to flavor the dish. The answer, again, came from necessity. Everything that was available around them. Anything that grew naturally. This is the only reason why bamboo biryani will look very different when it is served to you in a restaurant and when it is served to you in the house of a family living in the Araku Valley.
Despite their best intentions, once bamboo biryani found its way into restaurants, chefs couldn’t help but add more. After all, it’s biryani, they reasoned. It needs a little color. Yet, in a way, the idea of using what is available always remains the same. Authentic bamboo biryani will be much milder in flavor profile for the dried spices. However, it will be spicier than what you are used to when it comes to biryani, due to the green chilies used in some renditions of it.
Sivaram Krishna introduced the unique dish to restaurants
In 2016, Sivaram Krishna, a chef at a hotel management school linked to Andhra Pradesh’s tourism department, came across a bamboo biryani. At the time, Andhra Pradesh was reeling from political and geographical separation. When Telangana continued to take Hyderabad with it, Andhra Pradesh had, for the most part, lost its claim to biryani, as it was traditionally called. After all, you think biryani, you think Hyderabad.
As part of a push by the Andhra Pradesh tourism department, Sivaram Krishna then visited the tribes of the Araku Valley, hoping to discover a dish that would put Andhra Pradesh back on the culinary map. What he learned there he brought back with him and then taught some eighty other chefs and students at his school. All those whom Sivaram Krishna taught were encouraged to put the dish on the menu of their own restaurants. This is the real story of how bamboo biryani became so popular. Andhra Pradesh now has its own biryani. And, personally, I think it rivals any other biryani in the country.
Before I leave you, chew this. In several parts of northeast India, bamboo is often used in cooking. In Assam, for example, there is a dish that is very similar to the previously mentioned Bongu chicken dish. While some may consider the dish to be a direct adaptation by the Assamese, I can assure you that is not the case. In fact, it happened the same way as bongu chicken or bamboo biryani. Just a pure necessity.
There’s a reason you can travel across India and find things that call home to you in the most unlikely places. There’s a reason why, if I ever had to travel to Chaparai and eat at one of the ‘pakas’, I would think of something I had at home. Some threads simply bind us together, weaving a sense of identity no matter where we come from.