Deep within Chennai’s biryani heartland of Triplicane, a cauldron of biryani is starting to burn. “Remove it from the fire and place it on the floor,” M Lookman Ali instructs his team on the phone. He is far from perturbed. “Nothing will happen to it, we have caught it right on time,” he adds.
The 54-year-old owns Amrin, a small biryani outlet on Triplicane High Road. In the business of biryani, he is known as ‘master’: a skilled cook trained to make biryani by the kilo with help from a team. These men command much respect in their circle; there are 500 of them in Triplicane alone, with an estimate of 50 each in Royapuram and Periamet, the other neighbourhoods popular for biryani.
Lookman has been a biryani master for almost 20 years now; he cooks at his outlet, as well as at celebratory events based on order. “A master knows everything,” he says. “But in the kitchen, he will only give instructions to his team. He will take over during the crucial moments, to check if the meat is done and salt and spice levels are in order.”
Triplicane has nurtured several masters over the years. “The most popular among them being the late Abdul ‘bhai’ and Razaaq ‘bhai’,” says Lookman. “Razaaq ‘bhai’ has retired now and his son has taken over,” he adds. In his younger days, Lookman watched with awe as Razaaq did prep work. “He would meticulously arrange all the ingredients in a row: onions, tomatoes, spices, meat, and rice before he lit the firewood,” he says. “He wouldn’t start even if one ingredient was missing.”
Most biryani masters of today were helpers in their younger years. “I started out by picking pudina leaves as a little boy,” says K Rafi, the master at Periamet’s popular Nayeem Biryani. The 28-year-old is standing next to a gigantic aluminum trough, holding 30 kilograms of fragrant mutton biryani, which he scoops into steel plates for waiting customers. A small iron stove lit by firewood beneath maintains a dum, ensuring the biryani stays piping hot.
For years, Rafi watched his boss H Nayeemulla whip up mammoth quantities of biryani. He took it all in; the measurements, the order the ingredients are introduced. “I once made a small pot of biryani and offered it to him,” he recalls. Nayeemulla was impressed, and Rafi graduated from helper to master. Today, he works with his own team that readies mountains of chopped onions and tomatoes for him before he takes over.
“Anyone can make biryani, but not everyone can make it the way people will remember for years,” says Lookman. “Which is why of the 500 masters in Triplicane, only 200 can be considered skilled.” So, what gives them the extra edge? “Kai pakkuvam,” says 53-year-old A Habibulla, a biryani master from Royapuram. He is talking about how some cooks are born with a knack for this. “If you ask me, it all boils down to this,” he says, lifting his hands.
“My father and grandfather were sought-after biryani masters; I grew up surrounded by massive meals prepared over firewood in front of our home in Royapuram,” he says. Habibulla was naturally drawn to it. He is now a biryani master at Delkhush Delicacies, a catering company in the neighbourhood. His father and grandfather travelled across the State to cook at functions such as weddings, and Habibulla has had his share of large-scale feasts too. “I recently cooked 600 kilograms for an event,” he says, adding that over 4,000 people ate the feast.
A master needs a team of four to cook 100 kilograms of biryani, which can be prepared in three to four hours. On average, he is paid ₹140 for a kilogram. Every master has a set of rules he goes by; Habibulla, for instance, is a stickler for freshness. He discards coriander leaves even if they are slightly shrivelled, and follows hygiene protocol.
He remembers his grandfather cooking in bronze pots with tin lining on the insides. “Aluminium troughs gradually took over,” he points out, adding that masters have the option of hiring these pots and pans.
The perfect biryani, according to him, is that which is “as soft as a flower to touch”. He explains: “The rice should be firm yet moist, and the spices should not be overpowering,” he says, adding: “I cook taking into consideration children as well.” He knows his biryani will be eaten and discussed by hundreds, and sometimes thousands of people, and agrees to feeling anxious as mealtime approaches. He waits with bated breath to ask people walking out of the dining area if they enjoyed their meal. “I have my meal only after I hear that they did,” he smiles.
These men do not have written-down recipes or measurements. “Everything is by memory and observation,” Lookman tells us. “Each master, however adds his own touch,” he says. “He brings a certain magic to the dish that any average cook can make. He is a master for a reason.”
To order, call: Amrin Biryani: 9790902172; Nayeem: 9940338693; Delkhush Delicacies: 8825792318.