If you ask me, I will always tell you that the biryani in North Kerala is the best. Yes, I’m a Malayali and I’m biased, but of all the biryanis I’ve had – Lucknowi, Hyderabadi, Kolkata and many more – I think the Malabari biryani from North Kerala is the undisputed champion. None of my colleagues believe me and we’ve spent hours of Autocar India’s time arguing about this.
I realize the only way to settle this is to put my biryani where my mouth is. I know there’s an assignment coming up in Mangaluru, Karnataka and I know Kozhikode is just a little over 200km south of Mangaluru. We’ve asked for the new Hyundai Verna (I still remember being blown away by the common rail diesel engine in the first one back in 2006) and travel plans are quickly extended to include a few more days in South India after the Mangaluru assignment. My stomach can hardly wait.
For those who’ve been living under a continental menu, here’s a brief history of the biryani. Some believe that the modern biryani finds its origins in the kitchens of the Mughal Empire (1526-1857), where the native spicy rice dishes of India met the Persian pulao. Usually, when making biryani, the meat – chicken, mutton, beef, fish or prawns – is cooked separately before being layered and cooked together.
Now, the Malabari biryani, the one we are after, is slightly different. It is one of the many dishes of the Muslim community of the Malabar region in North Kerala. The ingredients are your choice of meat and spices, and the specialty is a small-grained fragrant variety of rice known as Jeerakasala. The dum method of preparation is used here, in which the lid is sealed with maida or cloth and red-hot charcoal is placed above it. A small amount of chilli powder is thrown into the mix along with a huge amount of spices like sultanas, mace, cashew nuts, , cumin seeds, tomato, onion, ginger, garlic, shallot, cloves and cinnamon. Is your mouth watering yet? Mine is.
Raining on our parade
‘Welcome to Kerala’, said the sign, and around five minutes later, our average speed drops drastically. The minute the national highway 66 crosses over into Kerala, it deteriorates into a road from a couple of decades ago. It is all of two lanes and the heavy monsoons this year have had their way with the road. Also, if you’ve ever driven in the plains of Kerala, you’ll notice that there is no empty space anywhere along the highway; it is completely built-up, and that means you really can’t relax and enjoy the drive. There’s always someone jumping out from a side road, plenty of stray animals to watch out for, and crazy state transport buses to avoid – it’s an obstacle course, on a massive scale. If you get stuck behind a truck, the sheer volume of traffic on this two-lane road also means you rarely get any chance to overtake.
As far as a road trip goes, this journey is quite a pain in the you-know-where. Rahul, my colleague who’s with me on this quest, warns me saying this biryani better be worth it.
Food lovers of Kozhikode congregate here for its mouth-watering biryanis.
It is in this scenario that I begin to appreciate the Verna’s superb diesel engine. When those few opportunities present themselves, that 128hp, 1,582cc engine is always on alert and ever-ready to let you take advantage of the situation. There’s no lag, the six-speed manual gearbox is precise and the car generally feels lively and very quick.
However, despite this, Kerala’s inability to let you cover ground at a decent clip can get very tiring and that’s where we found a fantastic companion in the new infotainment system.
It’s got this equalizer mode called ‘Live’ and when you select this, it feels like you are in a stadium watching the Rolling Stones perform. The system really helped keep frustration levels down. We drive through Kasargod and Kannur and head a bit further south when I remember hearing about Asia’s longest driving beach at a place called Muzhappilangad. It looks like a great place for drone shots and isn’t very far off the main highway, so the detour is made.
However, we are in for a disappointment: it is high tide and the sea looks angry. I wouldn’t attempt going there in a boat, much less a car. We stare at the raging sea and the lashing rain for a bit and head back to the highway. The biryani is still about 75km away and this weather is accelerating our hunger pangs.
Begin to dig in
On Convent Cross Road in Kozhikode lies the charming little restaurant we have come all the way here for. Zain’s hotel has been around for 28 years and is known for their biryani among many other lip-smacking things of interest. Zainabi Noor started this eatery simply because she wanted her husband Noor Mohammed to stay back in India and start a business instead of going abroad to work. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, and we learn that apart from the biryani it is famous for, there’s lots of other awesome Malabari snacks. We settle into one of the tables that overlooks the narrow road (I like looking at the car while I’m eating) and order chicken and prawn biryanis. We are in luck today, as Zainabi Noor is in the restaurant. She’s incredibly sweet. She shows us around the kitchen and takes the painsto explain to us how the biryani is made. I get the feeling that we are in for a treat.
Cooking is something Zainabi Noor, owner of Zain’s hotel, imbibed from the women of her house.
The biryani is prepared in advance because Zainabi says it takes about an hour and a half to make. I think this is a good thing, because if the biryani didn’t land up when it did, I would have started eating bits of the table – I was that hungry. It arrives with raita and a mango pickle as accompaniment. The first bite is heaven. The chicken is succulent, the flavours of the rice and spices added delicious. I can see from Rahul’s face that he’s in heaven, too. Conversation all but disappears, replaced by the sound of food being devoured at an incredible pace.
10 minutes later, the plates are picked clean and Rahul agrees that this biryani is spectacular. Satisfaction all around, because my stomach is happy and I’ve proved my point. Mission accomplished.