Enough about Chicken Biryani, its time to dive into Araku Valley’s Bamboo Biryani. Read its interesting history and recipe.
I was never much of a biryani person. I know. Preposterous and completely unacceptable. Whenever I am asked as to why exactly I would prefer having a regular dish over biryani, I revert back to blaming everything I can possibly attribute blame to. A lack of taste buds, tough parenting, a general sense of insanity, take your pick. That all changed three years ago. And, it was all because a certain friend of mine thought the world of his culinary aptitude. He wasn’t bad at whipping up new dishes from time to time. Not by any means. He just wasn’t as good as he thought himself to be.
That day, however, he completely outdid himself. And, the best part was the fact that the recipe he tried on that particular day, was something that he was completely alien to. I don’t know how you managed it, Tia. But, thank you for introducing me to ‘Bamboo Biryani’. Needless to say, I grilled him about the recipe and he pointed me in a general direction.
Soon enough, I realized that bamboo biryani was not 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 all accounts, a part of this country’s identity for the longest time, the recipe only just rising to popularity recently.
Bongu Chicken: How Did Bamboo Biryani Come To Be?
Some 100 kilometres from Araku Valley, in the Visakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh, lies a humble village called Chaparai. The village, itself, is lined with makeshift stalls and huts, locally known as ‘Pakas’. Most of the vendors manning these stalls have only a few dishes for sale, chief among them being ‘Bongu Chicken’.
Bongu chicken, cooked in a manner similar to bamboo biryani, is essentially chicken that has been left to marinate in natural spices before being stuffed into a bamboo stem and roasted over an open flame. The spices used in the dish are all sourced locally, of course. It wouldn’t really be an authentic dish otherwise. Most recipes for Bongu chicken avoid dried spices, preferring freshly ground variants and aromatic herbs. Think freshly ground ginger-garlic paste, coriander, green chillies.
Once the meat has soaked up the marinade, it is stuffed in bits, with a patch of bamboo leaves separating each serving. A single bamboo stem can, effectively, hold up to a kilogram of chicken. Once the bamboo is stuffed with the meat, the cook places it over an open fire where they continuously tend to it, turning it over every ten minutes or so. While it cooks, the moisture and the natural oil, found inside the bamboo stem, seeps into the meat, giving it a very distinct flavour.
The actual reason I went off on that tangent is that you understand this is not a dish that has just come about. It has found popularity recently, yes. However, the recipes and the manner in which the dishes are cooked all rose out of a necessity.
The Araku Valley In Spotlight
Araku Valley is home to numerous indigenous tribes, communities of people with a rich history in culinary traditions. When India was still reeling under its colonial masters, communities such as the ones living in Araku Valley had to think of ways to feed themselves in a manner that was not reliant on anything outside of what they knew. Enter the humble bamboo. To be frank, bamboo, to a lot of rural and indigenous communities in India, is one of the most versatile tools at their disposal. Back then, considering the economic climate that the majority of India found itself in, bamboo was a lot more accessible than traditional utensils. It was practically free and grew almost anywhere. It stood to reason then that soon enough, some tribes living in Araku Valley employed it in their cooking techniques and habits. Bamboo biryani, then, was a natural evolution of those habits.
Consider what biryani actually is. At its basest definition, it’s just rice and meat. That is exactly how it began for the tribes in Araku Valley. Why waste time and resources cooking multiple dishes when a single dish would do? Of course, meat was often a luxury for most living there. However, there are multiple instances of smaller game being used as a substitute for the traditional meat that was being consumed at the time. From then on, the sole question regarding bamboo biryani was what exactly went into it.
They had the two primary ingredients and the utensil they would use to cook the dish in. All they needed to figure out was what they would use to flavour the dish with. The answer, again, came from necessity. Whatever was available around them. Whatever grew naturally. That is the sole reason why bamboo biryani will differ massively when it is served to you in a restaurant and when it is served to you in the home of a family living in Araku Valley.
In spite of their best intentions, once the bamboo biryani found its way into restaurants, chefs could not help but add to it. After all, it is biryani, they reasoned. It needs some colour. Still, in a manner of speaking, the idea of using what’s available still remains the same. Authentic bamboo biryani will be a lot milder in terms of any flavour profile for dried spices. However, it will be spicier than what you are used to when it comes to biryani, on account of green chillies being used in some renditions of it.
Sivaram Krishna Introduced The Unique Dish To Restaurants
Sometime back in 2016, Sivaram Krishna, a senior chef at a hotel management school that had ties to the Andhra Pradesh Tourism Department, stumbled upon bamboo biryani. At the time, Andhra Pradesh was just reeling from a political and geographical separation. When Telangana went on to take Hyderabad along with it, Andhra Pradesh had, essentially, lost its claim to biryani, as it was known traditionally. After all, you think biryani, you think Hyderabad.
As part of a push by the Andhra Pradesh Tourism Department, Sivaram Krishna went on to visit the tribes in Araku Valley, hoping to discover a dish that would put Andhra Pradesh back on the culinary map. What he learnt there, he brought back with him, proceeding to teach some eighty other chefs and students at his school. All those that Sivaram Krishna taught were encouraged to push the dish onto the menu in their own restaurants. That’s the actual story of how bamboo biryani came to be so popular. Andhra Pradesh, now, has its own biryani. And, personally speaking, I think it rivals any other biryani in the country.
Before I leave you, chew on this. In multiple regions in the North-Eastern part of India, bamboo is often used in cooking. In Assam, for example, there is a dish that closely resembles the Bongu chicken dish mentioned earlier. While some may consider the dish a direct adaptation by the Assamese, I can assure you that it’s not. In fact, it came about the same way that bongu chicken or bamboo biryani did. Just pure necessity.
There is a reason why you can travel around India and find things that make you think about home in the most unlikely places. There is a reason why, if I were to ever travel to Chaparai and eat from one of the ‘pakas’, I would think of something that I had back home. Some threads just tie us together, weaving a sense of identity no matter where we are from.