If there’s one dish that effectively defines the geographical and cultural boundaries of the Indian subcontinent, it must be biryani. A relatively simple dish that has its birth and evolution among the common folk, largely away from the royal kitchens, for centuries biryani was served in the hospices (khanaqa) of the Sufis of the subcontinent. Popular in its many forms, it has a strong presence in the multicultural cauldron that Delhi is today.

There are more than a few narratives of how biryani came to the Indian subcontinent and gained its exalted status. One story goes that subcontinental biryani developed from the Persian pilaf (pulao) brought in by traders from the region. Another account says it was the favoured dish of the soldiers of Timur’s invading army.

But the most popular version points to Mumtaz Mahal, the Mughal empress immortalised in the Taj Mahal. It is said that she recommended this rich dish for Mughal soldiers after seeing their poor health during one of her visits to the army camp.

No matter what the history is, today we have made biryani our very own.

Biryani is cooked in different avatars all over India. The standout popular versions are Hyderabadi, Lucknowi, Kolkata, Moradabadi, Chettinad, Thalassery (Malabar) and Dilli ki Biryani. Luckily, Delhi has many of these versions being served.

These versions differ in the kind of rice used and the method of cooking. Traditionally the dam pukht method is used in the making of biryani, in which dish is slow cooked in a sealed pot from bottom and top.

There are basically two ways of doing a biryani. One is called kacche gosht ki biryani, where raw meat is marinated and layered in a handi with rice, then cooked with spices together in one go. In the second version, the meat and rice are half cooked separately in their spices and then layered together in a handi for some final slow cooking to perfection.

For centuries biryani has been prepared around the Delhi dargahs of the Chishti Sufi saints Nizamuddin Auliya (in Nizamuddin Basti) and Bakhtiyar Kaki (in Mehrauli). Now, of course, there are more than a few chains with different takes on the dish. Some of them do a really good job and some, sadly, don’t. Besides, the biryani served by these chains may be great for your palate but may make your wallet uneasy.

A few 'top of the line' restaurants also do good biryani, but for too high a price. What keeps biryani truly a common man’s dish is the number of standalone outlets in the city which not only churn out great versions this age-old dish but do it at a reasonable price.

The honour of the first mention in this list must go to the famed Matka Peer ki Biryani (Pragati Maidan). Matka Peer is a Sufi shrine and can be identified by the earthen pots placed on different branches of nearby trees by the devout who visit the shrine. Commercial biryani making here was started by Babu Shahi Bawarchi and is continued today by his descendants. It may have started out as a service to the poor, though now of course they are in the business of selling it. Nothing more than a ramshackle shack, for the last few decades this is one of the most popular and iconic biryani places in Delhi. They provide biryani (mutton and chicken) only as a takeaway and strictly by the kilo. To lay your hands on Matka Peer’s biryani you have to place your order at least a day in advance and then go there the next evening to collect it.

Anand’s Restaurant, a dingy rundown looking place in a bylane next to Janpath, in the heart of the city, has been serving the hottest version of biryani in the city for decades. This spicy hot biryani with the potential to bring tears to your eyes is served with equally hot curry poured over it. Some food connoisseurs may dispute the claim of Anand’s to be a biryani at all, but then it is very popular and any list of biryanis in Delhi would be incomplete without it.

(Dil Pasand biryani)

Dil Pasand Biryani, also known as Toufeeq’s Biryani, is the pioneer of the achaari biryani (by adding green chilli pickle) in Delhi. It’s one of the most popular biryani places in Delhi. Located in a narrow lane off Chitli Qabar, ahead of the popular food street of Matia Mahal, they do chicken and buff biryani in a spicy avatar and very reasonably priced. It is the most colourful version of biryani you’d come across and is good beyond words, in a league of its own.

Baba Biryani, from Kanpur, is a new entrant in the field of biryani in Old Delhi and serves a Lucknowi version of the dish. Also located in Matia Mahal, they do only chicken biryani which is made using basmati rice and cooked in desi ghee.

(Kanpur ki Biryani, Matia Mahal)

Their Delhi biryani is on the less spicy side and uses parboiled or sela rice which some say makes it a bit heavy on the palate. But the sela rice cooks well and doesn’t stick together giving the biryani a nice look. Also, Delhi biryani has to have some colour in it. Here colouring mixed with yoghurt is added along with cardamom, cloves and garlic.

Rehmatullah Restaurant in Matia Mahal, Old Delhi, does an excellent version of Dilli ki biryani. Fazalur Rehman Quershi, the owner, is watching over an evening session of biryani from his restaurant being given to the poor. He says, “Biryani is basically a dish of the common man. That is why our effort has always been to keep the prices low.” Despite the very reasonable pricing, the biryani served here is one of the best in Delhi.

Andhra House, in Lutyens’ Delhi, represents the famed biryani tradition of Hyderabad in Delhi. Served only on Sundays, their spicy Hyderabadi biryani is one of the most popular in town.

(Alam Biryani, Zakir Nagar)

There are a number of outlets on the main road near Nizamuddin Basti (like N. Iqbal Biryani) that sell a good biryani in the Moradabadi style. Alam Biryani, in the Zakir Nagar main market, also does a good Moradabadi biryani. This the most subtly flavoured version of biryani. “It is very light, both in terms of the spices used as well as the rice, which is Arva Basmati. The Moradabadi version of biryani has become very famous in Delhi now,” says Zubair Alam, the owner.

(Kolkata Biryani)

Kolkata Biryani is another popular version of biryani. A couple of outlets in Market Number 1, Chittaranjan Park (Delhi’s very own mini Kolkata) do a fine Kolkata biryani. This version stands out for the use of potato and boiled eggs.

Biryani in Kolkata has a story to it with connections to the Lucknow of yore. Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh, who loved a good life like no one, was deposed from his throne by the British. After taking over his kingdom they packed him off to Bengal on a yearly pension. The Nawab arrived with a large retinue including royal cooks but due to a paucity of funds (and therefore meat) the biryani prepared in the kitchens of the exiled Nawab for his large house staff included potatoes and boiled eggs in addition to meat.

This version also uses fewer spices as compared to its Lucknow counterpart. And it is cooked in mustard oil, as is the norm in Bengal. Kolkata biryani is often served with boorani, a type of raita, made using curd, mint leaves, green chillies, rock salt and cumin seeds.