Till you meet people like M. Nallathambi, you wouldn’t know the worth of Dindigul biryani. He travels 20 km daily from his native village to Tamil Nadu’s biryani city to relish a plateful of mutton biryani at Dindigul’s oldest biryani restaurant, the 'Thalappakatti'. 'Unless I am ill or caught up in something important…,' says the 60-year-old.
And there were many more like him who filled up the small restaurant on East Car Street. The time was 11.30 a.m. So, was the biryani a late breakfast or early lunch? Till I went on this assignment, I did not believe biryani could be eaten thrice a day.
It is said that true seekers of biryani must visit Thalappakatti, established in 1957. And to this list now are also included Ponram Biriyani, which came up almost two decades later in 1973 and the fairly recent, Venu Biriyani. Apart from the trademark biryani they sell, what is common to them is their respective army of customers who swear by their names.
I started my biryani sojourn at Ponram’s. The dining area was redolent with the aroma of rice and spice. Naghendran, who grew up watching his grandfather V. Ponram Yadav and father P. Ramachandra Yadav making biriyani, ushered me into a narrow alley where the master cook looked as though he was in a sauna. His day had begun inside the wood-fired kitchen covered in layers of soot. He had to get 10 kg of biryani ready for the first round in the next two hours.
'My grandmother’s recipe is zealously guarded and followed here,' smiled Naghendran. But the cook hardly spoke or looked up. He was a picture of concentration as he moved from one aluminium pan to the other to check, mix or stir the various ingredients that go into the making of the famous biryani. He makes them in instalments of 10 kg — which goes up to 25 kg during festivals — from breakfast to dinner time. Ponram restaurant with two sit-ins and two take-away joints sells 200 kg of biryani everyday and 1,000 take-aways.
'We use our home-made masalas. We rear our own goats to get good quality mutton. The seeraga samba rice used for making biryani is grown in Kodaikanal waters,' was all Naghendran shared about the success of his family brand.
He insisted I taste the biryani first and also suggested the best way would be to start with few spoonfuls of 'empty' biryani and then move on to the full. This was done to explain how the seeraga samba rice used in Dindigul biryani absorbs all the flavours of the ingredients.
Each grain of rice is uniformly marinated in the masalas. And since the meat added to the biryani is always more than the quantity of rice, the seeraga samba soaks in the taste of all the spices and flavours of the meat.
I overdosed on Ponram biryani. The strong aroma of cloves and cardamom, and the accompanying raita made with rich and creamy curd was value-addition.
Biryani recipes are no doubt age-old and the method of preparation too is. The biryani is always slow-cooked over firewood. Once the rice is semi-cooked, it is transferred to the dum style — hot coal is placed on the lid of the vessel so that heat spreads evenly on all sides; the meat inside becomes melting soft and succulent and the grains of rice stay separate.
Thalappakatti’s story too is about exploiting a housewife’s talent in preparing the unique style of biryani. Nagasamy Naidu who used to run a betel nut shop felt that his wife’s special blending of spices could take him places. So he opened a small shop — the Anandha Vilas Biriyani Hotel. While the biryani sold out fast, interestingly his customers did not refer to the joint, which could seat four people at a time, by its actual name. The proprietor who always sat at the cash counter attired in white shirt-dhoti and turban lent the name as customers spontaneously called it 'Thalappakatti'. The small shop still remains on the East Car Street, but sells only takeaway parcels now from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily. The new restaurant is bang opposite.
'Our emphasis is on taste which comes from meticulous selection of ingredients,' said Thalappakatti manager Dhanapal.
Earlier all the ingredients were apparently prepared by Thalappakatti Naidu himself, but today quality masala products are used.
What distinguishes the generic 'Dindigul biryani' is the quality of water used in its preparation. The Kamarajar Lake water from Athoor is said to enhance the flavour of Dindigul biryani.