The Fading Ambiance of Small Biriyani Shops
Eating biriyani in small biriyani shops is a lovely experience. But, things are changing in the name of 'ambiance'. And that hurts an ardent biriyani lover like me.
This is the third episode of my five-part blog series on Street food experiences.
Last week, I wrote about my international trip to Kuala Lumpur and the amazing cuisine I got to taste in the city. This week, I’m going to talk about biriyani - the dish that is close to my heart.
The biriyani shops I knew and enjoyed eating are fading away. They are becoming calm, cold, fancy, refined, and sophisticated. This transformation is taking away biriyani from it being the soul food for Tamil people who belong to all income classes.
Eating biriyani in a traditional biriyani shop is so different from what you experience in a fine-dining restaurant.
When I use the word 'traditional' I'm talking about the not-so-modern biriyani shops that were in business for the last few decades. If you look at them, they would've been upgraded from being run under thatched roofs and pushcarts.
And, they understand how to get customers and make money in the most organic way.
The first and the key ingredient to a good biriyani shop is transparency.
Be it a biriyani shop run from a pushcart or a small restaurant, you can see everything that is going on inside the shop right from the road. You can see people eating in groups, having a good time and you can smell the amazing aroma of the biriyani. These factors reinforce your decision to go have a plate of biriyani in that restaurant.
You can also notice that most old biriyani shops won't have doors. It will be wide open with a big biriyani unda (the aluminum utensil in which the biriyani is cooked) on one side of the entrance and the cashier on the other side. And, you hear the rhythmic beat of the guy tapping the ladle against the rim of the biriyani unda to prevent the rice from sticking to the ladle.
The guy who stands in front of the biriyani unda is nothing short of a wizard.
He is like the one-man army. He spends his afternoons and evenings filling biriyani in stainless steel bowls and takeaway containers. If it is a big biriyani shop, there will be two people. Otherwise it just the one guy.
These guys should be extremely skilled. They'll have work fast; be accurate (to add the right quantity of rice, meat, and egg for each order); And should have a really good memory (They'll have to know the number of biriyanis needed, how many plates of chicken, mutton or egg biriyani and what type of pieces to add to each of them.)
The rhythmic clanging of metal and the aroma of the freshly cooked biriyani will make one salivate like Pavlov's dog.
Once you sit inside, the waiter comes up to you and asks "Chicken or Mutton?".
Most Biriyani restaurants have a fixed menu: Chicken biriyani, Mutton biriyani, Egg biriyani, and Chicken 65.
It takes away the time spent on looking at the menu. You tell the waiter what you want and within the next two minutes, you will have it on your table.
You don't have to listen to instrumental music and eat pickled onions while waiting in hunger for the Al-something chicken you ordered thirty minutes ago.
Another thing that fine-dining biriyani restaurants can't beat is the quantity. I know a lot of places where two people can share a plate of biriyani and still feel full. And it would cost them less than two hundred rupees. Even if you add an additional egg and a plate of Chicken 65, two people can have an amazing meal within three hundred rupees. For the same price, you will get one plate of biriyani in a fine-dining restaurant that can't even make one person feel full.
And, a few restaurants give you dessert. Some form of Kheer or bread halwa along with the biriyani. That will give you a whole new level of fulfillment. You'll feel high when the bread halwa slides down your throat and hits your stomach. It is a surreal experience.
And, despite the restaurant being noisy and the crowd constantly moving in and out of the restaurant, you will enjoy every mouthful of the biriyani. At that precise moment, you will focus on nothing else but the biriyani.
For me, eating biriyani is experiencing pleasure amidst the chaos. It is similar to our lives where we're often surrounded by so much noise, but we somehow manage to smile through them and enjoy the moment.
I don’t know about other states, but in Tamilnadu, biriyani is one of the highly accessible dishes. I would compare biriyani shops here with tea shops as they both act as a venue for socializing. People of any income class can come alone or with their families and have a good time.
The price is fixed, the quantity is humongous and the taste is amazing. And, for people with huge families, it never burns a hole in their pockets. End of the day, it is a win-win for everyone.
But, in recent times, I see the trend where small biriyani shops aim big. They renovate the place, expand their menu, and bump up the price. And, since most of these small restaurants did not have a lot of experience in running fine dining spaces, they collapse within a few months.
Chennai has a history of fine dining biriyani restaurants opening a chain of restaurants and shutting them down within a short span of time. This happens as they disappoint loyal and new customers at the same time. Loyal customers are disappointed as the cost is too high and new customers are disappointed as the experience is not on par with other fine dining restaurants.
A small biriyani shop that did takeaway orders would’ve had 4.5 stars. They will convert it into a huge fine dining space and the rating falls to 3 or 3.5 stars. Small restaurants can stay small and still make a profit by serving existing customers and by partnering with food delivery services. The operating cost is not as huge as running a fine dining restaurant and they can focus on the one thing which is quality and quantity.
I still go to small biriyani shops when I get the craving to eat biriyani (not during this lockdown). I love hearing the constant clanging of the metal when I am eating biriyani. It gives me a sense of fulfillment of having had an amazing meal. I don’t want that to change.