Every morning, Mahfuzur Rahman performs a culinary ritual undertaken by many old hands across the Greater Toronto Area: with a touch no less nimble than a painter’s, Rahman sifts through pounds of long-grain basmati rice in a handi — a traditional wide-brimmed, wrought-iron vessel — to ensure that the slow-cooked layers of marinated meat, caramelized onions, tomato-yoghurt purée, and spices are all infused perfectly to produce the perfect batch of biryani: one that harmonizes the flavourful juices of the succulent meat with the fiery aftertaste of the saffron-coloured rice.
Rahman is the owner of Curry Kitchen at Church Street and Dundas Street — his restaurant is one of the many South Asian restaurants specializing in biryani springing up around the city.
Yes, the craft of cooking biryani, like painting, requires a light touch, sensitivity to the elements, and an eye for layering detail. Biryani chefs aggressively guard their recipes, lending every outlet serving biryani in Toronto its own unique, in-house taste.
Originally created in the lavish kitchens of the great Mughals of India, biryani enjoyed regal origins. Today it is relished on the streets of Delhi and Lahore more frequently than it is in top-end restaurants as haute cuisine.
South Asian immigrants brought biryani to Canada in the 1970s and 1980s. But it wasn’t until the late 1990s that restaurants and take-outs began to specialize in making it.
Even then, it was to the suburbs, not the downtown core that biryani enthusiasts had to flock to get their fix of this popular sub-continental dish. Little India/Pakistan was also a popular choice, especially the iconic Lahore Tikka House on Gerrard Street East.
Beaming at an inscription detailing the history of his restaurant, Choudhry Mateen, proprietor of the Karachi Kitchen franchise, proudly recalls being one of the first people to serve traditionally cooked biryani in the GTA: “When I came here in 1996, there were restaurants that served regular Indian fare, including biryani, but it wasn’t made using the real method.”
“Earlier they would erroneously cook the rice separately from the meat and spices and simply mix the two at the end,” he says. “I started the proper dum method of cooking biryani in Toronto.”
Dum is a method of slow-cooking, frequently using earthenware utensils sealed with dough to allow the meat to stew in the spices, used in the Indian subcontinent.
Mateen is a gregarious man who is fond of his biryani and takes care to ensure that it is cooked in his signature way. He turned away a career in medicine in Pakistan to pursue his passion for food and he has his restaurant’s popularity has to show for it.
During the month of Ramadan, lines of customers from across the GTA extend well into the parking lot, says Bilal Masood, head of marketing, pointing to the large parking lot outside the restaurant’s Mississauga location.
Costing a mere $5.00, the chicken biryani at Karachi Kitchen is undoubtedly authentic and just as fiery as its South Asian cousin.
Yoghurt is often served as a side with biryani to temper the spice, although it is consumed just as often on its own, and Karachi Kitchen’s is best enjoyed independently.
With its popularity spiking, biryani is increasingly becoming a fast-food alternative to your pizzas and burgers, says Mateen. And as it is quite tedious to cook it at home, most people prefer to go out to eat.
Masood also alludes to biryani’s popularity with people from outside the sub-continent as a fine example of Toronto’s diversity. “People love Indian and Pakistani cuisine, especially biryani.”
Indeed, Torontonians’ exposure to cuisines from around the world often spoils one for choice, but the growing love for biryani reflects the city’s proclivity for food and an adventurous palate.
While restaurants in Little India/Pakistan do a decent job serving regular sub-continental cuisine, outlets specializing in biryani are few and far between.
In the downtown core, restaurants like Mehran and King’s Palace are popular stops with cabbies because of their late hours, cheap prices and authentic South Asian food, including biryani.
Akram Chaudhry, owner of Mehran at Church Street and Gerrard Street, acknowledges that biryani is one of his most popular dishes. He immigrated to Canada in 1976 from Pakistan and found work as an auditor. Eager to operate his own business, he took the plunge and opened Mehran 17 years ago.
At the time, there was no real choice for biryani downtown, apart from Chandni Chowk on Gerrard Street, he says.
Originally a coffee shop, he converted Mehran into a restaurant as his customer base slowly increased. “Here we serve the Punjabi variety of biryani,” he says. Punjabi biryani tends to be spicier because it is garnished with green chillies. Other popular varieties include Hyderabadi, Sindhi, and Awadhi.
Today, blue-collar workers, businessmen, government employees, students, and of course, cab drivers — a good demographic cross section of the Garden District — all patronize Mehran, especially for the $6.99 chicken biryani combo.
Now, with over a dozen restaurants specializing in biryani operating downtown itself, it is quickly emerging as a Toronto fast-food staple. For many students it is also a refreshing alternative to the usual burgers and shawarmas to satiate those appetites worked-up after a night out.
Additional place for outstanding biryani
King’s Palace on Church Street and Collier Street: The $6.99 chicken biryani is good. Kebabs are also recommended. Open late, from 11:00 am – 6:00 am.
Quick Pita on College Street and St. George Street: Chosen mainly because of its convenient location just south of the downtown campus, the $6.77 chicken biryani is served fresh in this small, family-owned restaurant.
Curry Kitchen on Church Street. at Dundas Street. East: A relatively unknown downtown treasure, try the chicken biryani (available spicy or mild) for $5.00, served in generous portions. Open until midnight, including on weekends.
Biryani King on Bovaird Drive West and Main Street North: A must-stop for biryani enthusiasts that find themselves in Brampton. Served to the brim in styrofoam boxes, the chicken biryani costs $5.00. The lamb biryani is worth trying too. Take-out only.