Irina Ridzuan

The Making(s) of Biryani

by Masuma Halai Khwaja

Masuma Khwaja is a brilliant artist from Karachi, Pakistan, whom we are excited to welcome as our first guest artist of 2020. During her one-week research stay with Mediamatic in mid-January, something delicious was made!

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Masuma and Biryani No. 1 - Masuma in the Mediamatic kitchen, making her first batch of vegan Biryani, Pakistani-style. Image courtesy of Fillipo Guiseppe Lannone.

Biryani is a spicy, mixed rice dish often served as a comprehensive meal: with rice, vegetables, sources of protein, and up to 20 spices all cooked in a single pot. Its flavours are multi-layered and sophisticated, but its making is comparably non-laborious. In fact, this dish is a common staple for South Asian countries. But never mistake that there is only one type of Biryani! 

The origins of the dish itself is debatable. Some food scholars have it that the word Biryani came from the Persian 'biryan' or 'beriyan' which means to fry. While others believe that Biryani originated from from 'birinj', the Persian word for rice. Nevertheless, it is commonly believed that the dish has some Persian providence in one way or another. Yet it was in the Mughal period (c.1526-1857) that the modern day Biryani dish took its basic form. Yellow-ish rice stained by the turmeric, textured by diced vegetables and potatoes, all incorporated by a thin coating of yogurt infused with spices. 

What is most special to us about this dish is tracing the history of these spices in a dish, so widely varied and regional. Masuma, our guest artist visiting this past week, whipped up her first batch of vegan, Pakistani-style Biryani. Her larger project revolves around storytelling through food; particularly the tales of spices and colonial powers converging in a scrumptious, hearty meal. Stay tuned to find out more about how Masuma's Biryani evolves to narrate the relationship between Pakistan, United India, and the Netherlands!