The last time I was in Bengaluru, I went on a food rampage, crowdsourcing a list of 46 places and trying out nine of them. One of my biggest misses that time was not making it to a donne biryani place.
This time my visit was really quick, and I didn't even anticipate having time to go out and eat. All that changed in a jiffy. There I was, casually browsing the eateries around me on Google Maps (yes, that's as legitimate a way to spend time as scrolling through trolling on social media!) and suddenly, it leaped out at me. Donne Biryani. And not just any donne biryani, but Cubbonpete donne biryani. With a rating of more than four, and a location of less than three kilometres away, it was within easy ride sharing distance.
For the uninitiated, donne biryani is not some metaphysical manifestation of biryani named after the famous poet John Donne, despite what literature majors would have you believe. You don't have to go catch a falling star to enjoy this delicacy. Now, if you're uninitiated even to biryani, there's not much I can do to help you beyond telling you that it's an emotion, a subculture, a way of life and a sign of advanced civilisation. The rest you'll have to Wikipedia.
Donne biryani, if you look at its literal meaning, is just biryani served in a leaf pouch. That's it. However, that's about as accurate as describing Sachin Tendulkar as a man with a bat, or Mahendra Singh Dhoni as a man wearing wicket keeping pads or Mary Kom as a woman wearing boxing gloves. Technically accurate, but about as far off the point you can get and be in the same universe. Not any biryani can be served in a donne (the aforementioned leaf pouch).
While there are several technical differences, the key ones are that it's not made with basmati rice, neither the flavour of onion nor tomato is prominent in the masala, and it's virtually unknown outside Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Before you Hyderabadis start chucking your Irani chai and Osmania biscuits at me and you Lucknowis start throwing your bade miyan and galouti kebabs at me, allow me to explain further. After a detour.
After some ride sharing high jinks, I reached Cubbonpete Donne Biryani. The very sight of it sent shivers of excitement down my spine. The best donne biryani places are the least to look at, and Cubbonpete Donne Biryani fit the bill handsomely. Despite a colourful board proclaiming it to the world to be Cubbonpete Donne Biryani, it is really easily missed, especially if you're in a fast car and are prone to blinking. While a fancier writer might call the decor minimalist, I'll stick to the unvarnished truth and call it bare.
Half a dozen metal tables in a harshly-lit semi basement with a partition unsuccessfully keeping the kitchen activities from prying eyes. That's it. I stepped into the light (“And the people bowed and prayed, To the neon God they made” would have been playing in my head if it hadn't been drowned out by the donne-biryani-dreams-induced stomach-growling) and was waved to a table by one of the waiters. There were three waiters, only one of whom was actually waiting on the tables. The other two were merely waiting behind the aspiring partition and, I suspect, providing him with moral support.
In keeping with the decor, the menu was barebones, with merely thirteen items on it. In keeping with the spirit of bareness, the availability was also limited, and seven of the items on the list were not available. At this juncture, I'd like to invite you to notice my skillful avoidance of the word 'minimal' and all its variations, thereby proving to you the unvarnished nature of my observations, and my sense of duty to you, my readers. Carry on.
I ordered the chicken donne biryani and mutton kheema ball and sat back to wait for it. Looking around, I took in my less than grand surroundings. Since the decor was nothing to write about, I looked at my fellow-patrons. Every single one of them - all eight other patrons - were knuckle deep in donnes. My choice of place was reaffirmed - if the one thing that people came here for was donne biryani, I was happy to be one of them. I didn’t really have any more time to dawdle. Quick as a flash (not the Flash - that would be superhuman and impossible, but you can never tell when you’re eating biryani), I was looking at a plate of donne biryani and a bowl of mutton kheema ball (which turned out to be a curry with spherically-moulded minced mutton) in front of me.
The biryani had the obligatory half boiled egg and was accompanied by bowls of raita (watery thin and hardly worth a mention) and salan (entirely unnecessary) and some chopped onions with a quarter of a lime (not necessary, but not unwelcome).
With superhuman self control, I managed to hold back myself and clicked a few pictures of the food using my phone. What happened after that is mostly a blur, but I will try, like they do on the super slo-mo videos on YouTube, where they slow down everything so you can see what’s happening, and narrate to you the sequence of events.
The speed and technique with which my five fingers engaged with the biryani would put the Furious Five to shame - before even I realised it, I was ripping through rice, chicken, the watery raita and the chopped onions. The mutton ball was easy prey and effortlessly combined with the biryani for a match made in culinary heaven.
The immediately noticeable differences about the biryani were to do with the rice and the masala. The rice was not the long-grained basmati you find in typical Hyderabadi, Mughlai or Lucknowi biryanis. It was the much shorter grained seeraga samba, a staple of biryani in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This is a much more denser rice that readily absorbs the masala and provides a fuller mouthfeel than basmati biryani. The fact that it does these two things literally results in a mouthful of flavour that immediately surpasses other biryanis. Which brings us to the flavour part.
This is where the uniqueness of the masala comes into the picture. To break down the way I’m describing the masala, I will need to narrate to you a little Eureka moment I had some time ago, which literally gave me the vocabulary to go beyond “Wow that’s a brilliant biryani.” Having been a prodigious biryani eater since before I was born (apparently my grand-uncle was the purveyor of packages of Angannan biryani to my mother when she was pregnant with me. I attribute her partiality to the biryani to myself), I’ve never truly sat back and asked myself what makes this biryani different from that one, and what was the reason behind my preferences for a particular biryani over another. But that was before I started writing about the things I eat, and caring about the gentle folk who are my readers.
Now, every meal, good or bad, is a journey to another one of my gastronomical pontifications, and I have to be more mindful of what I experience (see how I slyly slipped in the hipstery bit there!). So the last time I had to eat three different biryanis in a day (that’s me hard at work for you!), I was looking for a way of figuring out how I would rate biryanis on a scoring scale if I had to. The rice and meat part is easy - rice has to be cooked properly, and it has to have absorbed the appropriate flavours and the meat has to be cooked fully, yet be tender and juicy. Points can be awarded and objective comparisons can be made easily on these aspects. But the place where each ustaad weaves their own magic is in the masala, that magic spice mix, the exact proportions of different vegetables and spices, and in some cases, secret ingredients that only they know.
Now, every masala is unique - the exact same recipe cooked by my grandmother, my mom and my chithi would each taste different. That is the hand of the cook, and there is no real way to objectively rate or compare it. So we have to designate it as the x-factor. After a lot of thought, debate and eating, I figured one way to describe the masala from the perspective of rating or comparing it is to try and figure out, while you are eating it, which vegetable is the hero of the dish. I found that in Hyderabadi biryanis, the taste profile tends to be around tomato or onion. If you try hard, and really take time off from enjoying a biryani to break down the taste, you will, if you are eating a Hyderabadi biryani, end up at tomato or onion. Yes, even if snooty Hyderabadis deny that their biryani has tomato in it, enough ustaads add it in the mix for it to be a type.
From that perspective, I found that the donne biryani’s taste profile is centered around mint. That makes it refreshing and refreshingly different. This does not mean it is minty fresh and gives you fresh breath - rather, it means that if you carefully consider what is making this biryani different from other biryanis you’ve had, you will come to the inevitable conclusion that the taste tying together the masala is that of mint.
Since this was a superlatively well-balanced and prepared biryani, this is both subtle (till you notice it) and in your face (once you notice it, you cannot un-notice it.) On all the other fronts, it excelled. The rice was cooked beautifully with the flavour absorbed fully. The meat was tender and juicy and tasty. The masala was a typical donne biryani masala - very well-balanced, a little on the spicier side, but not over the top (Kritunga biryanis - I’m looking at you), and an absolute delight.
The mutton ball was another winner. The mince was fine and tender, the curry was flavourful and muttony, and together, they made a brilliant accompaniment to the donne biryani. This is a meal I would definitely not mind repeating. If you’re in Bengaluru, go forthwith to the nearest donne biryani place and have it. If you’re not, start planning your next trip to Bengaluru - the donne biryani is waiting!
All images courtesy Navin Sigamany.