The reason this is such an achievement is less because the biryani was some sort of meat and rice epiphany—it was not—but more so because I feel like this particular biryani has been baking in my life almost every week, for the last 6 weeks. At the end of that 6 week wait, it wasn’t the earth-shattering biryani that my mind had hyped it up to be...but it was still a home-style biryani that I’d recommend, mostly because the boulders of mutton had this thick gooey gravy hugging their chewy outsides, making the biryani far more moist and flavourful than the usual dry mutton-and-rice commercial versions you get in the city.
There’s nothing like having wet clumps of masala in your biryani, and the best way to get that thick masala sludge is by adding copious amounts of onions to the meat, and letting them cook down with the spices and meaty juices until they’re all one mud-brown swamp of unified flavour.
That’s the trick to an authentic Bhatkali Biryani, native to Bhatkal, a coastal town near Mangalore in Karnataka. The secret lies in using sacks of onions, which melt down (the onions, not the sacks.) to become that thick sediment of gravy you can see at the bottom of my biryani takeout container. According to an informative article on Bhatkal by India Today, a Bhatkali Biryani is supposed to house a big potato in the centre that gets dum-cooked (cooked under pressure) along with the meat and rice. Said potato never made it to my takeout containers from the Bhatkal Restaurant, though who needs a potato when you have masala-masked hunks of meat? *lone vegetarian retreats from room in search of prodigal potato.*
Had you ever come across Bhatkali Biryani (other than right now, when you're snacking on a quick foodie post before your boss plants his beady eyes back on your computer screen)? I certainly hadn’t until this very first time, when I have was destined to have it. Let me show you destiny through a creepy chronology:
Week 1: Someone – let’s call him Gracious Frying Pan Benefactor [GFPB] – mentions this biryani to me sometime around mid-August, and sends me directions to a restaurant near the Deira creekside where he had heard they served this ethnic speciality. If not for him, Bhatkali biryani would never have hit my radar.
Week 2: A fellow blogger Satyen writes an eloquent biryani post and references this mysterious biryani again.
Week 3: Another week passed, and GFPB asks me if I’d completed the biryani quest. I find myself muttering silly excuses that were so silly that I can’t even remember what they were. That very same week, a person (you know who you are.) tweets to me, and innocently asks if I’ve tried this restaurant in Deira that serves…Bhatkal biryani? Ummm…no, but it’s on my list, twice already?
Turns out, my twitter-informer interrogating me about my experience, or inexperience, with the Bhatkal restaurant was the nephew of the man who ran the place. That’s not just a small world, that to me is a psychotic world. Three straight weeks of talking about a restaurant and its biryani, in three different, isolated situations.
Week 4: No one mentions the restaurant and I can finally let that creeped-out-by-biryani feeling slink away. I can focus on other things, like cleaning out my drawers and cupboards of all those knick knacks that sneak their way into my room, random trinkets and little pieces of paper like…
Yeah. Okay. Creeeeepy. I just stood there blinking at the card with the B-word written all over it. Cross my heart, I am not making this up. It’s tempting to glamorize stuff for my blog, but honestly, this isn’t one of those times. I can’t remember for the gluttonous life of me where that card came from. There are times when my life becomes a hat with random rabbits popping out of nowhere, and it really, truly does freak me out. This was the first time I actually shoved a Biryani Appointment onto my calendar. It had to be knocked off that weekend, so that the Bhatkal Biryani voodoo would stop once and for all.
Week 5-6: The calendar appointment turned out to be useless, because my wisdom teeth descended on me promptly after and I stopped all chewing action for the next ten days. When I could finally grind my teeth again, Bhatkali biryani was one of the first things I crossed off my list. I ordered two of them actually, a mutton one, and their special fish one that the restaurant only serves on Tuesdays and Fridays. The fish biryani was rigged with plump pieces of flaky kingfish, caked over with a leathery masala skin and jagged fleshy insides that tasted ever so slightly of the sea.
Both were quite good, though for a total price of AED 23.00 (for both tubs of biryani), these tubs of biryani blew all the other pricier hotel biryanis out the window. The rice was perfectly steamed, appropriately coloured, and with a slight sheen of biryani masala grease coating their outsides. I normally don’t load up on the rice, but there was something homely about these biryanis that made me dig back into the tub for multiple spoonfuls.
Was the Bhatkal version exceptionally different from Hyderabadi Biryani? No, except for that thick gloopy gravy. And if you compare it to homemade Hyderabadi (which I realize, is a very unfair thing to do), it missed the saffron that’s the subtle yet crowning glory of a good biryani. But in all fairness, that might be an unreasonable ingredient to add if keep in mind that the price point is a notch higher than a cheap shawarma, and even equal to some of the newer and pricier shawarma joints. Would I order it again? Maybe. I’d order the mutton one again, though I’d probably give the milder fish biryani a miss. The nuggets of fish could have done with more salt, or lemon, or just more onions and spices to kick up their bland innards a notch. Would I eat at the restaurant? Probably not, I’ve been told that takeout is the way to go.
I think this biryani has the potential to go from good to Gangnam (had to use it. Yaaay.), and the key to that would be fried onions, koshari style. If they threw on a garnish of crispy, salty, golden strands of deep-fried onions (which I realize is not the authentic Bhatkali style—but let’s think taste, and not authenticity for a second), or served them on the side so you could mix it into every handful of rice, that would totally transform the biryani experience. More restaurants serving biryani need to start onionizing their biryanis, because, as a wise friend recently espoused,
‘You can never have too many fried onions.’
Phone: +971 (4) 226-7545
Call before you go and pre-order your takeaway. Restaurant is shut for afternoon prayer times on Friday.
Al Ras (near St. George Hotel along the Deira Creek, after you pass Gold Souk on your right)
Map as below: