Biryani, briyani or buryani?

My lunch companion and I are still engrossed in our debate even after our biryani is served on a banana leaf at an outdoor table at Imam Banana Leaf Restaurant in Geylang.

Like a pair of nerds, we argue over the correct spelling – and consequently, pronunciation – of the beloved rice dish. I’m adamant it should be spelt and pronounced “biryani”.

The name changes as it travels, my friend Selvam argues. “In India, it’s mostly known as biryani, but in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, it is biriyani – because of how the word is read in Tamil.”

As valid as his observations are, I nonetheless reject them as irrelevant.

“If one has to be true to the origin of the dish, then it is biryani, as it comes from Persia. Or, if we consider that its origin is from the Indian languages, primarily Urdu, again biryani is the accurate spelling,” I replied defiantly, fleetingly recollecting a linguistics course in semantics I took 20 years ago in college for extra credit.

In 2004, Indian archaeologists discovered some 170 varieties of biryani recorded by the Maharaja of Patiala, and biryani experts gauge there could be 20 to 30 varieties of biryani that traverse the Indian subcontinent.

Biryani comes from the word “birian”, which means “fried before cooking” in Persian. The Mughals credit themselves for introducing the dish to India, where the two more well-known versions of the dish are the Lucknow, or Awadhi, and Hyderabadi.

Both use similar cooking styles – meat, fish or vegetables cooked with spices, combined with rice and finished in a pot. This style is called dum briyani in Singapore, largely to separate it from the local version where the rice and meat are cooked separately.

The Middle East countries have their own versions, of course – Nasi Mandi anyone? – while in Bangladesh, puffed rice is used in their biryanis. And in Sri Lanka, where it is called buryani, I’m told there is a version made with idiyappam. Slightly sacrilegious, but fine.

In Singapore and Malaysia, the local version is largely made by Indian-Muslim restaurants. And it is at one such eatery that tabla! is kick-starting its Biryani Is Life column, which will regularly give you the lowdown on various low-key biryani joints across Singapore, regardless of style, spice level or rice colour.

At Imam Banana Leaf, though the establishment serves primarily south Indian dishes with white rice, the biryani is its biggest draw – most notably, the lamb shank biryani ($17).

A sizeable lamb shank slathered with gravy is placed alongside fragrant basmati rice studded with broken down cashews and accompanied by raita and a crumpled piece of popadum. I swapped the regular-sized hard-boiled egg accompaniment for quail eggs.

It’s vital to note that this is not your traditional “dum” style where the meat is cooked with the rice, allowing the grains to absorb the juices and fat from the meat.

The light-brown coloured rice has no pretence of added saffron or the like. It does, however, have a good amount of heat, much thanks to the south Indian spices.

This ain’t Hyderabadi; it is unapologetically Singaporean. And though not as revered as the authentic “dum” version, Imam’s rendition passes the test.

The meat is so tender that it falls right off the bone without even a mere prod of the fork and, crucially, before I had time to snap a meaningful photo.

The shank is pricey, but you get what you paid for. Just make sure you use your hands to get every morsel of meat off the bone. A fork and spoon gets you only so far before your shirt gets masala-splattered.

Imam’s chicken biryani also has a unique quality, with its lightly fried thigh pieces coated in thick red gravy. While resembling something out of a tandoor, it tastes akin to a Malay-style ayam masak merah (chicken in spicy tomato sauce).

Some traditionalists might not take too well to Imam’s flight from authenticity here, but there’s also merit in being different from the rest.

By the time we’re scooping up the last grains of rice from our banana leaves, Selvam and I are finally in agreement. It doesn’t matter how you spell or pronounce biryani. If a dozen variations mean there are a dozen different versions of the timeless dish, then biryani is better for it.

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