On the surface, biryani and pulao are similar dishes. They’re both delicious all-in-one combinations of rice and a mix of meat and vegetables that comes from the Indian subcontinent. But when you look a little deeper, the two dishes have distinct differences. Biryani and pulao are cooked, spiced and served differently and even have a different history. Although some people use the terms interchangeably or say they’re the same dish, true foodies understand what makes biryani and pulao unique.
It’s All in the Cooking
The main difference between biryani and pulao is the way that they’re cooked. Pulao is the simpler dish. It’s cooked in one pot and the finished product is mixed together. It’s also cooked using the absorption method, meaning liquid is added to the rice and other ingredients and the dish is cooked until all the water is soaked up by the rice.
Biryani, on the other hand, is a complex dish that can take a long time to prepare. It’s defined by its layers; a true biryani has a layer of rice, then a layer of the meat or vegetables being used, followed by a top layer of rice. Generally, the rice is par-boiled while the meat and vegetables are cooked in the spices. Then the two mixes are layered in a pot and cooked for a long time over low heat.
Biryani is served as a main dish and has a complex mix of spices that give it a rich flavor. Pulao, on the other hand, is usually a side dish. It’s always flavorsome, but tends to use simpler spices
History of the Dishes
Food historians still debate the origins of the two dishes, but it’s possible they have a common ancestor. Simple one-pot meals of rice and meat may have evolved based on local ingredients, leading to different regional dishes, including biryani, pulao and paella in Spain.
Pulao is found throughout the world and known by many different names. In America, it’s often known as pilaf, while those in the UK call it pilau. Other names include pela, polo and fulao. Most believe it originated in central Asia and spread from there, importing pulao south to India and north into Europe. When central Asia was part of the USSR, pulao even became a staple on Russian tables. Charles Perry named five great schools of pulao: Caribbean, Central Asian, Indian, Iranian and Turkish. Each was developed using the ingredients and flavors found in the region.
Biryani, on the other hand, has its origins in India. Some food historians believe it was developed for royalty of the Mughal Empire that ruled much of India from 1526 to 1857. Others think it came to southern India via Arab traders. Still others say that it developed somewhat independently in both locations. Cooks in different parts of India developed regional specialities that use local ingredients and even different cooking methods, such as kacchi biryani, which layers raw meat and rice together and cooks them in a single pot.
Pulao is the easier dish for an amateur cook to try. First, gather your ingredients. Basmati rice is the most popular type of rice to use in the dish, but others can also be used. For meat, goat or poultry is traditional, but the dish is built around using what’s at hand, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Vegetable options include onions, carrots, peas or whatever appeals. For spices you can go as complex or simple as you like. An Indian pulao generally uses cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, cloves and pepper. Lastly, you need the liquid. Plain water is perfectly acceptable, although some people prefer a meat broth to add flavor. You should have around twice as much liquid as rice.
The most important step in cooking a pulao is washing the rice. Both the pulao and biryani are defined by the way the rice grains in the dishes are separate. Washing the rice gets rid of the starch that makes the grains stick together. Some people recommend washing it at least three times, while others soak their rice overnight. At the very least, wash your rice in running water until the water runs clear.
To cook, heat some oil in a saucepan. Next, add your aromatics, such as garlic and onions, and your spices, and stir until onion is softened and the spices have released their fragrance and flavor. Next, add the meat. This should only be cooked until it’s sealed. Then add half your liquid, bring it to a boil and cover until the meat is almost cooked. For chicken, this is around 10 minutes.
Then add the rest of the water and the rice. Bring it back to a boil and simmer for 18-20 minutes, until all the liquid is absorbed and the meat is tender. At the end of the cooking time you can stir through some fresh herbs for extra flavor.
There are many different pulao recipes you can try to appeal to a range of different palates.
Biryani is a much more difficult recipe to master. A traditional biryani can take hours to prepare and cook and there are often side dishes such as raita and chutneys that also need to be made. Many recipes found online don’t have the layers, which makes them closer to a pulao than a biryani.
Again, washing your rice is key, as is developing a spice mix that gives a rich, robust flavor. In a biryani, the meat is browned separately from the rice, which is partially cooked, then drained. Create layers with half the rice, a layer of meat and finally the rest of the rice. Broth or gravy is added, which is soaked up by the bottom layer of rice, leaving the top layer light and fluffy.
If you’re planning to cook biryani at home, find a recipe that has a mix of spices that appeal to you, whether that’s the cardamom and cloves of a Hyderabadi biryani or the turmeric and mustard oil found in Kolkata.