Where lies South India’s best biryani? (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)
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How a School Reunion Sparked a Hunt for South India’s Best Biryani

What’s the first food aroma you can remember from your childhood? For me it has to be biryani from the lunch boxes of my class mates back in school (Don Bosco Chennai). Many of my batchmates had a connection with Ambur – a town halfway between Chennai and Bengaluru with a reputation for fine leather products and an even bigger reputation for biryani.

(Ambur is in the heart of the Arcot region, once the domain of the Nawab of Arcots and where good biryani was always in the mix.)

Dindigul biryani with accompaniments. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)
Dindigul biryani with accompaniments. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

A few years ago, one of my school buddies – a leading footwear exporter from Ambur, offered to bring biryani all the way from Ambur for our batch reunion. I instantly agreed; it turned out to be the best biryani I’ve ever eaten. But there was one voice of dissonance in the group who said that he’d eaten better biryani in Dindigul in southern Tamil Nadu. It sparked an impromptu trip to Dindigul some six hours away from Chennai with a ONE point agenda – biryani.

A Biryani Loved by Kamal Haasan

‘Welcome to biryani city’. The signboard outside Dindigul might not please anyone from Hyderabad, the self-proclaimed biryani capital of South India. Even 20 years ago Dindigul was better known as the lock centre of Tamil Nadu (just like Aligarh in UP) with a decades old tradition in lock making. But today road trippers from Bengaluru and Chennai make the detour to Dindigul on their way to Kodaikanal for Dindigul biryani.

It was probably Nagasamy Naidu who put Dindigul on the food map when he started Anandha Vilas Biryani in 1957. Most patrons referred to him as Thalappakatti Naidu because of his turban (Thalappa). Eventually the restaurant borrowed his nickname and today it has grown to become a successful restaurant chain with outlets across South India.

The best biryani is always cooked in large quantities and on a firewood stove. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)
The best biryani is always cooked in large quantities and on a firewood stove. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

We made multiple stops in Dindigul – including Dindigul Thalappakatti – but finally found the best biryani at Ponram.

Unlike other restaurants, the team is happy to share their biryani recipe: “You can’t source the same quality of ingredients unless you’re in Dindigul”. First it’s the local lamb (sembari adu), then a small grain rice varietal (seeraga samba) and water (in which the biryani is cooked) from Dindigul’s pristine water source – the Kamaraj Lake in nearby Athoor, a truly scenic spot.
Kamaraj Lake in Athoor, the pristine water source for Dindigul town and its biryani. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)
Kamaraj Lake in Athoor, the pristine water source for Dindigul town and its biryani. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

Ponram’s team are proud of their A-lister clientele that includes Kamal Haasan and Arvind Swami – but they ought to be more proud of their biryani and the outstanding onion pachadi (raitha) with a thick Greek tzatziki style consistency.

Forget the Mutton, Here’s to a Prawn/Seer Fish Biryani!

Dindigul and Ambur are not the only biryani towns that don’t receive the attention they deserve on the national stage; there’s also Kozhikode – probably my favourite food destination in Kerala.

Almost all roads in this coastal city lead to Paragon, that has been a local legend here since the 1930s. There are few places in India where you will find a restaurant packed at 11 am, but this is a city where everyone takes their food seriously and almost any time of day is biryani time.

Paragon, Kozhikode. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)
Paragon, Kozhikode. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)
In most parts of India, biryani almost always refers to mutton biryani. Not so in the Malabar region – here there’s room for everything from a prawn to a seer fish biryani. Just like Dindigul, the Malabaris use a unique small grain rice varietal – Kaima rice (also called Jeerakasala rice) and unlike most other biryanis, the use of spices is subtle. In fact, it’s the fried onions that lend the biryani its mild brown hue.

This biryani might look innocuous but the flavours slowly unravel like characters in a Cold War spy thriller. Most restaurants and homes serve the biryani with a traditional list of accompaniments like the sweet and spicy date pickle, a mildly spicy raitha and the ubiquitous, fluffy Kerala pappadam.

After Kozhikode I was back a full circle in Ambur where I made a quick stop at Star Biryani, Ambur’s most famous biryani restaurant. While their biryani was terrific it still didn’t match up to the biryani dished out by Ambur’s wedding cooks who also make occasional appearances at large Muslim weddings in Chennai and Bengaluru.

Chicken biryani at Paragon. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)
Chicken biryani at Paragon. (Photo Courtesy: Ashwin Rajagopalan)

The quest for the best biryani ended where it began. I might be biased but if I had to pick the best biryani in India, it would be the Ambur version. I know my friends from Hyderabad and Lucknow might disagree!

Getting There

Ambur is three hours by road from Chennai and Bengaluru.

Dindigul is five hours by road from Bengaluru and six hours from Chennai.

Kozhikode is a seven hours’ drive from Bengaluru.

(Ashwin Rajagopalan enjoys communicating across boundaries in his three distinct roles as a widely published lifestyle writer, one of India’s only cross cultural trainers and a consultant for a global brand services firm. Ashwin writes extensively on travel, food, technology and trends)