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Several metal trays of rice casserole decorated with brown and white boiled eggs.
Jackson Heights Bangladeshi restaurant Merit Kabab offers multiple forms of biryani.

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A Primer to New York’s Highly Spiced, Widely Varied, and Spectacularly Lush Biryanis

The New York area is rich in biryani, with regional varieties and clever new recipes to spare. Critic Robert Sietsema surveys the scene.

Biryani feels like a dish of the moment, and there have never been so many types available to us in and around New York City. A recipe with a rich history, it comprises seasoned rice mixed with a variety of ingredients, headlined by meat, poultry, or just vegetables. In cold weather and during trying times, few things are as soul-restoring as biryani. Here is how it came about.

With the arrival of the Mughal Dynasty in 1526, Islamic rule was established in a large part of India. Centered in the north, it also encompassed parts of modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The empire was to flourish until 1720, though portions lingered until it was officially dissolved by the British colonialists in the mid-19th century.

The Mughals had a profound effect on South Asia’s cooking. According to Indian Food: A Historic Companion by K.T. Achaya, the native cuisine was “enriched with nuts, raisins, spices, and ghee,” and dishes such as kebabs, samosas, lassis, halwa, and the rice casserole pulao — akin to Middle Eastern pilaf — were introduced. This pulao, though still present on Indian menus, evolved into today’s biryani.

Sometimes served communally and ceremonially, biryani may contain, in addition to rice and a main ingredient, diced vegetables; whole boiled eggs; nuts, including cashews and pistachios; and dried, pickled, or fresh fruits. It boasts multiple regional variations, and many cities and states have their own distinct types. Vegetarian versions abound. For carnivores, goat and mutton are popular, with chicken a runner-up. Biryani may be cooked in layered fashion, with individual grains of rice colored yellow, red, or brown. Here, as in South Asia, entire restaurants are devoted to it, of which Jersey City currently has at least six.

Some say biryani originated in northeastern India, and one of the showiest versions is still associated with the city of Lucknow. In this stronghold of Mughal cuisine, the dum style of cooking was developed, whereby dishes like biryani were slow-cooked in a sealed vessel, causing the other ingredients to infuse the rice with extra flavor. Originally, a sheet of dough was used for this purpose. The practice of sealing the vessel and cooking at low temperatures, designated dum biryani, is a cornerstone of many recipes.

Another hotbed of biryani is the southern city of Hyderabad. In fact, dum biryani attributed to Hyderabad is probably the New York region’s most prevalent style. While Lucknow biryani incorporates marinated meat from the start of cooking, Hyderabad’s often mixes it in mid-preparation. Hyderabadi biryani is also more frequently colored with saffron and more aggressively seasoned.

In recent years, in Jersey City especially, Hyderabadi biryanis have come to compete with those of the city of Vijayawada to its southeast, which tend to have tart vegetable pickles and dark gravies mixed in with the rice at the last moment, making them even spicier. Nevertheless, identifying distinct biryani types has become increasingly difficult due to the influence of different forms upon each other. Ultimately, every biryani depends on the culinary sensibilities of its chef.

Biryanis often arrive festively garnished with raw purple onions, cilantro, lemon wedges, and boiled eggs. Whatever their origin, most biryanis come with yogurt raita as a spoon-on condiment. In the south, a peanut sauce called salan and sometimes regional chutneys are also provided.

The city’s hotbed of biryani is clearly Queens, with many restaurants offering or even specializing in it in the middle and far eastern parts of the borough. Accordingly, Queens is listed first in our guide, followed by New Jersey, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. Go to any of the neighborhoods mentioned here, and find excellent biryani.

Queens

Dum biryani boasts a crust across the top. Gary He

Lucknow goat biryani at Adda Indian Canteen

This is the charming place partly responsible for biryani’s recent surge in popularity here. Under chef Chintan Pandya and owner Roni Mazumdar, it revived traditional Mughal biryani techniques attributed to Lucknow, India, by preparing the rice casserole in a round pot sealed with dough to help concentrate the flavors. The crust is broken open as the dish is brought to the table, and fragrant steam engulfs the diners. Located on the border of Long Island City and Sunnyside in Queens, Adda offers home-style northern Indian cooking using freshly ground masalas, garnering myriad critical plaudits. 31-31 Thomson Avenue, between 31st and Van Dam streets, Long Island City

A mountain of meat flecked brown rice.

Mutton biryani at Taste of Cochin

The menu of this southern Indian restaurant — named after the coastal city of Cochin, now known as Kochi — is located in the Bellerose neighborhood of Queens and partly reflects the cooking of the Kerala state located in the southern region of the subcontinent. The lamb is precooked in a paste of garlic and ginger to which yogurt has been added, then cooked again with the rice to prepare the finished dish. Accessory flavorings are multiple, including mint leaves, chiles, and ground spices. 248-08 Union Turnpike, between 248th and 249th streets, Bellerose

A selection of rice and vegetable dishes in white bowls.

Goat biryani and mutton pulao at Khaabar Baari

Like Lucknowi biryani, Bangladeshi kacchi biryani is steamed in a sealed vessel, with the meat — marinated in yogurt and ground spices — and the rice in separate layers. The rice is colored yellow, and the meat and rice are mixed before serving. This picture shows the goat biryani as part of a banquet along with a mutton pulao, demonstrating the contrast between the two, at this Bangladeshi buffet in Jackson Heights. 37-16 73rd Street, between Broadway and 37th Avenue, Jackson Heights

A square white bowl turned at an angle, inside is rice studded with shrimp and meat.

Special biryani at Chawlas2

This international Indian chain just north of Aqueduct Racetrack with over 100 branches in northern India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and two in the U.S. (the other is in Texas) prides itself in its creamy curries formulated by founder S. Attar Singh Chawla, and its biryanis are in the Punjabi style. The most extravagant feature? Multiple proteins — including chicken, shrimp, and baby goat, as well as boiled eggs — in a rice matrix turned dark with ground spices. 113-19 Rockaway Boulevard, between Linden Boulevard and 114th Street, South Ozone Park

A dark ceramic vessel filled with a meat and rice casserole, with green cilantro on top.

Goat biryani at Bajeko Sekuwa

A branch of a Nepalese chain founded by Dinanath Bhandari, with a dozen restaurants in his home country and others internationally, Bajeko Sekuwa bills itself as a barbecue, offering a menu in a Himalayan, northern Indian, and Indo-Chinese vein. The goat biryani features meat with a smoky flavor and the pungent but pared-down spice mixture is characteristic of many Himalayan forms of biryani, here tendered in individual servings, providing a subtle contrast to the Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani biryanis of nearby Jackson Heights. Served with raita. 43-16 Queens Boulevard, between 43rd and 44th streets, Sunnyside

Six boiled eggs splotched with brown sauce on a small bowl of brown rice.

Egg biryani at Hyderabadi Biryani & Chat

Yes, you usually get a boiled egg perched on top of your Hyderabadi-style biryani, but one striking version at this Flushing palace of biryani flaunts a whole half dozen, draped with caramelized onions and sluiced with brown gravy for extra sweetness. Whether your biryani features one egg or more, the move is to break them up into finger-size fragments and mix them in with the rest of the rice and vegetables. Biryani for breakfast? Why not? 44-27 Kissena Blvd, between Cherry and Elder avenues, Flushing

Beige rice with chunks of boneless chicken, mainly on the left side of the picture.

Chicken biryani at Bundu Khan

Dark-meat chicken marinated in yogurt with a touch of tomato sauce forms the basis for this supremely flavorful version of chicken biryani. Bundu Khan is a brightly colored and modern Pakistani cafe in Glen Oaks that specializes in tikka, kebabs, and paratha. The tart taste of the yogurt adds a depth of flavor that distinguishes this biryani from many others, with an aftertaste of onions and ground spices. 253-19 Union Turnpike, between Little Neck Parkway and 254th Street, Glen Oaks

A vegetarian biryani pie with the crust on top torn open to reveal the filling.

Vegetable dum biryani at Angel Indian Restaurant

This Jackson Heights eatery descended from Adda (chef Amrit Pal Singh worked there) offers a vegetarian version of the dough-sealed biryani pie popularized by its predecessor. How is it different from other vegetarian biryanis, apart from the pastry? Well, this one contains opulent amounts of paneer made on the premises, in addition to precisely diced vegetables of a diverse sort. And you won’t miss the meat. 74-14 37th Road, between 74th and 75th streets, Jackson Heights

New Jersey

Two serving bowls of biryani with colorful rice and a boiled egg on top, the rice on the right is darker.

Hyderabadi chicken dum biryani and Vijayawada avakai goat biryani at Bawarchi Biryani Corner

Similar as these two biryanis look at this Jersey City restaurant specializing in biryani, both taste very different. The one on the left represents the Hyderabadi style, featuring saffron, a symphony of sweet spices, and sealed dum cooking. The meat is barely marinated, and it’s par-cooked before being mixed with the rice. The Vijayawada biryani, by contrast, has a gravy mixed in at the last moment flavored with the mango pickle called avakai or avakkai, turning the rice a darker color and giving the dish a more intense taste. The restaurant offers many biryanis in both styles. 839 Newark Avenue, at Tonnele Avenue, Jersey City

Rice grains colored yellow, red, and white in a bowl with cilantro on top.

Lamb biryani at Moghul Express

Located on top of a hill with views of the rolling wooded countryside, Moghul Express, operated by Shaun Mehtani, telegraphs its special culinary focus (i.e., historic Mughal fare), in addition to dishes from several regions of India on its pristine steam-table buffet. The lamb biryani is something of a signature: big hunks of tender boneless meat concealed beneath parti-colored rice sweetened slightly with pomegranate seeds. The vegetable biryani is also particularly good, and both reflect the historic simplicity of the northern Indian style. 1670-A Oak Tree Road, between Sugar Road and Henry Street, Edison

A mountain of yellow rice with a boiled egg and purple onion slice on top.

Goat biryani at Golconda Chimney

Named after a Hyderabadi landmark that was once the seat of the rare South Indian sultanate, Golconda Chimney specializes in regional southern fare, with some Mughal dishes thrown in. On a menu heavily laden with boneless goat — also try the gongura goat, sauced with a sour fruit popular in the south — the biryani of the horned can-chewer is foremost, heavily scented with saffron and served with yogurt raita and salan, with a whole boiled egg sitting on top like a white bird. Biryani in the Lucknow style is also offered. 806 Newark Avenue, between Liberty and Tonnele avenues, Jersey City

Manhattan

A rectangular metal container with dark rice and a shrimp or two visible.

Shrimp biryani at Biryani Kitchen

Biryani Kitchen arose last summer in response to the biryani boom, partly launched by Adda, offering five distinctive types of biryani for carryout or delivery. All come in a generous aluminum container with a yogurt raita that features the sweetening effect of pomegranate seeds. The most unusual here, perhaps, is a biryani attributed to Goa, a resort city and former Portuguese colony on the west coast. This dish is distinguished by rice tinted red with chiles and other spices, coconut milk, cinnamon, and curry leaves. 48 Greenwich Avenue, between Charles and Perry streets, Greenwich Village

Yellow rice with yogurt on the side.

Goat biryani at Veeray da Dhaba

This slick and ambitious Punjabi establishment under chefs Hemant Mathur and Binder Saini in the East Village was nevertheless inspired by roadside food shacks (that’s what dhaba means; it’s something like a truck stop), and the offerings are fundamental and strongly flavored. The mainly boneless goat biryani is wonderful, with plenty of meat concealed beneath orange rice that is inflected with sweet spices like cardamom and cinnamon. Not fussy food, by any means, but delicious. 221 First Avenue, between 13th and 14th street, East Village

A stunted heap of yellow and white rice with an entire rack of lamb, covered in brown sauce, on top.

Braised lamb rack biryani at GupShup

The menu at this stylish Indian restaurant serving largely northern fare near Union Square has a very good Lucknow-style chicken biryani on its menu via chef Gurpreet Singh but it also offers a spectacular Hyderabadi biryani featuring an entire lamb rack with barberries and almonds, a dish unique in the city as far as I can tell. Resting on a bed of seasoned rice, it comes smothered in a rich masala gravy. Carved by the diners as they demolish the chops, it makes a great communal dish. 115 E 18th Street, between Park Avenue and Irving Place, Union Square

An oblong bowl of spinach flecked with white rice, with a chip stuck in the top and yogurt on the side.

Spinach biryani at Kailash Parbat

The menu of this strictly vegetarian restaurant in Curry Hill represents the Sindhi cooking of northwestern India and Pakistan, a menu that overlaps with Punjabi cooking but also incorporates many snacks in the Mumbai style. The restaurant is a branch of an international chain founded in 1952. Highly spiced spinach nearly overwhelms the rice in this rich but simple biryani, served with a crisp papadum for dipping and masses of yogurt raita. 99 Lexington Avenue, at 27th Street, Murray Hill

Bright red chicken pieces cradling brown rice studded with chunks of browner meat.

Bombay chicken at Clove

Right across the street from the ornamental gates of City College in Harlem, Clove is one of the city’s best Indian restaurants. The jewel in the crown among its dishes is chef Sammi Ahmed’s Bombay chicken: a whole, tandoori-cooked Cornish game hen stuffed with a lamb biryani that would be great by itself. It is further improved with a sprinkling of coconut. 1592 Amsterdam Avenue, between 138th and 139th streets, West Harlem

Brooklyn

Orange rice with a purple onion slice on top strewn with fresh green herbs and with a bowl of yogurt at the 2 o’clock position.

Vegetable biryani at Indika House

Delicately diced vegetables, including lots of mushrooms, dot this vegetarian biryani. Despite the lack of meat, it has lots of flavor, including subtle notes of saffron. The dish comes sided with yogurt raita and fresh herbs at this distinguished Indian restaurant under the J and M tracks on the border of Bushwick and Bed-Stuy that’s decorated with colorful historical murals. The menu features five types of biryani in addition to pulao, allowing you to compare biryani with its predecessor. 943 Broadway, at Jefferson Street, Bushwick

A bowl of chicken biryani with a bone-in drumstick in the foreground.

Chicken dum biryani at Jalsa Grill & Gravy

The heart of the menu at this Midwood Indian restaurant on bustling Coney Island Avenue is Bengali cooking via owner and chef Nowshin Ali, and thus the biryani, available in four varieties, is very much the type associated with Lucknow, located a few hundred miles northwest of the restaurant’s home city of Kolkata. Thus, the spicing is subtle, and much of the flavor comes from the chicken, making it a pleasingly mellow dish. 964 Coney Island Ave., between Newkirk and Webster avenues, West Midwood

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