Kozhikode's Paragon & The One Biryani To Rule Them All
Image Credit: The biryani served at Paragon, Kozhikode

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WHILE debates swirl around whether it is Hyderabadi or Avadhi biryani that is the better version, or if vegetables alone — with nary a piece of meat — can merit a dish being labelled "biryani", foodies in Kerala know that the real crux lies elsewhere. Along the North Malabar coast, Kozhikode (formerly Calicut), Thalissery, Mahe and Kannur all have their own variations on the biryani recipe, and each has a vocal fan following. It may be tempting to club all these biryanis under the umbrella term of "Malabar", but purists would insist that the right way is to identify each preparation by the specific place of its origin. 

The Malabar biryani/s are not very similar to those from the North. A major and immediate distinction is that short-grain rice, like jeerakasala or kaima, is preferred for biryani. Another obvious one is the flavour and texture: the biryani/s from the Malabar are fragrant and light, subtly spiced, and redolent with ghee. The third aspect, which may not be as evident, is the cooking technique. For Kozhikode biryani, half-cooked rice is added to a pot that has a mutton or chicken gravy simmering in it; the vessel is then sealed, and the rice finishes cooking along with the meat. In Thalassery on the other hand, the rice and meat are cooked separately but then layered together to be heated via dum. 

The spices used in inter-regional biryanis also differ. For instance, Kozhikode biryani is known to incorporate tomato and coriander powder; Thalassery doesn't. On the whole, the latter has far fewer spices or masalas than its Kozhikode sibling. 

A fourth and crucial difference is that the Malabar coast's biryanis may have evolved from a distinct source altogether than the North's. Maritime trade routes with the Arab world indelibly altered the chemistry of the coastal stretch's cuisine and culture. Inter-marriages led to a community of Muslims known as Moplahs. Local food amalgamated with foreign influences to transform into something new altogether. The biryani was part of, and privy to, this metamorphosis. 


Malabar biryani is having a particularly good week. Paragon, the Kozhikode establishment that's a foodie pilgrimage site, earned the no. 11 spot on Taste Atlas' list of most iconic restaurants from around the world. The biryani was named its most iconic dish. Apart from several global contenders, Paragon also pipped Lucknow's famed Tunday Kababi in the rankings. 

Paragon didn't begin as a biryani institution; it was a bake shop when it was launched in 1939. The mutton puff served there is still spoken of in reverential terms. When the present owner Sumesh Govind (the son of Paragon’s founder, PM Valsan) took over the running of the business, he perfected the biryani recipe in collaboration with the Paragon's chef. Like the biryani of the Malabar itself, Paragon's signature dish too represents a confluence of influences, welding elements that would appeal to the palates of both, the local Thiya and Moplah communities. 

The dish has become enough of a landmark for the process of its serving to be well-recognised: an array of condiments — date pickle, poppadom, coconut chutney — is set down, before the main event, a heaped mound of biryani, makes an appearance. You make careful incursions into the mound and serve yourself a mix of the rice and meat, liberally sprinkled with cashew and raisins, before tucking in. 

While firmly local in ethos and approach, Paragon has spread its reach to other cities in Kerala (Kochi, Trivandrum to name two), states (there's an outpost in Bengaluru) and overseas (Dubai). 

Paragon has had realms dedicated to its biryani (and also its other staples) as has the cuisine of the Malabar. Circling back to the query we began this article with, however, the supremacy of Kozhikode over Thalassery biryani (or vice versa) may not be quite so easy to settle. Still, the wisest know that such arguments must be set aside, just so a united front can be put up against the common enemy, no matter which type of biryani you're eating: sneaky little pineapple chunks.