I got to the biryani first, which was pretty easy to do since it was on the menu or buffet at just about every restaurant where I ate that week.
While many regions of India have their own variations of this dish (as do other countries such as Iran, Sri Lanka, and Thailand), Hyderabadi Biryani is perhaps the most well-known, and it's a reflection of the city's Muslim history. Hyderabad was founded in the late 1500s on the banks of the Musi River by the sultans of the Qutb Shahi dynasty, rulers of Turkish descent who migrated to India in the 16th century and then conquered the kingdom of Golconda in south-central India. The Qutb Shahi ruled Hyderabad until 1687, when the city was captured by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. The Mughals, themselves Muslims of Persian descent, granted authority over the city to the Nizams (administrators) of Hyderabad. Seven Nizams ruled the city from the mid-1700s until Indian Independence, and they were known not only as great patrons of the arts and literature but also of great food, and it is from their kitchens that the traditional Hyderabadi Biryani is said to have emerged.
Biryania is a single-pot dish of basmati rice and meat, blending Mughal and Turkish techniques with the local ingredients and spices of the Hyderbad region, which tend toward chilis, garlic, coconut, and spicy pickles and chutneys. The meat traditionally used in biryani is mutton, though chicken is very common and lamb sometimes used as well. Now, "mutton" in India generally means goat's meet, not sheep--a fact that I didn't figure out until about halfway through the trip and which immediately explained why the "mutton" dishes I ate, all of which were delicious, didn't have any of that distinctive "wet wool" flavor you get with, say, good old British-style mutton chops.
Whether mutton, chicken, or lamb is used, the preparation is pretty much the same. The meat is typically cut into small pieces with the bones left in and marinated in a mixture of curd (yogurt) and spices for a couple of hours. As to which spices, it was a little hard for my palette to determine what was in the several varieties I sampled at various times during the week. But, the marinade typically has a dozen or more spices in it: red chili powder, green chili paste, ginger garlic paste, cinnamon, cardamom, tumeric, mace, shah jeera (carraway), clove, bay leaves, cumin, coriander, salt, black pepper, mint, garam masala, coconut powder, saffron, lemon or lime juice, and even dried fruit and nuts all appear in various recipes. It's the careful selection of these spices that distinguish one cook's biryani from another.
The long-grained basmati rice is pre-cooked until about half-done, then its layered together with the meat in a single deep pot. Some cooks make just two layers, with meat on bottom and rice on top, while others alternate a couple of courses of rice and meat, rice and meat, and a final layer of rice on top. That top layer is then garnished with things like cashews, onions, and more spices.
In the old days, biryani would have been cooked over the coals of a fire in a big ceramic pot, its top sealed with chapati dough to keep in the moisture. In more contemporary versions, a modern stove and a stainless steel pot with a tight-fitting lid is used. The whole thing is then cooked briefly over a high flame and then for twenty minutes or so over a low flame, with five or ten minutes off the heat at the end to allow it to finish.
The real skill in making biryani, it seems, is to be able to cook the meat properly through while not overcooking the rice into a sticky mush. Properly made, the long, twisting grains of the basmati rice each stand out individually, soft yet firm enough to chew. And, the best part is the little chunks of fragrant meat tucked away inside. That long list of spices and the yogurt, too, impart a complex savoriness to the mutton or the chicken (the chicken, in fact, tends to be colored a deep red, like it is with good barbecue, though from the spice combination, not smoke). It's a subtle dish, filling and pleasing with the perfectly-textured rice, and the meat and spices add nice complementary notes but don't dominate the dish they way they do in, say, a curry.
In fact, though it's touted as one of Hyderabad's grand delicacies, I found biryani to be less an exotic, dramatic treat as I did a homey, comforting dish. On my very first day in the city, as I forked my way into a big plate of a delicious chicken version, I couldn't help but thinking, "this certainly seems familiar." And it didn't take long for me to figure out why that was. The spices and flavors were very different, but the dish itself--the texture of the rice, the savory meat tucked inside--were the spitting image of the classic Lowcountry pilau. And, some initial research indicates that there likely is a real historical connection between the two.
Now, as to my vote for the Times of India contest, it will be a little difficult. Of the twenty restaurants on the biryani ballot, I only got to try the version from the famed Paradise Restaurant--which many consider the best in the city--though my lunch was not at the original location in Secunderbad (the adjoining twin city to Hyderabad) but at the new Hi-Tech City branch (conveniently located next door to the KFC). It was the fourth version of biryani I had tried in Hyderabad, and while it seemed a little spicier and more aromatic than other restaurants', it's hard for to declare one way or another if it was the best.
It looks like the voting is still open, but we should find out the winner, soon.