A rediscovery of Royal culinary secrets at India Palace.

I have travelled far and wide in pursuit of good food but as I nudge closer to 40 and as New Dubai’s culinary scene advances towards world domination; I can barely make it past Bur Dubai just to eat at a new restaurant.  Unless of course there is a crazy vibe around a new opening or every second person is talking about a hidden gem that has been suddenly rediscovered or if I am invited to sample a menu crafted by Royal master chefs in the stately palace kitchens of Lucknow; there have been times when I do make the journey. On this occasion, it seemed as if I had all the reasons to venture North of the bridge.

‘Khansamas’ (Royal chefs)  were entrusted with the task of satisfying gastronomic desires of not just the Maharajas (Rulers)  of Lucknow but of their Royal guests who would come from as far away as Tashkent and Kabul. Over the years, they perfected this art of ‘Mughlai’ cooking which was a result of tweaking their local ‘Awadhi’ recipes to the palates of their Central Asian guests (invaders as well). It has since been passed down through generations and is practised in some of the most exclusive kitchens throughout India and the rest of the world.

I have driven past India Palace restaurant in the past and never thought of going in perhaps because I have always tilted more towards the spicier Hyderabadi and Punjabi cuisine. Mughlai cooking was never really my scene but after my first visit to this award winning establishment, I think I may have converted a bit.

I always thought that if you did not dial up the chili or the spice, you could not unlock the true flavor of desi food. That myth was shattered at the ‘Khansama’ menu launch by India Palace. The familiar aroma of cloves and coriander was complimented by the soft nuttiness of cashews. It was the most delicate balance of sub-continental spices and the richness synonymous with Persian and Afghani cuisine; an uncanny match that somehow worked. This my dear foodie friends, was my rediscovery of Mughlai cuisine.

The most popular dish of that evening seemed to be the Shahi Zafrani Murg which was a chicken breast stuffed with mince chicken with a rich pan seared gravy that was garnished with almonds and pistachio and infused with saffron. My favorite however was the Kasturi Murg which was a chicken kebab marinated in fenugreek and black pepper before being coated with cardamom flavored egg.

The interiors of the restaurant were reminiscent of an 18th century Mughal palace complete with live ghazals and headgear that would not be out of place in a Bollywood period film. This added an unmistakable authenticity to the whole experience. So, the next time you want a free history lesson while dining on a meal curated in the royal kitchens of Lucknow, head down to the India Palace restaurant at Garhoud and feel like a Maharaja, even if only just for a while.

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Shahi Zafrani Murgh
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No Royal experience is complete without live ghazals!
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Making glass bangles for the ladies. C heck out the turban!
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These sweets were so cute I almost didn’t want to eat them…until I did.

India Palace Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Best Biryani in Dubai. The official top 11. 

Indian/Pakistani Cuisine has made its way into British lives like Donald Trump made his way into the White House. For years it wasn’t taken too seriously and now nobody seems to be able to get rid of it.

Edited 18th March 2018.

View my food journey on Zomato!

As much as I want to live on the edge and eat only at restaurants that use ingredients like magic budwig, raw fish eggs, a force fed goose’s fatty liver or any of the other wonderfully weird things that I can’t make head or tail out of, it is sadly not possible. I enjoy being adventurous once in a while but nothing matches the pleasure derived from sampling different renditions of a dish that you are familiar with.

For some, it may be an old fashioned cheeseburger and for some a bowl of ramen but for me, it is a textured medley of rice, meat and spices; also known as a biryani.

There are numerous different ways of cooking a dish and not all biryanis are created equal. Since I am a bit of an expert on the subject, I have taken it upon myself to list 11 of the most exquisite Biryanis in Dubai.

11) Gulabo – Damascus Street, Qusais, Dubai – Spicy Chicken Biryani – AED15.

This is a quaint little hole in the wall sandwiched between the quirky ‘Billo Ice Cream’ and half a dozen hardware stores. What they lack in seating capacity (they actually have two chairs and a table) is made up with good, no nonsense food. Better known for their Karachi Bun Kebabs, I think their Spicy (yeah man!) Chicken Biryani is a force to be reckoned with. Couple that with an AED15 price tag and we have a definite winner.

10) Kabab Rolls, Al Barsha (multiple locations) – Meat Biryani – AED36

Kabab Rolls started the whole BBQ roll trend in Dubai (hence the name). It is a lively joint in the streets of Barsha that is quiet popular for its cheap lunch buffet. While I enjoy an occasional Bihari Roll (must try ) from here, I tend to stay away from the buffet. What these guys do really well however, is the biryani.

Like India, Pakistan also has a multitude of subcultures and the local cuisine is influenced by lands as far off as the Persian and the Ottoman Empire. Each of the provinces has it’s own rendering of this dish.

The standout winner here is the Meat Biryani which is made in the traditional Sindhi style of cooking. It is basically a dum biryani with mild spices and saffron but the meat is slightly pre-cooked before being layered with rice (as opposed to the Hyderabadi style where the meat is mostly raw).

09) Gazebo – Bay Avenue, Business Bay (multiple locations) – Gosht Hyderabadi Biryani – AED47.

Not too long ago, believe it or not, Gazebo was my go to place if I craved a good Biryani but as always, unprecedented growth may not be a good thing. Despite somehow losing their mojo along the way, Gazebo still serves one of the best Biryanis in Dubai. That is not a small achievement considering that there are probably a thousand restaurants with just as many different interpretations of the dish but this place could have been a contender for the top spot on this list a couple of years ago.

A true Hyderabadi would never try to please others at the cost of losing his identity. The same goes for their biryani as well. There was a serious dearth of masala and absolutely no chilli powder in Gazebo’s Gosht Hyderabadi biryani. Most of the rice was white and bland, untouched by whatever masala there was. No self-respecting Hyderabadi chef would cut out on the masala or compromise on the heat just to reach out to a wider palate (or even to save a couple of bucks) . Despite that, Gazebo still managed to edge out the 30 odd biryani restaurants that I have visited in the past 3 months while doing my research. I guess I am a sucker for good presentation.

08) Student Biryani. Barsha (multiple locations) – Mutton Biryani – AED26

If Billboard could have Elton John and Samantha Fox on the same top 10 chart, I can have a Fast Food type Biryani joint together on the same list as a Michelin Star chef as well. The type of biryani and the classification of the restaurant do not matter. What matters is the quality of the dish.

Student Biryani achieved a bit of a cult status in Karachi before they ventured out to Dubai. Legend is that they used to sell biryani to college kids from a mobile food cart. Word of this supposedly awesome Biryani spread far and wide and people used to come from all over to sample it. Fast forward to today and the company operates multiple restaurants in Karachi, Sharjah, Dubai and Toronto.

I love a good success story and their Biryani is pretty good too. I am a little unsure if it is good enough to spawn an international chain of restaurants. If you want to see the fast food methodology at work in a biryani restaurant, Student Biryani is the place to be. You get served within 10 minutes, the strength of the ‘masala’ (spices) can be controlled easily and they have more combos there than there are banks trying to sell you new credit cards in Dubai.

07) Shahi Mahal, Al Faris Mall, Near Dubai Bowling Centre, Al Quoz – Meat Biryani – AED16

‘Shahi Mahal’ translates to Royal Palace and for a while, I felt I had teleported to Nawab Nizam ud Din’s court in Hyderabad. It was great while it lasted, but then I was asked to pay 16 dirhams for my meal. That didn’t feel regal at all and back I was in Al Quoz.

Yes, tucked away somewhere in the back alleys of Al Quoz is a place which serves authentic Dum Biryani for AED 16 per serving. The aroma, the texture and the flavour of this Biryani are second to none. You can see tender meat sandwiched between layers of fragrant basmati rice as it gets to your table. You can tell that this Biryani was left to cook on low heat for a long time. What you can’t understand is how they manage to be profitable at this price point, especially when you see the quality of ingredients being used. I think I know now why the Mughals went bankrupt.

06) Brit Balti, Al Barsha (multiple locations) – Special Biryani (lamb chicken prawns and omelet) – AED56

The Koh-I-Noor wasn’t the only Indian thing taken back by the British to make their own. The Chicken Tikka Masala was probably invented in Southall but for some it will always be an Indian dish.

Indian/Pakistani Cuisine has made its way into British lives like Donald Trump made his way into the White House. For years it wasn’t taken too seriously and now nobody seems to be able to get rid of it. It is loud, colorful and not everyone seems to agree with it but that doesn’t seem to bother it too much.

Brit Balti is my favourite Desi-Brit restaurant in Dubai (Yes, there are several of those down here). It is appropriately peculiar, incredibly experimental and unapologetically British. The winner here is the Special Biryani. It is not a Dum (layered and cooked on low heat in a sealed clay pot) Biryani but a sort of a stir fry of rice, spices, lamb, chicken and prawns with an omelet added for good measure. Not at all how a purist would want a Biryani to be but good enough to make this one of the best Biryani joints in Dubai.

05) Milas Emirates.    Al Nasr The Village, Dubai Mall  – Spicy Lamb Biryani – .AED89

This was not the ‘Dum’ Biryani you get at Indian and Pakistani restaurants or the Stir Fry type thing you get at Brit Asian restaurants. This was a creamy lamb gravy layered on top of aromatic rice. It was made of choice lamb meat that had been cooked to perfection in Arabic spices. Its tantalizing flavor had infused deep into the rice and it is the only Emirati Biryani on this list!

04) Dum Pukht, JLT – Mutton Biryani – AED60

I can imagine how unsettling it could be for a ‘Best Biryani in Dubai’ contender, especially if you are a small-time restaurant that can’t seem to sort out its ventilation woes. Even more so if you are competing against Michelin Starred chefs, a Biryani behemoth with outlets as far off as Canada and a restaurant chain that employs more than a couple of hundred people in the UAE. From the looks of it though, Dum Pukht seems unfettered by the competition.

Not the kind of place you go to for an upscale fine dining experience but they have definitely cracked the biryani code. They use a metal handi (pot) instead of a clay vessel but the recipe seems to be the same as it was hundreds of years ago. The distinct scent of freshly ground spices enchants you as the subtle fragrance of basmati rice pulls you in. Sealing in the aroma is the secret to a good Biryani and this restaurant has got that all figured out.

03) Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar,  JW Marriot Marquis – Hyderabadi gosht ki (lamb) biryani – AED140.

It is about the value proposition and the presentation but most of all, it is about the experience and good food. The cost of eating a Hyderabadi lamb Biryani here is AED 140 (most expensive on this list) but the opportunity of sampling the wares of one of the world’s biggest chefs is priceless.

Atul Kochar has 2 Michelin Stars and is one of the world’s most famous chefs but you already know that. What you don’t know is that ‘Rang Mahal’ is not the ‘behave like you are about to dine with a Michelin Star Chef but don’t forget to breath’ kind of a place. It is more of a ‘Oh Beehave! But have some fun while you are at it’ kind of place.

Ali, my friend from Hyderabad would have been proud to call this Biryani authentic. A bit of nostalgia kicked in as a familiar fragrance filled the air when it was being served. Saffron had infused every single grain of rice and the meat was ever so tender. The masala (spices) were well balanced and they had made it extra hot on request. Just the way Ali’s mom made it on every Friday.

02) Bhoujan, Motor City Dubai – Hyderabadi Mutton Biryani in Handi – AED50

There may have been a tear in my eye while I carefully chewed on my first bite straight from the clay handi (pot). Tradition (and manners) dictate that I should have waited for it to be served on to my plate but a whiff of the aroma caught me off guard as soon as my server removed the seal.

It was the perfect Dum biryani and the presentation was second only to more expensive restaurants on this list. Excellent value proposition with a generous amount of meat (just as the Nawab would have liked it), a side dish of ‘mirchi ka salan’ (green chilly curry) 3 chutneys and a raita (spiced yoghurt).

As I savored every bite, I realized that I may have finally come across the underdog that could unsettle the heavyweights. I couldn’t stop smiling because I had discovered the gem that would take on some of the biggest names in the culinary world, all from that little shop in Dubai Motor City.

01) Ashiana by Vineet Bhatia, Sheraton Dubai Creek – Dum Biryani with dates –  AED108

vineet bhatia dum biryani

I smiled as I walked through the Mughal inspired entrance of Ashiana. This was the world of a man who was clearly rooted in tradition so I immediately formed an opinion on how the Biryani would be. A part of me was a bit disappointed though. I had travelled to the other end of Dubai just so I could surround myself with the greatness that is Vineet Bhatia. The forward thinking genius who had helped to transform the way Indian food was perceived in the West and in doing so had become the poster child of contemporary Indian cuisine yet here I was, walking through a Mughal walkway while admiring the Mughal art that adorned it’s walls.

I could see that Bhatia had tried to stay closer to his Indian side, probably so because he thought that was what the customers wanted. He did add a twist to everything though; take for example the purple beetroot chutney that was served with poppadums while we waited for our Biryani.

This could have been just another very good Dum Biryani but it was not. It did not try to entice me with the aroma and please me with the intimate sensation of a home cooked dish. It took it a step further. This was clearly the work of a nonconformist. The spices and the juicy meat were complimented with the most subtle and sweet taste of dates. Not only was this a great combination but I think it had some symbolism, dates being the national fruit of UAE and Biryani being the unofficial national dish of the sub-continent. In fact it is the dish that still binds together two countries that have been separated by decades of war, mistrust and politics and this Biryani had just added a third to the list.

Ashiana Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato