Chennai Hoteliers Revive Ancient Sangam-Era ‘Biryani’, Deliver in Palm Leaf Boxes

Through their venture Karigar Biryani, Chennai-based hoteliers Kannan Velayudham and Girish Subhash have revived the perunchoru (meaning grand rice), which was created by Cheran King Uthiyan. The biryani is packed and delivered in handmade palm leaf boxes.

In the last year, many of us have kept ourselves occupied during the COVID-19 lockdown by engaging in all sorts of new hobbies. A favourite among many has been trying out new recipes. Along similar lines, two hoteliers from Chennai have decided to revive the perunchoru, which means grand rice, a dish from the Cheran Era. The brains behind this unique idea are Kannan Velayutham and Girish Subash, who are businessmen and also good friends.

“Biryani is a favourite among many South Indians. During the lockdown, Kannan and I were discussing starting a new venture that serves biryani, but not the kind that thousands of other restaurants are cooking. So, we launched Karigar Biryani — a cloud kitchen that sustainably delivers a Cheran era dish,” Girish tells The Better India.

Girish Subash and Kannan Velayutham.

A happy accident

By the end of August, when the lockdown was eased and travelling across cities was allowed once again, Kannan and Girish drove to Tuticorin, located in the southern part of Tamil Nadu. While the duo was attempting to identify various traditional styles of biryani cooked in the villages surrounding the city, what they ended up coming across was never part of their plan.

“We came across a few households where the members were weaving boxes using palm leaves, by hand. These were families that have been practising the art for many decades. They told us that 20 years ago, every household in that village was involved in the art. However, with modernisation, machines took over their jobs, and now only one or two households remain in the entire village that continue to weave these boxes by hand,” says Girish, adding that he and Kannan were also made aware that these boxes were earlier used to package food.

Palm leaf boxes being woven.

So while the duo did not find the biryani they wanted, they finalised the packaging for their food first.

Recreating a traditional recipe

The next step was figuring out what recipe Kannan and Girish would use. For this, they travelled back in time to the Sangam era, when biryani was popularly referred to as perunchoru. The Cheran dynasty originated in the interiors of Tamil Nadu, namely Karur, in the second century BC, and ruled various parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

“The word perunchoru refers to the grand feast that was served to the King. According to literature, the original dish was created by the Cheran King Uthiyan, and made using wild boar that the king would hunt. But, we have recreated the recipe using red meat, mutton, to recreate a similar flavour. We also use mapillai samba rice, a kind of fat red rice that was widely used by the king and his subjects,” Girish says. The mapillai samba is native to Tamil Nadu, and is rich in fibre, which also enhances the taste of the dish.

To find the recipe and ingredients that were used, the two referred to various aspects of Sangam literature, searched for information on the internet, and spoke to a few culinary experts.

It was a consultant chef named Harish Rao that brought the recipe to life. With several years of experience as a head chef across five-star restaurants (including ITC Grand Chola, Chennai), Harish was able to understand the flavours, recreate the recipe, and train others to do the same.

After three months of R&D, a small menu was curated. Chef Harish also introduced a paan-flavoured laddu alongside, as a special dish. For the packaging, two families that hand weave palm leaf boxes were identified from two different villages named Vembar in Tuticorin and Nagalapuram in Andhra Pradesh.

The food offered by Karigar Biryani.

“The food is first wrapped in banana leaf, and then packed in a palm leaf box. Areca nut cups are used for the side dishes. To ensure there is no leakage of the gravies, the cups are wrapped in dried Sal leaves,” Girish says, adding that the venture has been open for business since 10 December 2020.

To date, Karigar Biryani continues to receive a minimum of 50 orders in a day, and perunchoru is a favourite among the patrons.

Sachin Nagaraj, a resident of Chennai who came across Karigar Biryani through Instagram, has ordered the perunchoru three times in the last one month. He says, “It is the flavour and style of preparation that keeps me coming back. I’m a foodie, but I have never come across a biryani that tastes so rich and looks so attractive despite the most simple form of packaging.”

If you are in Chennai and wish to try out food from Karigar Biryani, you can place an order through their website, Facebook or Instagram page.

(Edited by Divya Sethu)