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Food During Bubonic Plague to Feast for Warriors: Tracing the Tale of Donne Biryani

Food During Bubonic Plague to Feast for Warriors: Tracing the Tale of Donne Biryani

It is commonly believed that the donne biryani, a unique variety served in a dried banana leaf, was introduced by the Shivaji Military Hotel to sustain Maratha warriors. Here’s a look at its history and legacy in Bengaluru.

A soul-comforting dish comprising the most decadent grains of rice, mixed with meat and a myriad of spices, donne biryani is among Bengaluru’s greatest contributions to India’s culinary landscape for a number of reasons. 

What sets it apart from your usual biryanis is not only the rarity of spice or the unique seeraga samba rice variety that is used to make it. It’s the fact that this dish has a rich, winding history that forms a legacy as captivating as its taste. 

Donne biryani’s history is rooted in the culture of Karnataka. And if you were to traverse the streets of Bengaluru, you can witness how the magic of its preparation — a steaming dollop of green coloured rice served in a dried banana leaf — has stood the test of time. 

Today, there is an abundance of military hotels in the city that serve this popular, mouthwatering variety.

But one among them, the Shivaji Military Hotel, has been recognised for years as the oldest to carry the tradition — since 1935. 

Donne Biryani
Donne Biryani, Picture credits: Instagram: @foodhub_21

While the eatery today sees young crowds and families alike, there was a time when its main customers were Maratha soldiers. 

This was at a time when S Mannaji Rao, a Maratha himself, was in charge of the eatery. In fact, it is he who introduced the biryani at the restaurant. Today, his grandsons Rajeev and Lokesh take care of the operations. 

According to Rajeev, the reason the restaurant has retained its popularity is that they are still following their grandfather’s traditional recipe. 

In conversation with The Better India, he says, “The recipe is an authentic Maratha style one. We haven’t changed anything in it and this consistency in taste is why customers love the donne biryani served at our eatery.”

The legendary origins of donne biryani 

The story goes back to the 17th century, when India was struggling to free herself from the clutches of the British, and the Mughals were fighting tooth and nail for the cause. At the time, wars also meant thousands of hungry soldiers who needed all the energy they could find. 

And to the rescue came donne biryani, stemming from a rise in eateries in Bengaluru that would whip up a humble yet delicious dish. 

This included short-grained rice mixed with marinated meat and spices such as coriander, cumin, ginger, garlic and masala. The resulting mélange was cooked on firewood and served in a donne, which translates to “cups made from eco-friendly leaves”. 

History suggests that Maratha Mannaji Rao was the one to come up with this wholesome dish, which amalgamated taste with a bowl full of nutrition and energy. 

Donne Biryani
Donne Biryani, Picture credits: Instagram: @shades_of_lifeee

As Rajeev says, the donne biryani is cooked in two processes. 

The first is that the rice mixed with meat is cooked on firewood, which gives it a unique flavour. The second step is ladling this mix into the leaf, which further adds flavour.  

But while the Shivaji Military Hotel is credited with being one of the first eateries in Bengaluru to serve donne biryani, a few tales also suggest otherwise. 

A flavour etched in time 

Some accounts say that in 1908, when Bengaluru witnessed the Bubonic Plague and people had to flee the city, the S G Rao Military Hotel came up with an idea. 

Started by Govinda Rao Rannave, the hotel started cooking up a dish to provide food to farmers who had stayed back in the city. It is said that this was the initiation of the idea of donne biryani

Yet another story tells of how Huliyappa Donne Biryani, an eatery in Bengaluru, uses a 106-year-old secret recipe for the preparation. 

Ravindra, a software professional who started the eatery in 2010, says that while they have modified the recipe in terms of the rice variety and a few masalas, they continue to follow the original one. 

“My great-grandfather loved experimenting with different recipes and spices. In 1910, he came up with a version of donne biryani. Today, we follow the same recipe but have toned down the spices as the original one was very fiery,” he says. 

So magical is this marriage of spices and rice that it has travelled across India from the south. Chefs across cities say they are in awe of it. One such admirer is Harpal Singh Sokhi from Kharagpur, who has been a chef for the past 35 years. He says it is one of his favourites. 

It is when he worked with the legendary Hyderabadi chef Ustad Habib Pasha that he began to understand and appreciate the Hyderabadi flavours, and fell in love with the popular biryani

“When you speak of Hyderabad and its cuisine, the first dish that comes to your mind is biryani. I acquired the fine points of making a great one,” he says. 

He adds that to enhance his knowledge further, he went to Begum Mumtaz Khan of the Nizams of Hyderabad, to master the art of biryani and Hyderabadi food.  

During this stint with different biryanis across India, he came across donne. The most alluring part of this variety is the technique of serving, Harpal says. “We Indians always associate sentimental emotions of eating food in a donne and love the ethnicity of serving any dish in a banana leaf.” 

He adds that the dash of mint while cooking the dish is what creates the magic on the palate. 

“The biryani relies on its strong flavours, and in contrast to other varieties, does not use saffron or the essence of rose or screwpine leaf too much,” he explains. 

That donne biryani has a fan following of its own isn’t surprising, says Rajeev. “My grandfather was a Maratha himself, so the dish he came up with was aimed at satisfying the hunger needs of the soldiers. Today, we continue the legacy and serve the people of Bengaluru the same traditional donne biryani. We are proud of this.”

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