A dish of Burmese biryani (locally known as danpauk), as served at Kyet Shar. Photo: Wikipedia

The word “biryani” caught my eye in an Indian Express article last Sunday, titled “Click, eat, repeat,” later updated as “Inside India’s algorithm-driven biryani industry worth crores.” It noted that the biryani-delivery business in India is worth US$352 million (2,500 crores, or 25 billion rupees). That was news to me.

Forbes reported in September that the global online food-delivery business will be worth $200 billion by 2025. I know now I should have ventured into a favorite dream of running a horror-theme restaurant – only, in light of recent news, instead of waiters dressed as Count Dracula there would be Frankenstein-monster delivery boys doling out biryani and pizzas to hungry clientele ordering online.

“Biryani” (pronounced bir-yanee) might mean “mutton rice,” but such a limited definition had as much chance of survival as “pizza” meaning “bread with cheese and tomato sauce.”

With a dazzling variety of biryani – cooked with basmati rice, special spices, dry fruits, non-vegetarian and vegetarian versions – I can guarantee it as the most delicious dry rice stew on Earth. It will form a fair slice of the global $200 billion online food-delivery pie.

Biryani invariably features in any celebratory South Asian meal in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. It was served at our school graduating valedictory function at Don Bosco, Egmore, in Chennai.

With an estimated 32% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in the global food-delivery business, biryani merchants can start browsing through yacht and chateau catalogues. Biryani ranks upfront among Uber Eats offerings from 130,000 restaurants across 25 countries.

Global online food giants are already in India or are planning to set up shop, such as the London-based Deliveroo (annual revenue $350 million). They join local big boys such as Swiggy, Zomato, Faaso’s, the Berlin-based Foodpanda and the British Just Eat – adding to veteran players like Domino’s, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s.

US major Doordash is not yet in India, but delivers selections from the “Biryani Pot.” Amazon is prowling around hungrily looking for a way into the multibillion-dollar market, including rumored talks with Uber Eats.

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Biryani served at a restaurant in Yau Ma Tei, Kowloon, Hong Kong.

Food historians say biryani has medieval origins, credited to Mughal empress Mumtaz Mahal (1593-1631), in whose memory her husband Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal. The beautiful queen wanted a nutritious yet tasty dish that could be easily made for the Mughal army, en route to slaughtering folks and grabbing more real estate. Her solution, legend goes, was this fragrant rice and mutton dish.

The $352 million biryani-delivery business estimate was courtesy of a Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and PricewaterhouseCoopers report. But that could be an underestimate. Given biryani’s popularity among South Asians, we don’t need Professor Calculus to estimate that the business is annually worth between $500 million and $1.5 billion in India, at basic cost of between 90 and 320 rupees ($1.25-$4.50) a plate – even assuming half the populace ordered the dish only once a year.

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Portrait of Mumtaz Mahal (1593-1631) on her deathbed, with her husband Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (1592-1666). The young queen, in whose memory the Taj Mahal was built, is credited with inventing biryani.

Biryani is serious business. The Indian Express in an editorial on September 16, under the headline “Let there be biryani,” denounced the Pakistan cricket team’s new head coach Misbah-ul-Haq for eliminating the dish from his national team’s permitted menu. “He is going too far in the quest for fitness,” fumed the Indian editorial over the cross-border biryani blasphemy.

If that seems strange, consider Ms Anne Vilasini’s ode titled “A Letter to Biryani”:
“I wonder how the sight of you
Made me elude the babble in the street!
Long-grained, drool simulating and aromatic,
Oh, dear, you make me feel ecstatic!
My love for you is so true.
I’m shedding happy tears, give me a tissue!”

Right, move over William Wordsworth, John Keats, and make that $2 billion in the annual biryani-delivery business, Messrs Price, Waterhouse and Coopers.

Poetry-inspiring or not, biryani serves proof of online food business ranking among the most lucrative global industries.

The Internet empowers traditional restaurants, as with popular biryani outlets  – for example Delhi Durbar in Mumbai, Wahid Biryani in Lucknow, Nizam in Kolkata, and Bawarchi in Hyderabad, and in Pakistan, Madni Biryani in Karachi and Biryani Express in Lahore, as well as Bangladesh’s kacchi biryani version. Instead of people going out for restaurant food, restaurant food goes to the people.

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Plates of biryani handed out at Hazrat Nizamuddin, New Delhi, at breaking of fast during Ramadan.

Never forget the humble street-food biryani, a familiar sight across Mumbai and other subcontinental cities. They share a similar model of biryani dished out from huge aluminum containers. Judging from YouTube videos, it appears nobody in South Asia serves bigger helpings – huge platefuls – than biryani vendors in Pakistan, such as the Al-Rehman biryani from Karachi. It adds substance to stories about the very generous hospitality of the people of Pakistan.

Speaking of which, today, October 16, is World Food Day, dedicated to doing whatever we can to ensure everyone has sufficient nutritious food, particularly children.

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