Donne biryani in Bangalore
It is 6 a.m., but we’re already late. The streets are deserted except for a dog slowly waking up near the entrance to the Anjaneyaswamy temple on the main road. We are in the old city, the petes from the 16th century, built by Kempegowda I. The streets are narrow and tumbledown, but in an hour or two, they will be teeming with humanity.
We are here after a long, late night of cigarettes and whiskey, for a breakfast of biryani. Typically, this celebrated dish of spiced meat and rice is feast food, served at weddings, parties and festivals. Biryani for breakfast raises eyebrows. But in India’s southwestern state of Karnataka, the specialty donne biryani—dished out in palm-leaf bowls—is often served as a last meal before the end of a long night, especially in Bangalore’s old city.
We meet a friend in the backstreet, at a crossroads. The restaurant she is taking us to is frequented by truckers who have driven through the night and need a substantial meal before they turn in for the day. It is also frequented, in lesser numbers, by young partygoers searching for comfort food before calling it a night. In India, despite the international cuisine now available, nothing hits the spot quite like a meal of rice eaten by hand.
We follow her as she confidently navigates this labyrinth of streets to find the restaurant. We snake left, right, left again, and then abruptly turn into the only place that isn’t still shuttered. Inside, the room is humming with activity. The kitchen is noisy, but no one seems to be speaking. A man in the corner sits at a small cash register, and about 12 diners politely inch around each other in the cramped space, picking up plates from the kitchen counter, then accommodating themselves along a wall lined with a steel counter that doubles as a standing table.
My friend leans in and holds up four fingers, “Nalku!” There isn’t a menu because they only serve one dish; you simply stick your head in and call out the number of plates you want.
A green palm leaf lines the plate, and a neat heap of donne biryani, tinged green with coriander and mint, is topped with a quarter of red onion, a wedge of lime and half a boiled egg. There are two pieces of nati koli, or country chicken, buried under the fragrant short-grained rice.
It is a gentle but filling meal, mildly spiced, unlike the fiery Andhra biryani that has earned a cult following, or the decadently rich Mughlai biryani served at weddings. But a hot meal of rice is a feast at this hour.