The king of rice dishes
When Mughal rule arrived in the Dhaka region in the early 17th century, it brought - along with intrigue, grandeur and tantrums - the biryani. Back then, it is said, the biryani could be prepared only for members of the ruling family, that too on special occasions. The cooks came from the west, where the Hyderabadi biryani had only just begun to spread its aroma around India.
Somewhere along the way, though, the Dhaka biryani developed its own characteristics, which set it apart from its Hyderabadi progenitor - and even from the Sindhi, Kozhikode (in Kerala), Calcutta, Lucknowi and Tehari offshoots. Dhaka's own kachchi biryani is distinct, because the meat is cooked with the rice (kachchi means uncooked or raw), which allows the juices of the mutton or beef (rarely does the kachchi biryani use chicken) to seep into the rice, making it that much richer in taste, despite the use of fewer spices than its western counterparts.
In the cooking pot the meat (and often potatoes) are at the bottom and the rice on top, but the two are mixed well before being served, with half a boiled egg and a cucumber salad as a side dish.
For the complete experience, ask for a chicken roast and a borhani, a minty yoghurt drink. It is the meal that defines Old Dhaka, the birthplace of the city. It takes time to go through a plate, much like how Old Dhaka takes up all your senses and your entire day if you are willing to explore.
Biryani restaurants are quite easy to locate in Old Dhaka, especially when you have a hungry stomach. Almost every road - mostly named after nawabs or English rulers of the time - has one. But the locals will tell you that only three or four such places are worth the trip down to the southern part of the city.
Star Hotel, Royal, Razzak and Nanna Mia are arguably the best places for biryani in Old Town. The easiest way to reach them is to hop up on a rickshaw, the best mode of transport in these parts: every new and old rickshaw-puller knows these places.
Take Royal, for example. A five-minute walk from Lalbagh Fort, it's a typically bustling place, with lots of customers, mostly families, and busy waiters rushing in different directions. Once you reach the cooler first floor, the biryani will be served with gravy, borhani, a chicken roast or a plain salad. Take your time, savour the meal: it'll be one of the best things you'll ever eat.
Star Hotel is probably the most popular of these restaurants, with a number of franchises across the city, including in upmarket areas like Dhanmondi and Banani or at the business hub Karwan Bazar. But to have a real feel of Star's kachchi, go to Old Town. Another popular biryani chain is known simply after its chef, the late Fakruddin. His biryani - mastered in the kitchen of a Dhaka nawab and now kept going commercially by his sons - is cooked with finer rice (basmati on special occasions) than you'll find in other restaurants. Fakruddin and Star have taken their kachchi out of Old Dhaka but the cognoscenti agree that they've had to compromise on the taste to keep up with the growing demand.
If you like the kachchi biryani, you could experiment with other legacies of Dhaka's royal past. The Mughlai parantha (a flatbread cooked with egg) and the bakorkhani (a type of layered bread) are other fine examples of Dhaka's culinary heritage.
Another remarkable, mostly undiscovered, specialty of Old Dhaka are its soft drinks. Lassi, faluda and other milky fruit juices have been popular for centuries, and Nooranie Soft Drinks is possibly the most famous dispenser of the drinks in Dhaka. The recipe for their superb lassi (BDT35) is, of course, a secret. But one can guess at some of the components: hand-blended yoghurt, rosewater, sugar and salt. Their lemon juice (BDT10), is also highly recommended - especially after an Old Dhaka meal of biryani and roast.
Most Old Dhaka biryani restaurants open late, usually around mid-day, and stay open till late. A single plate of biryani will cost between BDT75 and BDT130.