In my previous articles in the series I had paved my way through some dishes with unparalleled heritage. This piece takes the momentum forward with another one of my all-time favourite dishes, Kolkata Biryani, which has its own stories to tell. Biryani itself is a dish which invokes a lot of feelings amongst people of the sub-continent. There have been several debates pertaining to what and how a ‘biryani’ should be. Biryani lovers consider its vegetarian version a blasphemy and there have also been instances of this term being used quite loosely. Considering the soaring popularity of the dish, many renditions of biryani have come into the scene, as for instance, Moradabadi Biryani, which according to many Biryani connoisseurs is merely a pulao.
SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS BIRYANI?
Although the well-loved biryani has become an integral part of Indian cuisine, its origins can be traced back to West Asia, particularly erstwhile Persia (Iran). The term ‘biryani’ has been derived from the Persian word biryan or beriyan, meaning ‘fried/roasted before cooking’. However, according to others, like Pratibha Karan, author of ‘Biryani’, the term has its roots in the Persian word birinj meaning rice.
As per historian Lizzie Collingham, the modern biryani is actually a mix of native spicy rice dishes of India and the Persian pilaf (pulao) and was developed during the reign of the Mughals in India. On the contrary, Indian restaurateur Kris Dhillon believes that the dish originated in Persia and was brought to India by the Mughals. There are several other theories behind the origin of Biryani and I would probably have to write a book in order to cover it all. Nonetheless, what distinguishes biryani from pulao or any other rice-based dish like tahari is the layering (with rice being the first and last layers and the meat in the middle) involved in the cooking process. Additionally, biryani’s grandiose calls for it to be infused with kewra, saffron, rosewater etc. The flavour is further intensified because of the special cooking technique called dum, which allows the marinated meat to be cooked slowly in its own juice.
WHAT MAKES KOLKATA BIRYANI UNIQUE?
Although, many people shrug off the Kolkata biryani as merely a variant of the Awadhi/Lucknawi biryani, for Bengalis, it is much more than that. What makes the Kolkata biryani unique is the moderate usage of spices (compared to other versions of biryani), rendering a subtle and refined flavour, the yellow tinted rice (which is a result of being soaked in saffron and kewra water), a hint of sweetness provided by the meetha attar and the quintessential POTATOES. YES. You read that right. Potatoes.
SO, HOW DID THE HUMBLE SPUD MAKE ITS WAY INTO THE LUXURIOUS BIRYANI?
In an article titled ‘The Kolkata Biryani: Culture, Identity, and Politics’, Somrita Urni Ganguly writes, it was Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the tenth and last ruler of Oudh/Awadh who brought the biryani to Calcutta in 1856. The Lucknowi/Awadhi biryani is traditionally cooked using the dum-pukht technique and served in a sealed handi which also resulted in this variety of biryani being called the dumpukht biryani or the handi biryani. Dum-pukht refers to a style of slow oven cooking. This is a cooking technique associated with the Awadh region, in which the meat, rice and vegetables are cooked on a very low flame, in sealed containers known as handis. Thus, the steam does not escape, rendering a heavenly flavour and essence to the dish. The Kolkata biryani departs from its royal Awadhi origins in one distinct way—the presence of the humble aloo (potato) in this regal biryani, which makes it unique.
When Awadh was annexed by the British in 1856, the dethroned Nawab came to Calcutta. In the hopes of getting his province back, he sent his mother, younger brother and son to England to place this petition before the Queen and the British Parliament. While the negotiations were going on, the revolt of 1857 occurred. The entire attention of the British was diverted towards suppressing the rebellion and with it the Nawab’s hopes of getting his beloved throne back were quashed. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was kept under arrest in Fort William for a duration of 26 months. Upon his release, he chose to stay in Kolkata and made Metiabruz his home. The Nawab was a connoisseur of food, music and literature among other things. When the news spread that he had taken residence in Kolkata, musicians, chefs, hakims and people in general started visiting the place. Within a short span of time, Metiabruz was transformed into mini Oudh and became a home away from home for the Nawab.
There are several conjectures and theories as to how potato became integral to the Kolkata biryani. There are basically two contradictory schools of thought. According to some people, when the Nawab lost his throne, he became destitute and hence couldn’t afford to feed his huge royal entourage with meat. Thus, in order to reduce expenditure and the rice-meat ratio, the meat in Biryani was replaced by potatoes.
However, this narrative has been refuted by the descendants of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah including Begum Manzilat Fatima, the great grand-daughter of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and Shahnshah Mirza, the great-great grandson of Wajid Ali Shah. In the words of Shahnshah Mirza, “One of the weapons of the British was to defame the Indian rulers in different ways. Hence this was part of the ploy to spread ill rumours about Indian rulers, which wasn’t true at all……Those were all rumours spread by the British, and perpetuated by us since we believe everything which a ‘gora’ says”. According to the descendants of Shah, the addition of potatoes to the biryani was merely a result of an innovation carried out by the royal chef and in fact, had nothing to do with cutting down expenditures. Potato was considered an exotic vegetable during those days as it was cultivated in only certain parts of the country. It was brought to India during the 1830s by the Dutch and was then included in the cuisines of the British and then the Muslims. In fact, adding potatoes to the biryani was a rather expensive experiment. It did not lead to reduction in expenditures in any way whatsoever. In her article, Somrita Urni Ganguly makes an interesting point by throwing light on the etymological digression of the vegetable. She writes, “The Dutch word for potato is aardappel, which literally means the apple of the soil. The French word for potato corresponds to the Dutch lexicon: pomme de terre. Pomme is the French for apple and terre means earth or soil. The Persian word for potato used in Iran, is sibzamini, which also means the apple of the soil. The Sanskrit (and therefore Bengali, Assamese, Hindi, and some other North Indian languages) and Urdu word for potato is aloo and it came into popular use around the 1830s. In Persian, aloo refers to a plum and when the potato was first introduced to Fath-Ali Shah’s kingdom in Iran by Mirza Melkaum Khan, it was called the Aloo Melkaum. The vegetable might have appeared as a plum to have earned its name. In some Persian dialects the name was then contracted to aloo, though in standard Persian in Iran the word used is sibzamini. In Afghanistani Persian, the word for potato is kachaaloo. The word potato comes from the Spanish patata, which was derived from batata, from the Taino language of the Caribbean Arawakan group. The English word gained currency in the sixteenth century. This somewhat lengthy discussion on the etymology of this humble vegetable that feeds millions of people in this globe shows us that indeed in 1856 the potato was not a part of the everyday diet in India.”
When Shah’s khansama cooked potato with rice, saffron, other spices and meat in dum-pukht style, the result was unexpectedly delicious. The fragrance, the aroma and the juices of the spices, meat, potatoes and rice, all got absorbed in the meal, making it delectable. When the dish was presented before Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, he liked it immensely. In addition, the nobles also loved this new rendition of the biryani and as the legend goes, asked their wives to put potato in biryani whenever it was cooked. Henceforth, potato became inherent to the Kolkata biryani and a part of its culinary heritage. This narrative can be supported by several facts. When Awadh was annexed by the British, it was a very rich state. Many English historians had compared Lucknow with the Paris and London of those days. As a matter of fact, Shah was one of the highest-paid pensioners of India and received a pension of Rupees 12 lakh per annum. Apparently, he spent 25% of this pension in the upkeep of animals since he was an animal lover. Thus, it has been argued that a person who could spend such a large sum of money in the upkeep of animals, could certainly afford meat.
THAT FIRST RENDEZVOUS WITH KOLKATA BIRYANI…
Before shifting to Kolkata, I was familiar with Kolkata biryani only through some TV shows as the dish was not quite popular then in the Northern part of Bengal. My sister and I were well aware of the fact that it was quite a tedious task and hence we never insisted that our mother make it for us. In the year 2010, I took admission in Lady Brabourne College (University of Calcutta), for my Bachelors. The college is located at Park Circus which happens to be a hotspot of biryani eateries like Arsalan, Zeeshan and Shiraz. In fact, the famous Aminia restaurant is also just an auto ride away. Ashma Parween was one of the first people I befriended in my hostel and who continues to be one of my closest friends. It should not come as a surprise that my first escapade of having Kolkata biryani was with the very same person. Ashma, being a third-generation Muslim migrant from UP was already well acquainted with the dish as it was regularly cooked at her home. On one fine Sunday afternoon, our hunger pangs, not quite satiated with the unpalatable mess food, landed us at Arsalan which was just a five-minute walk away from our hostel. Initially, I was a bit sceptical about having biryani but somehow Ashma convinced me and we ended up ordering a plate of Kolkata Chicken Biryani. Just to be on the safe side, I also ordered a Lachha Paratha and half a plate of Chicken curry lest I didn’t like the biryani. Just one spoon of that biryani was enough to convert me into a biryani fanatic. During those days, one plate of Kolkata biryani costed less than a hundred bucks and hence we often indulged in this delicacy without the fear of going broke. Arsalan for its biryani alone, became our favourite haunt for any occasion, be it birthday treats or the end of those dreaded university exams. In fact, it still continues to be our favourite reunion spot.
MY CONTINUED LOVE AFFAIR WITH KOLKATA BIRYANI:
In 2013, I left Kolkata for Banaras Hindu University in order to pursue my Masters. Although, there was no dearth of restaurants serving biryani in Banaras, the grandeur and richness of the biryani served at fancy Mughlai eateries paled in comparison to the subtle essence of the Kolkata biryani. How could anything compensate for the absence of the buttery-soft, melt in the mouth aloo (potato)? Whenever I was home from Banaras, my father would buy Kolkata biryani from any of the small biriyaanir dokaan(s) in the vicinity. My mother, being a firm believer in the idea of ‘home made food is the best’, abhors the idea of ‘baahar ka khana’ (food from eateries/ restaurants). Hence, she started experimenting with Mughlai cuisine and she always makes it a point to cook Kolkata biryani during my vacations.
Once I got enrolled in JNU, New Delhi, my visits to home became quite infrequent. Being a research scholar, I have to stay away from home for months at a time. I always yearned for that simply delicious Kolkata biryani. No other variant would do it for me. Some of my Bengali friends and acquaintances suggested a few places which served the dish but I always found them unauthentic. In 2018, I chanced upon the humble ‘Royal Biryani’ (near Hari Masjid) at Batla House. Although the place was not adorned like a gourmet restaurant, the Kolkata biryani served there was a gastronomical delight. It was authentic to the core. I have been to the place so many times that I have built a rapport with the owner and his sons so much that they remember my order by heart, i.e. half a plate of Kolkata Chicken biryani with one boti and an extra aloo.
As mentioned in my earlier articles, this lockdown has brought my culinary instincts to the fore. This time I decided to make Kolkata chicken biryani all on my own. At our home, we make everything from scratch, including the biryani masala. This masala is the soul of the prep and consists of cumin seeds, coriander seeds, black pepper, white pepper, black cardamom, green cardamom, whole nutmeg, whole mace, white cloves, cinnamon stick. Additionally, kewra water, meetha attar and saffron provide an exquisite flavour to the dish. But the very heart of the dish is the humble potato which is so woven into the very fabric of the Kolkata biryani, that I can not imagine one without the other.
Kalyan Karmakar, food blogger and author of ‘The Travelling Belly: Eating Through India’s By-lanes’ sums it up perfectly in his blog titled, ‘What makes Kolkata’s biryani special? The story of a ‘blue blooded’ biryani’, “I think there are two things that make Kolkata’s, or any biryani for that matter, special. First is the fact that this is a case of a royal repast that has been made accessible to commoners. A great example of the democratization of a dish that has led to great joy and happiness, and employment opportunities too. … Second is the fact that it is a dish that is a beautiful symbol of communal harmony. A dish that originated in families belonging to the Muslim community and is today enjoyed by people across caste, creed and religion, and for those who don’t eat meat, there are vegetarian versions too! A wonderful example of food uniting all and breaking walls.”
I could not have said it any better.
(Author is a research scholar at CSRD, JNU with a keen interest in history, food, lifestyle & society. She can be reached on Instagram at www.instagram.com/ati_sanskaari_naari/)