Every food connoisseur’s visit to Kolkata is incomplete without tasting the Biryani, the food that Calcuttans drool over, irrespective of their religious persuasions. But what sets apart the Kolkata Biryani from its counterparts like the Awadhi and Hyderabadi ones is the presence of humble potatoes (aloo), and its appetizing taste despite the moderate use of spices. The food that is now available in shops across the city, cooked in big handis wrapped with red (red colour signifying royalty) cloth; has its origins in Lucknow, Awadh.
The Kolkata biryani, traditionally, is a dish where the meat and the potatoes are slow cooked in clarified butter (ghee), on low heat (dumpukht). The uncooked rice, the meat and potatoes are then layered in a big-based pot (handi) to which certain spices such as cardamom, mace, saffron, cloves and sweet ittar are added. The handi is sealed and then cooked further in the dumpukht method. More often than not, in Calcutta, eggs are also added to the rice along with the meat and the potato.
In 1856, the then Governor General Lord Dalhousie annexed the kingdom of Awadh on the pretext of misrule and exiled the tenth and last Nawab of Awadh Wajid Ali Shah to Calcutta. The Nawab left Lucknow reluctantly hoping to return one day, which never materialised as soon Awadh also revolted during the Revolt of 1857. Wajid Ali Shah settled in Metiabruz area near Garden reach overlooking the Hooghly river (then on the outskirts of Calcutta). Gradually with his patronage the area developed into a mini Lucknow in Bengal. Following their Nawab, his courtiers, musicians, hakims, chefs and even some subjects also settled in the area. From this time began the journey of the Kolkata biryani. The Nawab was arrested during the Revolt of 1857 and kept imprisoned in Fort William for 26 months. The Nawab was later freed and given a pension and the option to chose land in any part of India to reside. He chose the Metiabruz, his new home.
There are two theories behind the inclusion of aloo in the Kolkata biryani. The first more popular one points behind the depleting coffers of the Nawab and his declining economic status. This forced the Nawab’s cooks to substitute meat with cheaper alternatives like eggs and potatoes without compromising much on the taste in order to feed his entourage. The potato thus played a significant role in decreasing the meat to rice ratio.
The Nawab’s descendants like Manzilat Fatima (the Nawab’s great granddaughter), and Shahanshah Mirza (the great-great-grandson of Wajid Ali Shah), both settled in Kolkata refute this theory. They say that the theory originated as a result of a rumour spread by the British to malign the Indian ruler. Mirza says that the Nawab used to get a yearly pension of Rupees 12 lacs (one of the highest paid pensions in India at that time). The Nawab built mosques, palaces, imam bara and even a zoo (one of the first privately owned zoos in Asia). Fathima says that potato at that time was an exotic vegetable, that was beyond the reach of the common people and only the royalty could afford it. The Nawab’s chefs had the habit of experimenting with food, and once they put potato in the Biryani. The Nawab liked the taste so much that he ordered potato to be regularly used for the dish.
Although, widely grown and easily available across India in present times, potato is native to South America and reached India in the 17th century through Portuguese and Dutch traders. Potato was brought to Bengal by the British traders in early 18th century and was not widely cultivated until well into the 20th century. Hence in the 1850s it was indeed an exotic crop, only available in the palates of the elite. Hence the explanation provided by the Nawab’s descendants seems to be more accurate.
Biryani, a royal dish at that time, has nowadays become a truly ‘egalitarian’ dish with prices ranging from Rupees 80 in roadside stalls to Rupees 500 in heritage shops. In small shops sometimes the quality of rice is compromised and clarified butter (ghee) is substituted with hydrogenated vegetable oil (dalda). Heritage restaurants like Shiraz, Arsalan, Aminia, Rahmania, Zeeshan have their outlets across the city, with their main branch being located in Park Circus, all at a stone’s throw from each other. This points towards the popularity of the biryani which has been not only sustain the restaurants within the same locality, but also spread their branches across the city. New restaurants springing up in various parts of the city like Oudh 1590, or C/o. Bangali, Biryanisq, etc. are giving tough competition to the established names. There are also small Biryani outlets like Aliah, Afreen, Arafat, Shimla Biryani, ZamZam, Asma, Dada Boudi, Haji Saheb, Afza, among others with their signature taste and dedicated clientele. Some restaurants serve a special version of their biryani with extra rice, egg, potato and meat piece.
Finally, it can be said that biryani is as quintessential for Calcutta, as the rosogolla, which transcend the realms of being just food and transform into becoming cultural symbols, a sentiment, an emotion.