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How a potato saved the nawab’s biryani

The backstory of the Awadhi biryani in Kolkata is one that follows the decline of the 'nawabi' life

A plate of typical Kolkata biryani with meat, potato and egg. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik
A plate of typical Kolkata biryani with meat, potato and egg. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik

If you hop on a tram going from Esplanade, Kolkata’s business district, towards Shyambazaar, it will take you about 30 minutes in moderate traffic to reach Nakhoda Masjid—the 1926 shrine built as an imitation of Mughal emperor Akbar’s mausoleum at Sikandra in Agra—on Chitpore Road. The slow tram ride is a necessary prelude for a quintessential Kolkata indulgence—mutton biryani at Royal Indian Hotel, an early 20th century restaurant situated opposite the mosque.

On this breezy monsoon afternoon, Shivaji Datta is accompanying me for this gastronomic adventure. A gourmand par excellence, Dutta has an intimate knowledge of Kolkata’s culinary heritage.

After getting off the tram, we cross the road through a maze of roadside kiosks and handcarts. The unmistakable aroma of biryani wafts through the whirlwind of chaos to guide us up a steep flight of stairs and we find a table in a linear chamber where turbaned waiters are deftly moving between the white-topped tables.

In a few minutes, the biryani arrives—a plate full of long-grained rice, delightfully non-greasy, with a rotund piece of meat on top. But something is amiss.

“But don’t you serve the potato?" I ask incredulously. The potato is the hallmark of any Kolkata biryani. Slow-cooked together with aromatic rice and mutton, the potato is a speciality that does not feature in the biryani of other cities associated with the dish—Lucknow, Hyderabad and Lahore.

As someone who has grown up savouring the biryani’s potato as much as the mutton, I was disappointed. The tall, elderly steward shakes his head courteously, “No sir, we don’t serve the potato with the biryani here in Royal."

“Biryani, originally Persian fare, became a part of Calcutta’s culinary map in an interesting manner," says Dutta.

He takes me back to 1856, a year before the First War of Independence. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh had been dethroned and deported to Calcutta. He settled in the Metiabruz area near the Hooghly with a sizeable population comprising members of his erstwhile court and their families, a battalion of servants and some of his excellent chefs, whose biryani-making skills were legendary. However, in their new kitchens in Kolkata, the chefs faced a singular problem. The privy purse or the compensation package given to the native rulers by the British after annexing their kingdoms was rather limited. This meant that it became increasingly difficult to make large quantities of the traditional Awadhi biryani that would feed all of Wajid Ali’s retinue. The biryani in its original form required the finest quality rice, a whole assortment of spices and the finest cuts of meat. What happened thereafter was a brilliant improvisation—the chefs substituted a portion of the meat with a large-sized potato, and toned down the spices. And that is how the Kolkata biryani became a less spicy variant of the Awadhi biryani. The potato that was cooked with the rice and meat, assumed a flavour profile of its own.

Datta explains why the potato is missing from Royal’s biryani. He goes back to 1887 when the nawab died. The chefs were jobless and stints in the households of local landlords proved to be dissatisfactory. Some of them decided to open restaurants in the central and north Calcutta districts, paving the way for the institution of Kolkata’s iconic biryani joints like Royal, Aminia, Sufia, among others. These restaurants, opened in the early years of the 20th century, became legendary within the next few decades, showcasing authentic Mughlai fare and, of course, biryani.

Datta says, “The chief chef’s post in the court of the nawab was called raqabdaar. The name means that he would never cook more biryani than would fill a raqab or a flat silver pot. And he would never cook for anyone but the nawab and his immediate family. Wajid Ali Shah’s raqabdaar Ahmed Hussain knew the nawab’s palate well. The biryani that he made was filled with meat and minus the potato as Wajid Ali was a puritan in all things and for him nothing but the best would do even in straitened circumstances. Hussain went on to start Royal restaurant in 1905 and in keeping with his tradition, the potato is left out."

A spoonful is savoured. The biryani is exquisitely mild, with a slight peppery tone. For once, the potato is not missed.


Kolkata: city of biryani

A round-up of legendary biryani restaurants

Shiraz Golden Restaurant, Mullickbazar: This restaurant dates back to 1941 and is well-known for its biryani. The subtle blend of spices compliments the fragrant, long-grained rice and the meat falls off the bone. The signature potato is always perfectly cooked. The double mutton biryani paired with mutton pasinda is one of their best-sellers.

India Restaurant, Kidderpore: Somewhat off the popular food circuit of Kolkata, India Restaurant is known only to the diehard biryani lovers of the city. The signature dish here is Kacchi biryani, where raw, marinated mutton is cooked together with rice. A variant is Daryabadi biryani, where the generous sprinkling of dry fruits imparts a slightly sweet taste. Both versions feature the potato.

Aminia, Esplanade: Established in 1929, this joint further toned down the spiciness of Awadhi cuisine to suit the Bengali palate. The biryani here is traditionally paired with chaap or rezala.

Oudh 1590, Deshapriya Park: A late entrant to the city’s biryani map (established about six years ago), this restaurant serves Awadhi cuisine and their flagship dish is Raan biryani. Served in a large earthen handi, aromatic rice is layered with chunks of meat.

Zeeshan, Park Circus: Though their kathi rolls have obtained cult status, their biryani with its delicate fragrance of cardamom and black pepper and robust pieces of mutton has its own following.

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