How Biryani Travelled From The Mughal Kitchens to Kolkata

Find out why Kolkata adds potatoes to its biryani and where you will find the best in the city

Kalyani Sardesai

If there is a royal treat to your senses laid out on a platter, it will undoubtedly be the finger-licking Kolkata biryani that is the perfect blend of taste, flavour and story. Some legends say that it was the diminished fortunes of the deposed ruler of Awadh, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah—who made Kolkata his home in 1856—that gave rise to the Kolkata biryani, a more economic version of the original Awadhi biryani.

What else could explain the (gasp!) inclusion of potatoes to replace (some) of the meat? In sharp contrast, another version says the potatoes were actually rare at the time and the Nawab Saab naturally had to include the most exotic partners in his biryani.

For the best biryani in Kolkata

Whatever the truth, Arsalan in Kolkata serves you a yummy, to-die-for version of the Kolkata biryani. Robust, hearty and studded with golden potatoes and a hard-boiled egg along with the meat, this is just what you need to lift you out of the blues.

With five outlets in the city, this restaurant owned and run by Akhtar Parwez and his family, attributes its success to fresh ingredients and simplicity. “Robust and honest is what defines us best,” says Mohammed Hamza, one of the family members. Reasonably priced at Rs 330 for a plate of mutton biryani, the dish is a sell-out day after day.

How is Kolkata biryani different

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What further distinguishes the Kolkata biryani from its parent—the Lucknowi or Awadhi biryani—is the moderate use of spices. “We can debate endlessly as to whether it was cost-cutting or the natural ability of potatoes to take the flavour of the biryani a few notches higher, but the fact is that Kolkata biryani is part of the proud food history of the city,” says academician Abhradita Nahvi. Meaning you can take the Kolkatan out of Kolkata, but never the biryani.

From Arsalan, which a relatively new entrant on the biryani scene in Kolkata, to the Royal Indian Hotel (the oldest in the city) at Rabindra Sarani, Kolkata biryani is at once Bengali and Mughlai in character. ‘The average Bengali is a potato lover. Add to that an egg, and you have a recipe to die for,” she grins. “You can make the Kolkata biryani with the meat of your choice: mutton, chicken or even fish.”

Homemaker Mumtaz Khan, a native of Kolkata, married into a Hyderabad family proudly holds onto her own 30-year-old family recipe even in the face of stiff competition from the Hyderabad biryani. “Unlike other biryanis, the spices are way less, and refreshing too, even as you use nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom in the curd marinade. The meat is cooked separately from the rice which I like to flavour with rose water. A generous dose of saffron or zaffran gives it both flavour and a delightful yellow tinge, as do the aloos. Don’t they really partner the gosht like a dream?”

After all, the city of joy is all about stories, food and nostalgia that strike a chord in more ways than just one on your plate.

Inputs from Kalyan Karmarkar, The Travelling Belly

Photo: Shutterstock
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