Dining like a Nobab … Shiraz, Kolkata

Note: According to Vir Sanghvi’s  book, Rude Food, biryani was introduced to Kolkata when the British packed off the Nawab of Oudh to Calcutta. The potatoes were a practical addition to the biryani as the exiled Nobab or Nawab didn’t have enough  money to have all meat meals.

Biryanis and special occasions almost went hand in hand while I was growing up at Calcutta. These were restaurant meals so special. Yet not completely beyond one’s reach. A one dish meal and therefore worked out to be quite economical.

School farewell parties, school reunions (six months after one disbanded), alumni meals, scarce pocket money collected to watch movies with classmates, Christmas gala dinner and dance at the college canteen, treating the little brother to lunch when he dropped in at work … biryani was always the safe bet.
My biryani stomping ground was normally around the New Market.

Amina for its biryani before watching Maine Pyar Kiya at Elite. Or Nizam’s for biryani if before watching Tom Hanks’ Big at Chaplin. Yes I am that old!

Later it was Zeeshan for biryani and rolls as the restaurant was close to my first office. And when I left it fell on one of the roads to the airport at Kolkata when I became a Mumbaikar.

Oh, you didn’t know? Flights from Kolkata to Mumbai are full of ex Calcuttans carrying boxes of biryani, bags of mutton rolls, bhaars (earthen pots) of mishti doi and Kookie Jar’s chocolate boats and lemon tarts back to their new homes.

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I had heard of Shiraz at the Muslim side of Park Street. Mallick Bazar I guess. Xaverians must have gone there but as a Presidencian that never fell within my playing fields. So I never went to Shiraz.

I did eat biryani from Shiraz once before I left Kolkata. The place where I worked at then had a new wing and ordered biryani from Shiraz to celebrate the day. In the Mumbai branch of the same office that would have meant a batata vada or samosa and a kala jaam. That’s the part I miss about working at Kolkata.

Well the one thing I remember from that afternoon was being floored by the biryani at Shiraz. It was so non greasy, so non oily and that too in the context of biryanis at Kolkata which in any case are dry and non oily. I went “where were you hiding from me all this while?” I could hear the theme from Casablanca play in the background as I finished off the biryani and prepared to leave Kolkata.

Close to a decade later I was on a trip to Kolkata on work. Staying at a hotel at Kolkata for the first time. The reality of urban migration kicking in as my mom was spending some time with my brother at his house in his new city.

I checked in to my room. Was awed by the compact classic look and feel of grandeur. Checked the room service menu. Shut it. Quietly got into the car as I headed out to work. Made a quick stop on the way. For my first ever trip to Shiraz.

Folks saw the photos I later put up on Facebook and said that Shiraz has changed. I entered an air conditioned restaurant. Packed with tables. Each table seating folks eating with grim concentration … as if they didn’t want to let even a single flavour escape them. Probably this is what true molecular gastronomy is all about. The crowd was mixed. Spanning genders and social classes. There was a sari clad lady and her middle class family sitting beside me. Two slightly rough looking men sitting in the table beside me. Bullying the waiters for more alu (potato). One telling the other, ‘eat eat…don’t worry about anything’. And opposite me, sharing my table, was a gentleman who was taking a break from work…looked like someone who probably worked in a large shop. Quietly relishing his roti and chicken korma.

The service efficient. Waiters quickly taking your order and then getting your food. Keeping an eye on you in case you needed anything … water, salads, another dish. Getting a finger bowl to clean up once you were done. A quiet testimony to the hungry hoards waiting to be seated. Some waiting inside the restaurant eyeing your seat. The sign of a good restaurant. A place which serves great food.

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The biryani was exactly as I remembered it to be from a decade back. As delicate as the famous silks of Murshidabad. Exquisitely flavoured. The perfect example of a dish which could be so bursting with taste and yet so bereft of heavy spices and masala. The mutton juicy. Its glow radiating across the rice. The potato, so idiosyncratic of biryanis at Calcutta, chubby and soft…slightly baked and drawing in the flavours of the dish.
This was culinary perfection. So regal and yet served in a reasonably humble and completely no frills twenty year old restaurant.

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I had ordered a chicken rezala to go with my biryani. I requested for a leg piece and got a delectable one where you could gently peel the meat off the bone. The  gravy of the rezala had a very latent sweetness which came from a sublime symphony of grated onions and ghee (clarified butter) with the gentle touch of heat from dry red chillies… the short crash of cymbals in between a concerto. This was such good food.
What a warm welcome back for the prodigal son.

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I stepped out of Shiraz. Happy. Taking in the surroundings.

This was the Muslim end of Park Street which led on to Park Circus which was the home of the Johnny Come Lately and quite avoidable Arsalan and its biryani. This end of Park Street, unlike the swish old European end of Flurys and Trincas and Asiatic Library and Oxford Book Store, was shorn of glamour.

There was a cinema hall where people were pouring out. The sort of place where watching movies could still be called as ‘cheap entertainment’. A couple of mutton shops. An annexe for selling rolls at Shiraz.  A guy selling, crumbs and scrapings from cakes! Nothing is wasted here. And of course a nimbu pani or lebur jol or lemonade walla (salesman) quenching the thirst of those who were working hard under the cruel sun which offered no respite.

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To me the Shiraz is a what good restaurant is all about. To hell with the plating and raspberry swirls, napkins in floral shapes and never ending wine menus. Food is not about the ‘latest’. Places to be seen at.
Food is all about ‘pleasure’ as Bourdain says and pleasure is what was served in double measures at every table at Shiraz that afternoon.

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