What makes Kolkata's biryani special? The story of a 'blue blooded' biryani

Kolkata mutton (goat meat) biryani cooked by Manzila Fatima,
a descendant of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah.
Part of a lunch that she had cooked and treated us to recently

Biryani in our blood

‘Why do Kolkatans like the Kolkata biryani so much?’ asked food writer and friend Pritha Sen to me on Facebook the other day. I don’t remember the context of her question, or her exact words to be honest. It was probably in response to a biryani picture that I had posted. I do that very often you see.

My answer was something to the effect of, ‘I would like to say that this is because it is the best, but in reality one's preference in biryani is often driven by the biryani one has grown up on. This applies to other dishes such as phuchkas and paani puris or rolls and frankies too.’

This conversation did make me reflect on what biryani meant to me when I was growing up in Kolkata. 

As I did so, I realised that biryani held a truly special place in my life back then as it continues to do so now.

Biryani was the ultimate treat for me when I was growing up in Kolkata. It was not a dish that was made at home.  It was a restaurant dish and that made it even more coveted.

Making every rupee count

The beauty of biryani for me in my high school, college and early jobber days was that it was very affordable and offered great value for money. 

To start with, the biryani was a complete dish for us. One didn’t need to spend more by order anything else with one's biryani when eating out. 

This made it different from other blockbuster dishes, such as the rezala, chaap and bharta, which were sold in the same restaurants. You had to pair those with rotis and that was an added expense.

No such problem with the biryani. 

Traditional Mughlai restaurants in Kolkata had, and still have, two kinds of biryani options. 

The 'special biryani' – more expensive and with an extra piece of mutton and an egg – which two people can share.  And the 'regular' biryani. This was cheaper and was good enough for one person. The mutton in the biryanis in these restaurants could be inconsistent and tough at times, but there was always the alu (potato) which made sure that you didn't go hungry after you had a biryani.

Shammi kebab and rezala are some other biryani house specials. You pair those with roti
Manzilat made both the kebab and the rezala for us too

The biryani was a very value for money deal no matter how one looked at it.

I remember biryani being the unanimous answer when my friends and I had to decide on the menu for farewells and reunions in school and socials in college for the same budget friendly reasons. And I was thrilled when my building Durga Pujo folks included biryani in the community lunch on Doshomi when one had goat meat.

Biryani joints in Kolkata, as they are across most other cities in India, are warm and buzzy places, not posh or ‘fancy. Not intimidating for a student whether you were alone, with friends or on a date. A good working lunch option for someone at the start of their career too, as I was in Kolkata till I left.

Come to think of it, there was something very empowering about these biryani places. 

They allowed us, even with our meagre pocket money, to go out and eat a good meal in a restaurant and feel very grown up.

The fully loaded biryanis of Mumbai

When I moved into Mumbai, I found the biryani in places such as Lucky and Noorani, the equivalents of the Nizam’s and Aminia’s that I had left behind in Kolkata, to be more expensive than the Kolkata ones. They tasted very different too but that's a debate for another day.

I soon realized that everything in Mumbai is more expensive but there was at least a logic to the biryani being more expensive here according to me. A standard serving of biryani in Mumbai has more mutton pieces and rice than the Kolkata ones and hence is more expensive I guess. Apart from higher rentals and staff charges of course! 

I didn't have a problem with the trimmer Kolkata portions biryani though. It was enough to feed my hunger and made less of a dent in my wallet.

It's been many years since I moved out of Kolkata. I have tried many biryanis since then. 

I am yet to come across one that gives me as much happiness as the Kolkata one does. 

A royal treat in all senses of the world

As the years went by and I read more on food, I realised that the biryani was literally, even if tenuously, a royal treat. Let me explain how.

I first read the story of the Kolkata biryani in Vir Sanghvi’s book, Rude Food, and later in other places too. The authors spoke of the Lucknowi connections of Kolkata’s biryani. 

I read stories of how the biryani was supposed to have come to Calcutta with Nawab Wajad Ali Shah of Lucknow and his entourage. Of how the alu or potato was introduced to the biryani by his cooks when they moved to Kolkata. Of how some of these cooks moved out of the royal kitchens and into the main city after the Nawab passed away and eventually set up eateries which led to the Mughlai restaurants of Kolkata that became legendary for their biryani.

Incidentally a lot of biryani places in Mumbai add potato too though the cut and format of cooking is different.

A dish with an identity crisis

I recently came across a school of thought which said that the Lucknowi biryani, and hence the Kolkata one too, is technically a pulao and not a biryani because of the way it is cooked - meat and rice separately and not together - was the argument.

I will side step that discussion as I am not a culinary expert. 

My simple take on the subject is that all of us in Kolkata know, love and revere the dish today as a ‘biryani’ and at times it is best not to get too pedantic about food.

Coming back to the Kolkata biryani’s ‘royal connections, I had a very interesting experience the other day.

The 'blue blooded' biryani

Manzilat Fatima
A descendant of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah
to whose royal kitchens Kolkata owes its biryani


I was fortunate enough to have been invited over for lunch the other day by a lady named Manzilat Fatima. She was in Mumbai then visiting her children.

I had already heard of Manzilat and the great work she is doing. From what I had read in various articles about her is that she is a descendant of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and is working on bringing alive the food from her family's kitchens to a larger audience. I had read about the much sought after pop up meals that she holds  across the country, where she cooks and presents the food of her ancestors and talks about it. Incidentally, her first pop up was suggested to her and curated by Pritha Sen.

Sherry Malhotra, who is based in Kolkata, and is promoting Himachali food herself, connected Manzilat and me and I took the opportunity to meet Manzilat when she was in town.

The Birthday biryani treat

When I reached her children's place, I found that it was Manzilat's birthday too that day!   

Manzilat, her children and her husband welcomed us with a warmth and grace which was really touching and smacked of the ‘adaa’ that the Lucknowis are known for. They are Kolkatans now of course.

While I had read about her before in various articles, I took advantage of meeting her in person and peppered Manzilat with questions like a three year old would.

Manzilat patiently explained that she is a fourth generation descendant of the nawab and that she is trying to bring alive the traditions of her ancestors to the world at large and share the lovely food that is a part of her heritage.

She’d possibly blush at this, but in a way this meant that I was at a royal birthday lunch that day! 

History lessons

Manzilat had some very interesting and at times contrarian stories to tell us that afternoon. 

Her account of how the nawab came to Kolkata was different from the commonly held notion of his being exiled to the city from Lucknow by the British. 

She also discounts the theory that the potato was added to the biryani in Kolkata as the nawab had fallen on financially hard times. She acknowledges the need for fiscal prudence for sure but also says that the potato was an exotic vegetable in India back then and just the thing for a khansamah (cook) to bring to his nawab. 

The analysis of history is best left to the experts I feel so let me tell you about the meal I had and later leave it to Manzilat to tell her story.


With Manzilat to my right and my local friends Rhea Mitra Dalal
& Ananya Banerjee facing me enjoying the birthday bhoj
The rest of Manzilat's family was busy helping her look after us and are not in the photo unfortunately 

The biryani that Manzilat cooked for us that afternoon lived up to the top billing it gets everywhere. 

It was full of flavour and yet very light on the stomach. Each grain of rice, every shred of saffron, each piece of meat, every bit of whole spices, and the much revered potatoes of course, were made to count in the dish. 

Manzilat had made her ingredients work to the fullest to show why the biryani of Kolkata is so magical, regal and yet  subtle and comforting. 

The plate that she served me was a true heirloom and sid justice to the legacy of a family to whom we biryani lovers owe a great debt of gratitude.

That was a truly special birthday bhet (treat)

A royal pantry can’t hinge on one dish of course and Manzilat dished out a brilliant chicken rezala whose silken curry and tender pieces of chicken had me in its spell.

I am on this self imposed portion control thing these days but I pushed that out of the window and added more rice on to my plate and mopped it up with the rezala and grinned like a happy puppy before I moved into the shemoier payesh or kheer for dessert.

A birthday deserves a shahi (royal) dessert

The meal was of the sort after which you wanted to curl on the nearest bed and snooze but I remembered my manners in time, realised that one should not impose on our generous and hard working hosts and hailed a cab to head back home with a bag full of stories.
This was truly afternoon for me to cherish.

The birthday girl blushes at songs
sung in praise of her biryani

So what makes Kolkata's biryani special?

I think there are two things that make Kolkata's, or any biryani for that matter, special.

First is the fact that this is case of a royal repast that has been made accessible to commoners. A great example of the democratisation of a dish that has led to great joy and happiness, and employment opportunities too. Food is at its most flavourful when it's shared after all.

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.

Wait did I tell you how happy a good Kolkata biryani makes me?
More evidence of my biryani, obsession...check out the number of places where I have written on biryani in my book, The Travelling Belly

Kolkata

Delhi

Lucknow

Hyderabad

Chennai

Mumbai
In case this leaves you hungry for more, this link is where you can order a copy of The Travelling Belly .


Appendix:

1. My blog post on exploring the biryani joints of Lucknow
2. A video where Manzilat Fatima shares her take on the history of her family and that of Kolkata’s biryani. You will also get to see the present day owners of two of Kolkata’s iconic biryani restaurants, Royal and my favourite, Shiraz, share their family histories too. Parts of the video are in Bengali and Hindi but Manzilat speaks her parts in English and I think the video is definitely worth watching. From what I understand, the video has been produced by the owners of a restaurant called Hanglaatherium in Kolkata that serves biryani too and whose biryani Manzilat approves of. I think that it is very cool that they produced a video which pays a tribute to the classics, without hard selling themselves. A great effort indeed. It is best viewed with a good plate of biryani, Kolkatan of course.



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