This post is for the scores of Calcuttans who have been scarred by the rocket fuel doused biryanis of Mumbai.
Help is at hand. The rumours doing the rounds of the Bengali network over the past few weeks did turn out to be true. Yes, Arsalan has finally opened at Mumbai. At Khar SV Road. Many had asked me about this recently. Then I saw a restaurant coming up, with the Arsalan board on it, as I headed to the Khar fish market a few weekends back. It was work in progress.
I forgot about it tell Tublu texted me the day before. ‘Arsalan has indeed opened. Phataphati (fantastic) biryani’.
Soumik checked and confirmed to me. “Yes, it is the same Arsalan”.
I rounded up a posse and headed there the next night.
Arsalan is not the first Bengali restaurant at Mumbai. There was the ‘mess’ at New Bengal Lodge, now the lamentable Howrah. Only Fish which became Oh Calcutta. The stellar Calcutta Club at Oshiwara. The street food chain Hangla, the original roll stall Bheema’s, the new Bong Bong. My current favourite Bijoli Grill at Powai. The rather disappointing Bhojohori manna which I hope has got its act right... you get a decent Calcutta Biryani at most of these places. The one at Bijoli Grill is really good and Calcutta Club was super but have not been there in a while.
So Arsalan is not the first Calcutta biryani place here either. To add to this I belong to the pre-Arsalan generation at Kolkata. Was rather under-whelmed when I finally made it to Kolkata’s Arsalan at Park Circus recently. For me biryani at Kolkata is defined by Shiraz.
So why was I so excited by Arsalan opening at Mumbai?
Well the sheer presence of a solid Kolkata based restaurant so close to home at Khar...not at Tardeo, Powai, Oshiwara, Versova... but almost next door is so reassuring and comforting...so soul satisfying...the equivalent for me of curling up with a Satyajit Ray novel with some Bengali Rock playing in the background.
The excitement with which our group we headed to Arsalan from different corners of the city was electric this evening. There was no ifs or buts, plans were made and executed in a day. Monday be damned. Bad stomachs, acidity, distances forgotten …we had biryani on our sights.
The nine of us landed there on Monday night. Kolkatans of Mumbai dreaming of our roots of biryani and rezala and chaap.
After a vigorous debate, that’s what we used to do in college fests… not cat walks, I was cornered into sitting in the spacious outdoor section. I looked wistfully at the AC section, grumbling about how the only thing faker than the biryani at Mumbai is its winter, while the waiter whispered promises of a mist fan.
The ordering didn’t take much time. Four special biryanis (special means extra rice, meat, potato and an egg), rezalas, chaaps …largely mutton with the odd chicken ones…naans…the kid just back from his college at Manchester ordered a curry house like chicken kadai…and then what I call the Great Crab Scam of Mumbai happened. If you have been to places such as Gajalee and Mahesh you would have seen the waiters wave large crabs below your nose till you buy one ludicrously expensive one. The same happened at Arsalan with the promise of a raan today till Maity bit the bait and we ordered this rather non Calcutta dish too.
The raan which was slow cooked delayed our order. What saved us from starvation was the mutton roll I ordered much to the bemusement of others. “Arsalan is not known for its mutton rolls”.
We found out why. Nice paratha, the onions fried as per my specs. A bed of chopped green chillies the way its meant to be. And then the downer. Ketchup. The ‘laal shos’ (red sauce) which is used in suburban roll stalls at Kolkata but never at the Muslim Central Calcutta stalwarts of Nizam, Badhsah, Kusum or Shiraz. Completely drowned the meat for me. Hangla still rules when it comes to mutton rolls here.
A feedback which I Iater gave to Mr Bhutto, one of the owners of Arsalan who had flown in from Kolkata. “Please ask your guests at the beginning if they want sauce”. He agreed and noted it down.
The rest of the food took a while as they waited for the raan to get ready. Something which flummoxed us as biryani is normally served instantly. A bit of hungry ‘bawal’ or raucousness and our biryanis were brought to our table.
A tad cold I suspect because the biryanis were waiting for us on the stand as the blessed raan got dressed.
But forget that false note for what we had was that night the best Calcutta biryani in town and the best biryani in absolute terms too. Even better than what I had at Arsalan Calcutta. This was of Shiraz standards.
The Calcutta biryani is the polar opposite of the kachhi dum biryani of Hyderabad which were meant for the Nizam’s soldiers and have a rough martial hue to them. Which in turn is no relation to the bastardised form of the Hyderabadi biryani served at Mumbai, a city whose citizens are so busy with work that you need some pretty bold, loud and overt flavours to keep them fuelled..
The Calcutta biryani has its origins in the decadent majesty of the courts of the Nawabs of Oudh…with a final artistic sheen added in Bengal…the land of the languorous genteel bhodroloks … a land of people who believe in savouring life at a leisurely pace.
The biryani at Arsalan Mumbai was an example of the best of Calcutta biryanis. The rice of the biryani at Arsalan fine grained, separate…artistic and delicate…potatoes almost baked in the subtle fragrances of the rice…boiled egg …
And the mutton … so sensuous, busty, full bodied and curvaceous…a touch of tantalising fat with the ‘inner thigh wobble’ that Nigella once said cheesecakes should have.
I have never come across these voluptuous blobs of chorbee (fat) on mutton served at Mumbai …a city where Spinning and Sumba are the latest buzzwords. This was sheer meaty indulgence…a tactile near erotic pleasure … it was all about passion and of throwing restraint to the wind… it was all about love handles
And what do I say about the sheer artistic wizardry of the rezala?
Meat, both mutton and chicken versions, cooked to pliant submission. What complexity of notes in the sauce that came together for the perfect raga.
The faint slightly sweet flavours of onion paste, the wicked temptation of oodles of ghee, the sensuous essence of meat in the sauce….a celebration of a pleasure that was so adult…an experience that had us wistfully murmuring ‘rezala, rezala’ as if one was calling out for a lost love while one spooned out the silken sauce and meat and savoured every lingering bite.
And then there were the flour or Maida naans. Fluffed up in a tandoor and brought hot to our tables. Each bite filling us with its the warmth…the heat of the last embrace of lovers who knew that their time was up and yet they didn’t want to let go. This was such a mood uplifter. Carbs at their very best.
As the naans got over we ordered more and more as we kept breaking them, dunking them into the sauces and chewing on them dreamily.
The chaap at Arsalan Khar so much better than the chaap I had eaten at Arsalan at Calcutta’s Park Circus. The spices granulated and slow cooked, the mutton tender. The chicken leg I had called for was petit and not gargantuan. My order of chicken invited quite a few raised eyebrows amongst our table of Bengalis. Why not mutton!!!!
Its just that I strongly feel that the coarsely pounded spices of a chaap are best brought out by the contrast provided by the lighter white chicken meat than a more robust red mutton.
The cuisine of Calcutta is all about subtlety and demureness after all….not about overwhelming you or being in your face.
The kadhai chicken and raan? Frankly I’d rather order those at Shalimar or Persian Darbar. The raan added 900 bucks to our bill but otherwise all of that, Thums Ups for the others and a Coke for me I was heckled for (Kollaner ki hoyecche aajke?), three stodgy cold frinis and we were at 400 (7.5 USDs) each and without the raan Rs 300. That’s a very good deal indeed.
So why this fuss about biryani, chaap and rezala amongst us?
Well for those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s at Kolkata the Muslim biryani restaurants were the first ‘resturas’ we could afford and for most of us these defined our first experiences of sit down dining. So with each bite of biryani, chaap,rezala one bit into memories of carefully saved up pocket money, movies at New Empire, Chaplin, Elite , Lighthouse, Jamuna and Globe, first crushes and of slowly forgotten romances that were meant to last for ever, of hopes and aspirations and of waiting to grow up…so many flavours and memories that went into a meal that was rather superlative in absolute terms too.
So roll over Jaffer Bhai … the Shahenshah is here.