A Royal Biryani and the curious case of the missing alu (potato): Kolkata's immigrant food love songs, part 1

Row 1 L to R: Salad, mutton keema, paratha
Roe 2: Mutton chaap, rumali roti
Royal Indian Restaurant, Kolkata

I was in Kolkata last week. The trip was purely personal. R&R focused. I did eat out of course and ended up going to three restaurants which are among the oldest running Mughlai, Punjabi and Chinese restaurants in the city. Over the next few few posts, I plan to tell you about my experience at these heritage eateries. Starting with the Royal India Restaurant 

We didn't start the fire

One of the responses to my recent post on what goes into the Bengali vegetarian wedding menu was a wry lament on how people have moved away from what was once considered 'traditional' when it comes to weddings in Bengal. Specifically, the arrival of the Sangeet when it came to festivities (Bengali weddings were serious business with no dancing involved) and the emergence of the pasta and the Mexican counters at the buffet in the context of food.

'Can we get the good old luchi chholar dal, bhaat maachh, mangshor jhol polau back', was the clarion call.

I have a theory on why this shift has happened. It is very simple actually. It is based on the fact that folks today want something ‘different.’ If you have bhaat and maachher jhol every day, and biryani when you go out, then you would want pasta with pink sauce on the day of your wedding. It is possibly only the probashis (expat Bengalis), driven by nostalgia, who opt for the original Bengali repertoire when they go to Kolkata to celebrate landmark events. Though some say that this is changing again.

My classmate from school shared an interesting point of view on weddings
in Kolkata in response to my post on Facebook. He lives in Kolkata, travels
the world and is a food enthusiast himself.

This is nothing new though. The people of  Kolkata have always been fairly open to experimentation when it comes to food. Let me take the example of some of the popular street food dishes of Kolkata to show you what I mean.

The chop cutlets of the street-side rolls shops of Kolkata and its mishtir dokan (sweet shops) are part of the European, specifically Portuguese, legacy of the city. The roll itself is said to have been invented at Nizam’s. A Moghlai restaurant manned by folks who were originally from UP and Bihar. The phuchkas that we take so much pride in are sold largely by sellers from UP and Bihar too. The biryani of Kolkata, the one that we are willing to stake our lives for, has travelled all the way from Lucknow to the city. Some of the most famous kachori places in the city, be it Ganguram’s or Maharani, were started by folks who came to Kolkata from UP. The street-side plate of chow that you can see being sold across the city today by young Bengalis, traces its origins to the Chinese who settled in Kolkata a couple of centuries back. Food theorists say that even the roshogolla had come in to Bengal thanks to the Portuguese. As had the pound ruti. Slices of which are toasted, buttered served with the stew of Dacres lane and the Maidan gymkhana tents. Or is toasted, buttered and sprinkled with sugar and then served with cha in the street corner chai’er doka. Or doused with egg, salt and pepper, and then fried on saucepans on coal fire ovens as the pound ruti becomes the deem pauruti of Kolkata’s office para.

Wait, there is more. 

It is claimed that the origin of samosa, what we know of as shingara in Kolkata, traces its origin to the sambusac of the middle east. As is the jalebi, what we know as jilipi in Kolkata, a descendant of the zulbia from the same region.

The thing about food history in India is that it can get both nebulous and contentious as very little of it has actually been written down and therefore one cannot vouch for the veracity of some of what one has written in the paragraph above. 

What I can tell you for sure and rather proudly so is that my former hometown of Kolkata is still home to a number of restaurants that had been set up by communities that had migrated to it. Just as is Mumbai, my hometown for the last two decades.

In Mumbai, the dominant among these would be restaurants set up by the Iranis (Zoroastrians and Muslims), folks from the Konkan coast of Maharashtra and Goa, the Mangaloreans, the Punjabis, the Sindhis and the Gujaratis (Hindus and Muslim chiliya). 

In Kolkata, it is the Chinese, the UPites with their Mughlai food and the Punjabi immigrants who have left their stamp on the city’s restaurant culture.

Meaty stuff at the Royal Indian Restaurant

All eye on the chaap tava at Royal

I went to the Royal India Restaurant straight from the airport the day I landed at Kolkata.

Royal’s claim to fame is that it one of the oldest running Muslim/ Mughlai restaurants in Kolkata and is credited with having introduced biryani to the masses of Kolkata. A dish which in Kolkata, traces its origins to Awadh. Modern day Lucknow. 

Their original outlet, the Royal Indian Hotel, is located in Chitpur near the Nakhoda Masjid. A part of ‘old Calcutta’ that is not that easy to access and a part which I have never been to as I am more a south Kolkata boy. They opened their second branch a year or so back at Syed Amir Ali Avenue at the cusp of south and central Kolkata. Folks in Kolkata today will tell you that it is located opposite the Quest Mall. I would refer to it as being opposite Zeeshan. The Mughlai restaurant that I would frequent when I had first started working in market research and when our office was down the road. The new Royal outlet is called Royal Indian Restaurant and not 'hotel.'

Thanks to the very long and impressive MAA flyover, the new location of Royal is quite easy to access if you are coming from the airport and heading to the south. I am sure that the atmosphere in the two restaurants would not be comparable but I am told on good authority that the food is similar.

Breaking bread with Foodka

Indrajit Lahiri AKA Foodka at Royal Indian Restaurant

I met IT entrepreneur and food blogger, Indrajit Lahiri for lunch that day. He had first got into food with his blog which is called Maha Mushkil. I met him a couple of years back. He has recently published a food book in Bengali which is called Food Kahini. He is a very well-known figure among Bengali food enthusiasts today thanks to his Foodka web series on food where he pairs up with popular Kolkata based comic, Mir. When I post pics of Indrajit on social media these days, I have people messaging me saying, “you were with Foodka!” 

I do like going out to eat with him and he seems to like the sort of grunge eating that I do. Thankfully, he always manages to make time for me when I am in town and we have had quite a few nice food explorations in the past. 

Indrajit told me that he has eaten at both the Royal outlets and said that he finds the food similar and added that going to the Chitpur one would be too time consuming for me that day.  

Indrajit had reached Royal before I did which was good because I had a suitcase with me and the staff was not keen to let me keep it at the counter. For understandable safety related reasons I guess. We were supposed to meet at the AC section which is at the first floor. With no lift, that meant that I had to drag an overstuffed suitcase up which was not an option for me.

I am happy to sit at the non-AC section at places like these actually as I find them more lively and colourful. However, it was past 3 pm and the ground floor at Royal was empty and hot that day. Suddenly the phone at the cash desk rang and a few words on the phone later, the manager looked at me and said I could keep the suitcase and go up. I did so gladly and walked up to the busier and pleasantly cool, clean and bright air con section upstairs. 

I spotted Indrajit at a corner table. Turned out that he had gone and spoken to a couple of members of the family who own Royal. That explains why my suitcase was cleared!

The case of the missing alu

With Saad Mohammad, 5th gen owner of Royal Indian Restaurant

I took the opportunity to chat with the owners while we waited for our food to arrive. I questioned them about why the biryani at Royal had no alu (potato). A matter that disturbed me at a fundamental level and which had me wonder on the way if I had made the right decision by deciding on Royal for my first meal at Kolkata. The Kolkata biryani is famous for its alu as you might know.

Alu was introduced to the biryani in Kolkata during Nawab Wajid Ali’s time,” said Mahmood Afzal, fourth generation co-owner of the restaurant. “Our ancestor, the late Ahmed Hussain, who started Royal Indian Hotel in 1905, had come to Kolkata from Lucknow. He had come here before Wajid Ali and therefore the biryani that he introduced was that of the Lucknowi style where there is no alu.”

His son and fifth generation owner, Saad Mohammad, added that Royal had not actually started as a biryani joint. The founder used to sell dishes such as chuski and mutton chaap from a stall at the beginning and then opened their restaurant at the same location at Chitpur. The biryani was introduced later. The founder's son, Mehboob Ali, Saad's great grandfather, helped grow the business and was known as 'pehelwan' at Chitpur.

Curiouser & curiouser

Saad and his father explained to me that the chaap, a dish that I loved from my childhood in Kolkata, is so named after the chaap (rib/ upper back) pieces of goat which is used in it. The meat is cut into small pieces and then ‘smashed’ as they put it. It is then marinated and slow cooked in desi ghee on a huge flat tava. When a customer places an order, the cooks portions out a plate of meat and cooks it in the same plan on a higher heat. You get chicken chaap too now. I usually prefer that to mutton as I feel that meat is sometimes lost in the spices in that. I did not know that chaap was meant to be with mutton till that afternoon I admit.

Remember how I had said earlier that Indian food history can get a bit hazy? Well, the conversation that I just narrated is an example of that.

What I had read before this, including on Indrajit’s blog, is that was the Royal Indian Hotel was set up by someone who was a cook in Wajid Ali Shah’s kitchen. He then introduced the Awadhi biryani to the masses through his restaurant. This made the story of the founder of Royal having come to Kolkata before the nawab a bit confusing for me. 

A quick Internet search told me that Wajid Ali Shah was exiled to Kolkata in 1856 and that he passed on there in 1887. Royal Indian Hotel, as I mentioned earlier, was founded in 1905. Doing the math showed that the story of the founders of Royal arriving before Wajid Ali Shah requires more investigation, but then can a good yarn ever be in black and white?

Let me take another Kolkata biryani story to make my point. The stories that I first read on it said that the alu (potato) was introduced to the biryani in Wajid Ali Shah’s kitchens in Kolkata from an affordability point of view as using just meat was turning out to be too expensive. In recent years, one has come across descendants of his who say that  this theory is wrong. That the alu was introduced as it was exotic then and deemed fit for the palette of a king/ chieftain. Even if deposed. 

As I once wryly remarked on hearing this, this would make it the equivalent of adding Norwegian salmon (which some 5 star hotels do) or avocado (which I am sure some vegan café would) to the biryani today.

Which is why I would rather say a silent thanks to the merry men of Lucknow for bringing the biryani to Kolkata at this point and switch to a personal story telling mode rather than attempt to dive into the annals of food history. 

Best to leave the latter for qualified historians rather than bite on more than what I can chew.

A Royal Kolkata feast

The classic Royal special biryani with alu from their Kolkata biryani on the side

So how was the food at Royal that afternoon?

Let us start with the biryani. We had ordered the classic Royal special (two pieces of mutton, no alu, no egg) biryani. The rice had a sharp masala punch (ginger juice according to Indrajit) that made it taste a bit different from the average Kolkata biryani. 

Yet it was closer to the Kolkata biryani at heart than the Lucknowi one I felt. The rice in it was more yellow than the biryanis that I have had at Wahid’s, Lalla's and Idrees, street corner joints famous for their biryanis in Lucknow. The rice was less greasy at Royal than in the Lucknow ones. It lacked the specks of colour (green, red, orange, purple) which the Lucknowi ones had. The proportion of meat to rice was a lot less compared to that in Lucknow. The pieces of mutton were very tender though and that here as reminiscent of Lucknow. It had a few tiny mincemeat koftas in it which were rather dry and just ornamental in my opinion. They did not add anything to the dish.

I missed the potato in it though. I was in Kolkata damnit. I have grown up on its biryani.

For Kolkata biryani heretics like me, Royal did bend the knee (GOT lingo for surrender) and introduced a ‘Kolkata biryani at the Syed Amir Ali Avenue outlet which has alu. It is still not available at the original Chitpur outlet in the north where they have held on firm to their roots.

I requested for and got a plate of alu to go with my biryani. I gently dabbed the potatoes with my fingers and they gave in submissively to my touch. Mashing them and adding them to the rice and mutton and then taking a bite made one finally feel as if one was back home in Kolkata. Wajid Ali Shah had clearly won this round. The magic happened with the alu!

What I did realise that afternoon was that when they decide to do something at Royal, they do it very well. No half measures are accepted here. The potatoes that I had proved this.

Mutton keema at Royal

We tried a plate of mutton keema  at Royal too as had been suggested to me by my friend Kaniska  in whose house I was staying and to whom I turn for advice on all things Kolkatan. Indrajit and I both felt that with its roughly minced meat, bits of chorbi (fat) and sharp masala (turmeric if you ask me) kick, the kheema took one back to the Bengali homes of the 80s from our childhoods.

Mutton chaap at Royal

The dish of the day for both of us at the Royal Indian Restaurant was clearly the mutton chaap. The dish that had started off the Royal story. 

Some online comments that came up when I shared pics of chaap spoke about it having too many bones. As had Indrajit in his earlier blog post. The mutton pasanda was recommended instead.

No such problems for us though. The meat was cooked on the bone and was ample and so juicy. There was an inherent sweetness to the dish which possibly came from both the meat and the ghee used. There were bones of course, but you could just chew on them or have the meat and let the bones be. These were no kebab me haddi (party poopers) figuratively speaking!

I had ordered the chaap bthat afternoon as Kaniska had told me to do so when I spoke to him on the phone after I landed. He said that this was his favourite dish at Royal. It is now mine too. The dish I would ask you to order before any other at Royal.

The owners had suggested that we have the chaap with a paratha. I ordered a rumali too. 

Indrajit and I both felt that the simple rumali offered a better counterfoil to the chaap than the ghee soaked, slightly sweet, paratha. The latter competed with it for attention, instead of complimenting the chaap. The rumali on the other hand knew that the chaap was the star and was happy to play a supporting role. It was a very well made rumali by the way.

I left Royal feeling happy that evening. I had finally made it to Royal after all these years of wanting to do so. Even if it was the new one.

I know that this story is far from complete though. That to get the Royal Kolkata experience, one has to go to the one at Chitpur, the original one. 

 I promised myself, that I would do so one day.

With Indrajit Lahiri at Royal Indian Restaurant
Do check out this video that we shot at Royal Indian Restaurant with Indrajit most kindly manning my phone camera. Do subscribe to his channel Foodka and mine, Finely Chopped TV by Kalyan Karmakar

Appendix: I had gone to Kolkata to primarily meet my grandmother. I stayed with friends and met more friends while there. Some folks from social media whom I connect with now. Some old college batch-mates and a former work colleague whom I had not met in a while. I met my aunt too. 

I stayed consciously away from anything that could be deemed as 'work,' ... PR invites, hotel visits. Though I wished I had more time to meet more friends in Kolkata and had to regrettably say no to some.

I had a whale of a time while doing so as this Facebook pic, which \I call "smiles of Kolkata" will tell you. 

At times you just need to break free and that's what being at Kolkata helped me do. I was from the madding crowd and bang in the middle of it too. Could not have asked for a better break. 



3. Kaniska Chakraborty on Royal Indian Restaurant 
4. My posts on biryani trails in Lucknow: Wahid & Lalla, Idrees