Kolkata is not the only city to have alu in its biryani! A biryani memories trail across cities and countries.

Breaking alu with Kunal Dhume at Lucky, Bandra, after Mohammed chacha (in the background) got us an extra piece

Note: 'Alu' means potato in Hindi and Bengali

Alu lies at the heart of the Kolkata biryani

"I like the Kolkata biryani. It is not very spicy," said my soft spoken chef friend from Melbourne, Kunal Dhume, who is a former Mumbai boy and has worked in leading hotels here before moving to Down Under where he is a chef with one of the biggest hotels there. "I especially love the alu in it," he added. He was talking of the potato in the biryani.

"Ek half mutton biryani please. Kam masala and extra alu," I said as I placed my order with Mohammad Hussein chacha, our waiter when I met Kunal for lunch at Bandra's Lucky restaurant recently. Mohammad has worked here for 35 years and I have seen him during the 20 years that I have been coming to this Mumbai classic.

Mohammed chacha smiled, nodded and soon came back with a little copper vessel full of biryani. It had an extra alu perched on top. Looking magnanimous and regal, akin to a benevolent emperor sitting on an elephant and waving at his subjects. We had already made our way that afternoon through bheja cutlets, anda ghotala and pav and rumali roti and white chicken curry. This made the recent introduction of half plates of biryani at Lucky a rather welcome one. We were rather stuffed by then I admit, but you cannot come to Lucky and not have the biryani can you? The half plate was far less intimidating, than a full plate would have been.

Stop press: Mumbai has alu in its biryani too

'Wait, did you say alu in biryani in Mumbai,' you ask?

Yes, yes. I have got news for you. Kolkata, my former hometown, is not the only city in India to have potatoes in the biryani. My adopted hometown of Mumbai has it too. Albeit in a rather different format.

The average Kolkata 'regular' biryani plate has one piece of meat (mutton/ chicken/ in increasingly rare cases, beef) and one whole potato in it. The boiled egg comes in the 'special' biryani along with an extra piece of mutton. The Mumbai biryani has multiple pieces of meat in it but usually just one piece of potato. The piece is a part of a whole potato and does not seem to hold centre-stage here. Unlike in the Kolkata biryani, where the potato has a slightly baked feel to it and where it takes in the spices and meaty flavours of the biryani, the potato pieces in the Mumbai biryani tend to be harder and with no distinct flavour of their own. A big part of the joy of eating a biryani in Kolkata lies in mashing the potato into the lightly flavoured rice with your fingers, after the rather frugal piece of meat is over, and then taking in a mouthful. In Mumbai, the potato is lost in the crowd of heavier masalas and meaty abundance in my experience.

I was not sure if the potato in the biryani of Mumbai is as revered by biryanis lovers here, as it is by biryani devotees in Kolkata.

Kunal sings to biryani. Pic source Mommy In Me

I realised that I could be suffering from what we call 'researcher's bias' in market research. I reached out to die hard Mumbai boy and unofficial 'Mumbai biryani ambassador,' Kunal Vijayakar, who has engaged with many a good nature sparring bouts with us Bengalis on biryani, on his memories of the alu in the Bombay biryani and on what it meant to him.

"Aloo was always there in biryani from as long as I remember and it was always coveted. When you ordered a kilo of biryani home, then the degchi (vessel) which it came in would be lined with potato at the base so the rice at the bottom would not burn. And, that potato tastes the best!"

 I asked, Dr Kurush Dalal, another Mumbai food history maven and Mumbai biryani fan. He too remembers the alu in the biryani being there ever since he was a kid. He did not seem to share Kunal's enthusiasm for the alu in the biryani here though they are both devotees of the Bombay biryani in general.

The great potato hunt

Please follow me @thefinelychopped on Instagram for more such food conversations

Is Mumbai the only city apart from Mumbai to have potatoes in biryani?

I decided to put these questions on the Finely Chopped pages on Facebook, Instagram and through my twitter handle too. The answers made me realise that we were not talking of just twin cities here. That you will find alu in biryani across the borders too!

Cross border biryani alu diplomacy 

Sarah Ahmed from Karachi wrote in saying that they have alu in biryani in Karachi and added that this her favourite part of the biryani. She distinguished this biryani from the 'Sindhi biryani' which has more spices and has condiments such as apricots and lime and potatoes too.

I turned to Alka Keswani of the blog Sindhi Rasoi, as I do always for inputs on Sindhi food. She said that she was sure if there was indeed such a thing as a 'Sindhi biryani'. "There is a Sindhi 'pulao' which has carrots, peas and potatoes and 'meha' (apple gourd)", she said, "but that is not a biryani.". Alka added that cubed potato is added in summers or during the rains to the bhuga chaanwran, the caramelised rice which is had with sai bhaaji by the Sindhis. This apparently is because of vegetables being scarce during this time which makes making saai bhaaji (a sort of slow cooked mixed seasonal vegetable Sindhi stew) difficult to make. The dish know as Sindhi 'biryani' Alka felt, belonged to the Muslim community of Sindh which now falls in Pakistan.

There was more on the 'Karachi biryani alu' connection as I found out. Senior journalist, Ashok Malik, tweeted to me saying, "Sindhi biryani (as experienced and eaten by me at the house of an Ismaili family with roots in Karachi) includes alu."

This seemed to bear out Alka's point on what is described as the 'Sindhi biryani' belongs to the Muslim community of Sindh and not the community that we know of as 'Sindhis'.

Alu in the Bohri biryani of Mumbai

With Mustafa Icecreamwala

The two biryanis varietals in Mumbai that usually have potatoes in it are firstly those that you find in its 'Moghlai restaurants' such as Lucky and Jaffer Bhai, whose biryanis are considered to be the most iconic in Mumbai today. 

The other is the Bohri biryani, which I first had from a small takeaway place in Bandra called Jeff.  Home dining experiences and wedding invites are one's best hope to trying the Bohri biryani as there is no standalone Bohri food restaurant as far as I know, though the folks at the Bohri Kitchen now have a retail presence. The ITC Grand Central has a Bohri biryani on their menu which is quite popular and is part of their Local Love menu. That has potatoes, if memory serves me right.

To know more about the history of potatoes in the Mumbai biryani, I reached out to a couple of my friends from the Bohri and Irani communities.

Let's listen to Mustafa Icecreamwala, a Bohri himself, first. He has grown up in Mumbai's Bohri Mohalla and hails from a family that has been in the sancha (hand churned) ice cream making business for more than a century. He has recently set off on his own and has launched his ice creams under the 'Icecreamwala' brand name.

Mustafa said that he loved eating biryani right from his childhood and smiled and added, "biryani was always in my blood." It seems that Mustafa was so fond of the biryani that his mother would make, that he would have it four times a day on days when she made it.

"Lunch, four o'clock, dinner and then at midnight again. It was so good that even though we lived on the first floor, folks walking down the streets would know that my mom was making biryani."

"My mother would always add potatoes. She called for older potatoes when she made biryanis even if they were more expensive. She would fry them first and then add them to the biryani. Newer potatoes would not hold their shape she would say."

Mustafa said that the Bohri thaal biryani, which one has at weddings and family functions, has potatoes too. Caterers add potatoes directly to the biryani at the start before cooking it, said Mustafa. His mother, on the other hand, would fry the potatoes first and then added it at the end. The latter process is a sign of love stresses Mustafa as it is more time consuming and required more attention.

Where did the potato come in the Bohri biryani come from, I asked Mustafa.

"It could be because of Wajid Ali Shah from Lucknow who, from what I heard, added potatoes to the biryani when he went to Kolkata. Perhaps someone from Mumbai had tasted it there, got inspired and came back and started the tradition of adding alu here. I do not know about this for sure, but what I do know is that potatoes have been in the biryani here ever since I was a kid."

Well, there you go. One more nebulous addition to the Wajid Ali culinary urban legend, and the former Kolkatan in me liked the Kolkata connect too.

Alu in the quintessential 'Bombay biryani'

With Mohsen Husaini and Mr Safar Ali. Pic taken in September 2016. 

I then reached out to Mohsen Husseini, third generation owner of Lucky Restaurant in Mumbai's Bandra, where our story started.

"Alu is a must in biryani," said Mohsen before he pointed me to his father, Mr Safar Ali. A venerable and very well spoken gentleman. He is the Bandra born, 78 year old, second generation owner of the 81 year old restaurant that had been founded by his father, the late Sayed Ali Akbar Husaini, who had come to India from Iran and who had made Mumbai his home.

"I was born with biryani you could say" said Mr Safar Ali with a twinkle in his eyes. "Lucky was started by my father a few years before I was born. He had tried a few food businesses before that in Pune and then at Bandra, but Lucky turned out to be really lucky for him. Lucky served biryani ever since I remember and that biryani always had alu in it."

Irani biryani? What's that?

'Is this addition of alu in the biryani a throwback to your family's time in Iran,' I asked.

"Not at all. In Iran they make pulao. That is very bland. The biryani is a hundred per cent Indian dish," said Mr Ali. "The biryani is meant to be spicy and the name comes the from the word 'biryan' which means 'to fry.'"

With the chutzpah typical to biryani lovers of any given city, Mr Safar Ali then stated, "only the Mumbai biryani is the real one. You do not need a side dish or raita or salan with it. The spices in it make it a complete dish."

I reached out to Rezvani on Twitter, from whose account I often get to know more about modern day Iran. Something that interests me, both because I lived there as a kid and because I am married to a Parsi (who has never been to Iran herself) now.

Rezvani says that potatoes were not added to the pilaf of Iran earlier, though off late some do serve it with fried potatoes. I smiled when I saw the fried potatoes in the pictures that he kindly shared. They looked like the big (versus the matchstick thin ones) salli that the Parsis of India love.

A good time to remind oneself of the fact that the potato was actually brought to the India from north America by the Europeans...the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British. In which case, it could not be a part of the cooking tradition here in any case.

Lucknow: Where every biryani story starts

So how did the alu come into the Bombau biryani, I asked ,and Mr Safar Ali proceeded to give me a history lecture which was as illuminating as my chats with him always were.

"There was a famine in Lucknow and the then nawab ordered for the construction of mosques known as the bada imambara and chhota imamabara to provide work to locals. Biryani would be made for the workers. Since there was a famine and food was scarce, they would add potatoes to the biryani. So the practise started in Lucknow and then permeated to Calcutta and Bombai."

In case you are wondering, no it is not our old friend Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the unofficial patron saint of every Mughlai food story teller, who Mr Ali was talking off. It was the fourth nawab of Awadh, Nawab Asad Ud Daula, who had commissioned the making of the Imambara of Lucknow. Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was the tenth and the last nawab of Awadh.

The thing about any of these food origin stories is that they are the result of a happy mix of fact, fiction, romance and imagination. I am not sure about how true the Imambara alu story is and Kurursh tells me that the verdict on its veracity seems to be divided. Yet, there is no denying the fact though, that stumbling upon a new story is as delightful as stumbling across a hidden alu in a biryani and that is a fact that unites the people of at least three cities, Mumbai, Karachi and Kolkata...and one more, as you will now see.

When the Mughals went to Dhaka

Zaved and I at the end of volunteer duty

I went to the Bandra Durga Pujo with my friend Zaved Akhtar recently. He is from Dhaka and is a corporate denizen who had now worked across international markets and is currently based in Mumbai on his second posting here. Zaved told me about how the celebration of Durga Puja as a socio-cultural event is growing across Dhaka. I suggested that he join me at the Bandra Pujo as a volunteer as he seemed to be missing out on the fun back home and he happily agreed.

We stood behind the bhog serving counters and helped those serving by passing on plates and spoons to them and called out to the kitchen when dishes needed replenishments...khichuri, khichuri....chutney corner'e ... payesh, payesh.

Given the one track mind that I have, in between the chaos I did manage to ask Zaved if the biryani in Dhaka has potatoes in it. 

It apparently does!

 Is the biryani of Dhaka the same as the Kolkata biryani, I asked Zaved.

"Dhaka has three types of biryani", explained Zaved. "The lightly spiced spiced morog pulao made with chicken, beef tehari  whose recipe builds on the Awadhi dish tehri, but has beef in it unlike the original version where it is usually a rice based dish, and the kachhi biryani".

It is the kachhi biryani of Dhaka which has potatoes in it. Kachhi means raw and hence the meat, rice and potatoes are stacked in layers and cooked.

He said that the kachhi biryani is closer to the Lucknowi biryani than the Kolkata one. It is richer and more greasy and spicy too. I had eaten this at Khulna in Bangladesh in the late 90s when I went there for some market research fieldwork. While it has been almost two decades since then, I do remember the kachhi biryani being more fully loaded than the Kolkata one in terms of spice and ghee and meat. As I found the Lucknow ones to be, years later when I went on a biryani hunt there which you can read about in my book, The Travelling Belly. The morag pulao would be closest to the Kolkata biryani in terms of subtlety levels, says Zaved.

How did the potato come into the Dhaka kachhi biryani, I asked Zaved.

"I remember it being there ever since I was a kid," said Zaved who, like me, is in his mid 40s too.

The kachhi biryani of Dhaka comes from old Dhaka, Zaved said and added that the food there is influenced heavily by Awadhi/ Mughlai food. That brought back memories of the time that I had visited Dhaka with my father in 1981. We had gone to Old Dhaka and visited Murad's (one of the sons of emperor Shah Jahan) tomb there. I had just read about how Murad had been exiled by his brother Aurangzeb, in an Amar Chitra Katha comic book, and was most excited to see the mausoleum. I think that we could have a picture of that in the family album.

Would that be a Wajid Ali Shah or Asad Ud Daula connection again, I wondered. Or another nawab. Or a nameless cook or home chef? The imagination boggles, as Bertie Wooster would say.

I guess it is best to quietly enjoy the potato in the biryani than think too much about it.

Not that one will actually do so. My search for biryani stories is far from over and I am sure that you know that better than I do. I am rather biryani obsessed after all!

My joy on coming being reunited with the alu in the
biryani in Aminia, Esplanade, Kolkata

From the Finely Chopped archives:


Alka said…
It is always a pleasure to visit your blog and read about the food and the lovely stories and memories woven around each dish.
Thank you for the mention and yes,I am still looking around for the answers about so called Sindhi Biryani.
Also, the soft potatoes when mashed with rice taste so delicious! I am drooling now!!
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Alka thank you so much for your kind comment and for always responding when I reach out to you for informations