Eat, the beloved country. A message of unity and diversity from the plates of India.

Manzilat's biryani and gulauti and Riazul's Christmas cake from Kolkata

Why biryani followed by Christmas cake makes for the perfect Kolkata Christmas dinner plan

Mumbai has been my home for the last two decades. My fifth hometown in a sense. After Canterbury where I was born and then Liverpool in the UK and Rasht in Iran.  I spent the first six years of my life outside of India. A result of the the migratory lives of my parents. Both of whom were born in undivided India, in what is now Bangladesh. My father grew up in Kolkata. My mother in Allahabad and then Delhi. They got married and lived in the UK and Iran before returning to India, specifically Kolkata. I spent close to two decades in Kolkata before I moved to Mumbai at the start of my working career. As a market researcher then and not a food writer. I am married to a Parsi who is from Mumbai though her forefathers came to India from Persia in the hoary past. Her mother was born in Surat, her father in Mumbai. We are all immigrants in our family in a sense. Economic or otherwise. The food in our kitchen reflects this.

I returned to Mumbai on Friday night after a three night work trip to Kolkata. I returned carrying with me a taste of home.

I am talking of the the mutton biryani that Manzilat Fatima of Manzilat's in Kolkata had most kindly packed and sent to my hotel for me to take back to Mumbai. She had packed some of the excellent gulauti kebabs and ulta tava ka parathas from her kitchen too.  When I opened the cloth bag in which she had sent the food, I saw that she had packed in a pretty cloth table mat, a little porcelain figurine and a Christmas cake!

I know that Christmas is still a while away but I could not hold myself back that night. I cut myself a slice of the cake after the lovely biryani and kebab dinner and had it. The cake was incredibly juicy, soft and delicious too.

'The Christmas cake is from our local baker from whom I have been buying this for ages,' messaged Manzilat in response when I thanked her late at night. 'It is the best in town!'

Many slices of the cake later I am willing to back her on this. The baker's name is Riazul I learnt. A Bengali Muslim from the suburbs who has taken over his father's bakery. The Anglo Indian families of Kolkata have for long had a tradition of getting their cakes baked at such Muslim run bakeries for Christmas.

"I have childhood memories of my 'big mom,' who was a Christian, preparing cake batter and labelling them (each meant for different families) and sending it to bakeries before Christmas," added Manzilat. "That is how traditional Anglo Indian families would make their cakes back in the day."

Incidentally Manzilat herself is a descendant of an immigrant family. A Muslim immigrant family in this case and a rather special one. Political immigrants. She traces her lineage to the late Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Oudh. The family that is responsible for having brought the Awadhi biryani to Kolkata among other things. The biryani that has become the epicentre of Kolkata's eating out culture. Be it students on a budget or children being taken out for a treat by their parents at the city's Mughlai restaurants, or the many street side biryani stalls that workers - blue and white collar both - frequent, or the now omnipresent biryani starring in the city's wedding menus these days, all make the point one could argue that there is no dish that is as integral to Kolkata's foodscape today as the biryani.

Manzilat's ulta tava ka paratha repurposed as egg rolls with Raiazul's Christmas cake

The next morning I repurposed some of the beautiful maida parathas that were leftover, to make egg rolls at home and then cut another slice of the cake to have with my espresso and egg rolls for breakfast.

If the biryani is Kolkata's favourite dining out dish, the egg roll is the street side snack that the city runs on today. It is said that the egg roll culture of Kolkata emanated from the Mughlai restaurants of central Kolkata which were the first to sell kathi kebab rolls.

Egg rolls are what made the rolls truly mass though. It is not just Kolkata today. Go anywhere in the east, be it Guwahati or Jamshedpur and more, you will fine egg roll carts all over. Often started off by Bengali immigrants to these cities.

How the kitchens of nawabs of Murshidabad influenced the kitchens of the onion and eschewing Oswal Jains of Rajasthan

The Sheherwali thali falls into place at the Royal Vega, ITC Royal Bengal

I had a few very interesting meals during my short trip to Kolkata. 'Interesting' in the context of the debates going on in the country right now as I will explain soon when I tell you about two of them.

Let me first tell you about the Sheherwali dinner that I got to taste at the Royal Vega restaurant at the ITC Royal Bengal. During the course of fantastic meal which he hosted us to, chef Varun Mohan from the Royal Vega told us that the genesis of the Sheherwali cuisine of Bengal can be traced back to the time when the Oswal Jains from Rajasthan had moved into Murshidabad in Bengal in the 18th century for the purpose of trade. 

Turns out that this immigrant, onion and garlic eschewing Jain community, had a pretty open mind and took in influences from their new homeland to embellish their kitchens. They adopted spices such as panch phoron and vegetables such as mustard greens and potol (pointed gourd) used by local Bengalis and saffron, dry fruits and nuts and hung curd used by the Muslim nawabs of Murshidabad to create wonderful new dishes.

Paniphal pulao. 

Some examples of this from what we tried  that night would be the padwal (potol/ pointed gourd) dum cooked in a tomato and cashew based curry, which seemed so 'Mughlai' in essence, but for the absence of onion, garlic and of course meat. The khiri kachori which consists of a very Rajasthani kachori stuffed with an intoxicating shredded cucumber and hung curd filling. Cinnamon was the predominant spice here. Again a nawabi influence as Mohan pointed out. Then there was the quintessential Rajasthani kheer, traditionally made with rice, sugar and milk, but which has kesar (saffron) and kevra jal in the Sheherwali version based on inspiration taken from the courts of the nawabs. In fact, I had a glass of kewra jal infused water as a part of the dinner which reminded me of the biryanis of Kolkata of my childhood thanks to the distinct and rather refreshing rosewater essence.

The best example of the Rajasthan, Bengal and nawab trinity of influences in Sheherwali cuisine was the paniphal pulao that we had that night. It looked the way a typical Lucknowi biryani would. Long grained basmati rice which had hues of yellow running across it. Cooked in a dum style the way biryanis and pulaos are made. But with no onion, garlic or meat of course. Strewn on it instead of meat, were pieces of paniphal (fresh water chestnut). The spiciness of the rice a reminder of the chilli and masala loving Rajasthani forefathers of the Sheherwalis of Bengal.

All of this happened in the 18th century incidentally. I cannot imagine the Jain community today taking inspiration from Muslim cuisine given how strict the food and religious rules followed today are. Or am I wrong in saying so?

From Portugal with love


I had a chat over lunch the next day at the ITC Sonar Hotel with food researcher and home chef, Pritha Sen, on the many dishes that became a part of the cuisine of Kolkata thanks to the immigrants who came to the city such as the Anglo Indians.

Take the panteras for example. 'The panteras is a  crumb fried pancake roll', explained Pritha. The panteras looks similar to the pan rolls of the Goan Catholics. I have had the mutton mince and vegetarian versions of these at Candies in Bandra. Possibly a common Portuguese influence said Pritha when I pointed this out to her.

Mutton pan rolls at Candies this morning. 22nd December, 2019.

The  panteras had by the Anglo Indian families of Kolkata traditionally had a minced beef or goat meat filling, said Pritha.

The chilli and masala spiked, shredded and boiled fish filled panteras version that I had at lunch, was inspired by the one done at Nahoum's according to Pritha The fish stuffing reminded me of that in the maacher chop (fish chop) of Kolkata in terms of its taste and aroma. Nahoum's is a 117 year old heritage Jewish run bakery that is located in Kolkata's rather old 'new market' or Hogg Market. The Christmas puddings and cakes there are very coveted.

Mangshor chop

We did have some mangshor chops for lunch too among many other dishes that afternoon. The mangshor chop is made of minced goat meat, with a little bit of potato and spices mashed in, which is then coated with bread crumbs and deep fried. 'Chops are a part of the Anglo Franco culinary tradition of Kolkata', said Pritha.

The chops and the cutlets too found their way to the cabin restaurants of Kolkata and then to the road side roll shops. I remember having chops (could afford only the vegetable and egg ones then) as a student. The chops were served in thongas (recycled newspaper bags) which were drenched with red and yellow sauce and the sliced onion, cucumber and carrot 'salad' added to it along with rock salt.

You get versions of these chops in Goan Catholic households too. I have come across both mutton and veg potato chops at a few places such as Candies and Snow Flakes in Mumbai and Infanteria, Nostalgia and Martin's in Goa and once upon a time, beef mince chops in the Catholic run meat shops of Bandra. These chops trace their heritage to the croquettes of Portugal but are rounder in shape and have a higher proportion of potato in them than the beef croquettes of Goa and the pan rolls of course.

The chops of the Goan Catholics have a high proportion of mashed potato in them than the pan rolls and are called mutton potato chop, beef potato chop, veg (beans, carrots and peas) potato chop etc. Coincidentally, the mutton chops in the Anglo Indian households of Kolkata are called 'alur chop' (potato chop), says Pritha. Different from the alur chop in the roadside tele bhaaja shops that dot the pavements of Kolkata and which are similar to the potato bonda of the south and the batata vada of Maharashtra but are much smaller in size.

I have had croquettes in  Spain which look like our chops though they taste very different as the filling has cheese, ham or fish and salt, but no spices of chillies. Those are fried in extra virgin olive oil. I have not come across chops in either London, Paris, Nice of Cannes though. While the chops of Kolkata might have come in through the British and the Anglo Indians, I would not be surprised if their origins lay in Portugal or Spain.

While the origins of the chops of Kolkata could be a bit hazy, what is beyond doubt is that along with rolls, jhal muri, shingara and tele bhaaja, chops rule the city's snacking culture today despite their European DNA.

The recipe for the peace of the land

Welcoming Manzilat's gulauti and paratha to Mumbai

Back home in Mumbai, I realised that I had found answers to some very important questions being raised in our country these days. Questions which are being raised the through social media debates and citizen protests. Questions on the principles of plurality and equality in the context of our nation. Questions on the direction in which we are headed.

I found my answers in my little biryani and Christmas cake story and in the stories that I heard of the Sheherwalis of Bengal and the chops and panteras of Kolkata.

In the story of how the immigrant Sheherwali community had opened their hearts and their hearths to those around them to create such lovely dishes, or that of how the people of Kolkata had lovingly welcomed the biryani brought in by the Awadhis and the croquettes by the Europeans, and had made these their own,  I got the answers that I was looking for.

The fact that nothing is more important for our country than the values of unity in diversity which the founding fathers of our nation had espoused. That there is nothing more important than respecting the lives of others. Putting peace and harmony as the end goals to strive for.

These are values which I aim to live by and hope to champion through my work too.

With the Sheherwali thali at Royal Vega

PS While I have just shared three examples, I know that there are countless others from the world of Indian cuisine that exemplify the spirit of harmony and intercultural exchange. I would love it you list  some of these some for what we desperately need today are such stories of positivity.


 Do watch:

My video chat with chef Varun Mohan of the Royal Vega on what the Sheherwali cuisine is all about

Do read:

  1. My article on the cabin restaurants of Kolkata
  2. My article on the Portuguese influence on the street food of Kolkata and Mumbai
  3. My article from when I first met Manzilat which also talks of the role of the biryani in the foodscape of Kolkata
  4. My article from when I went to Manzilat's at Kolkata
  5. An article where you will get to see pictures of Nahoum
  6. My article on the importance of egg rolls in the social fabric of Kolkata
  7. My article on eating out in Jamshedpur where I talk about the egg rolls there
  8. When I was shown how croquettes are made in Barcelona
Pics from the trip:

With Chef Varun Mohan at Royal Vega

Mom and K loved the Sheherwali meal too

Chatting with Pritha Sen (centre) and my college senior Shaswati Sen on the food culture of Kolkata 
With Pritha Sen, chefs Shubhankar (black trousers) & chef Prasanta at the ITC Sonar, Kolkata
The trip to Kolkata was courtesy ITC Royal Bengal Hotel. The title is inspired by the book, ‘Cry, the beloved country’ by Alan Paton.