Somewhere between Rossogollas and lip-smacking fish preparations, many rich Bengali delicacies go unnoticed. And one such delicacy is the Kolkata Biryani. One can also blame the greater popularity of its southern counterpart – Hyderabadi Biryani
, which might have for long prevented the Kolkata Biryani to flourish in all its glory. But Kolkata Biryani is slowly working its way out of the canals of the City of Joy and gaining the due recognition it has long deserved.
Made with aromatic rice, tender meat and a handful of masalas, the Kolkata Biryani has long been delighting the palates of the City of Joy since over a century now. Royal Indian Hotel at Rabindra Sarani, said to have started in 1905 by Ahmed Hussain, is perhaps the oldest restaurant serving biryani in the city. The owners of the Hotel (third generation of the founder family) claim that the recipe has been kept intact all these years, allowing no tweaks.
Drawing comparison to other biryanis, the Lucknawi Biryani relies more on the flavours of the meat than spices to pull it through. As you go down south to the courts of the Nizams of Hyderabad, the biryani tends to include more masalas. The Kolkata Biryani is a sub variant of the Lucknawi-style of biryani. Yes, you heard us! The Kolkata Biryani isn’t a native of the city, but a modified version of a Lucknawi variant. It entails an interesting historic trail that began in the princely courts of Lucknow.
When the King of Awadh, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was dethroned by the British in the year 1856, he was exiled to Kolkata from his capital Lucknow. Being fond of his tastes and indulgences, and to ensure he didn’t have to compromise on either, he brought the entire entourage of khansamas and bawarchis along with him. But the indulgences of the Nawab were in a fix due to scarcity of money. It was here that his cooks decided to innovate and gave birth to the local variant of this much loved biryani, by cutting down on meat and adding potatoes to the biryani.
Food Blogger Kalyan Karmakar in his book The Travelling Belly writes, “The money was scarce. The spices were toned down, and the biryani of Kolkata became more subtle than that of Lucknow and had a lower meat-to-rice ratio. The cooks had a stroke of brilliance. Meat was expensive, so they decided to add potatoes instead to give contrast to the rice.”
Ingenious indeed. The popular legend has, however, been refuted by a couple of historians. Kalyan also talks about other popular conjecture, where the descendants of Nawabs claim that the potato was added to the biryani as it was an exotic vegetable at the time, and not because local rulers were running out of money!
Whatever may be the legend behind the addition of the potato, here we are 150 years later and we can’t stop relishing the novel inclusion.
Kolkata Biryani is exceptionally light, low on essence and colour, and mildly spiced – using just the right amount of spices to enhance the taste. In a huge handi, rice is steamed with cooked mutton, spices and the much loved browned potatoes. It is served with accompaniments like boiled egg, or gravy dishes like Chicken/Mutton Korma and Changezi.
While Kolkata Biryani can be found across Kolkata, the most talked about outlets for the authentic Kolkata Biryani are Aminia, Arsalan and Royal Indian Hotel. Next time you set foot upon the City of Joy, do make sure to check them out.