Biryani in Kolkata: Gluttony and multiculturalism on one plate

Hitaishi Majumder | Live the World

November 23, 2022

First things first, biryani is hands down my most favorite dish ever. One plate of mouth-watering biryani enhances my joys and alleviates my sorrows alike! For the uninitiated, biryani is made with saffron-infused aromatic rice, juicy meat, and a plethora of spices that give way to a crackling party of flavors inside the mouth. The dish is understood to have originated in ancient Persia (Iran) and Arabia, and then to have made its way to India via Afghanistan. And thank God it did because it is heavenly! Now the biryani I am talking about is the quintessential Kolkata Biryani that is served with a huge potato. No offense to its Hyderabadi, Dindigul, or Awadhi counterparts, the biryani in Kolkata is a different beast not just because of its delectable taste that motivates gluttony but also because of its fascinating history that makes it a glorious symbol of multiculturalism. Allow me to tell you all you need to know about Kolkata's Biryani.

The curious case of the 'aloo'

© Wikimedia Commons/ Sumit Surai

Ask anyone in Kolkata, and they will tell you how they are entranced by the golden potato (aloo means potato in native Indian languages) sitting snugly in a bed of rice and meat in a plate of biryani. Now, the Kolkata Biryani is the only one that comes with this delightful addition, and there’s an interesting story behind it.

© Wikipedia/ Unknown

In 1856, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last ruler of Awadh (Oudh), was toppled and exiled to Calcutta, the then name of Kolkata, from his capital Lucknow by the British. The Nawab arrived in the city with an entourage that included his Bawarchis (chefs), who eventually added potatoes to the biryani. The reason behind this move is speculated to date. Many people believe that the empty coffers of the Nawab forced his chefs to cut down on the number of spices and meat used in the biryani, and they innovated by adding the potato. However, the Nawab’s descendants disagree. According to them, the potato used to be an exotic vegetable available in Calcutta back then, and that is what led to the tweaking of the biryani recipe. Whatever the truth may be, the Nawab must have liked the new addition as it became a staple and gave birth to the inimitable Kolkata Biryani.

So, the Kolkata Biryani is not native to the city, and yet we can’t imagine our lives without it today. It is a lighter variant of the Awadhi Biryani with the much-loved aloo. The potato tastes amazing after being marinated in the spices and the meat juice and getting slow-cooked on the oven. The Kolkata Biryani was the invention of the Nawab’s chefs who came from Lucknow and proves today that only good comes out of the co-existence of diverse ethnicities.

Where to devour the Kolkata Biryani

When in the City of Joy, you must treat yourself to a plate of piping hot biryani and let me tell you where you can taste some of the best biryani in the city. Aminia is one of the best restaurants in Kolkata for your fix of light, fragrant biryani. Established in 1929,  it is one of the oldest eateries in the city with scores of patrons. While it has 13 outlets across the city today, I will suggest you try the delicious mutton biryani at their original outlet, which is located in the New Market area. Another great place to taste the Kolkata Biryani is the Shiraz Golden Restaurant located at the Mullickbazar crossing in the Park Street Area. Here, try the ambrosial Shiraz Special Biryani that comes with two pieces of succulent meat and a golden potato in a bed of yellow-white fluffy rice. And the one brand that instantly comes to mind whenever we think of biryani in Kolkata is good old Arsalan. Arsalan has eight outlets across Kolkata today. However, I swear by the biryani at their Park Circus outlet.** **

Kolkata and biryani: a match made in heaven

© iStock/ aquarajiv

Let me tell you an anecdote! On a summer afternoon a few months back, I was standing in front of Aminia buying kathi rolls, one of the best Kolkata street foods, and overheard an amusing conversation. A wife asked her husband if he was sure about having something so heavy like biryani in the hot and humid weather. The husband nonchalantly assured her that there was nothing to worry about as he had ordered one plate of the ‘light’ chicken biryani instead of the mutton biryani, keeping the weather in mind! The conversation cracked me up** in how we have no qualms about indulging in gluttony. It also reminded me how multiculturalism gives way to happy consequences. The biryani in Kolkata **is not just a part of the city's culinary and cultural landscape but also of its people’s lives, both in their best and worst moments. 

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