I am now entering dangerously volatile territory. I’m about to explore the Biryanis of the eastern part of India, and I said ‘dangerously fleeting’, because when you say the word Biryani in front of a Bengali, it creates a bitter struggle of sole proprietorship. The conversation turns into a passionate, rousing and intense feud, to prove the superiority, artistry and genius of the Kolkata Biryani.
It’s the kind of brawl that I enjoy, because I like people who can get mad about the food they believe in, and believe me when I say that the Bengali really, brazenly and steadfastly believe in their Biryani. As for me, I must confess, for someone who grew up in Mumbai, I was brought up with a steady supply of Biryanis from the bhatiar-khanas of Mumbai’s Islampura. Bright yellow fragrant rice with spicy pink pieces of mutton cooked in a fiery, greasy masala, with potato pieces soft fry and soaked in spices. That was the Biryani I ate. Bold and daring Bombay Biryani.
It was the same Biryani with a slight change in sourness or spiciness that I rushed to, at Bohri friends’ weddings or Iftaar parties, both of which I very much looked forward to with longing, especially for the biryani. When the ITC Hotels introduced us to the delicacy of spices, the refinement of aromas and the highest quality of cuts and meat, I was impressed. It was not until several years later that I went to Kolkata and fell in love with the Kolkata Roll for the first time, that I started exploring the famous, sacred and revered Kolkata Biryani.
There are many legends surrounding the establishment of the Kolkata Biryani. The most common is that Wajid Ali Shah, exiled Nawab of Awadh, reduced his treasures, arrived in Metiabruz in Kolkata with nearly 6,000 people, and he brought a little Lucknow with him. Among those people were shopkeepers, gardeners, water bearers, tailors, goldsmiths, moneylenders, paanwalas and above all Khansamas or cooks.
In an attempt to recreate his decadent Lucknow life, the Nawab and his entourage began to live and cook it kababs, kormas, kaliya, nihari, zarda, kulchas, sheermaal, rumali rotis, and of course Biryani. But they say the Nawab had a pension after being exiled, and could not afford to provide enough meat for his various revelers in the Biryani. The potato had just arrived in Calcutta from Dehradun. So, are bawarchis potatoes and boiled eggs were added to make up for the lack of meat. That became the Kolkata Biryani, or so is believed.
Nowadays, if you go to one of Kolkata’s famous Biryani shops Arsalan, Aminia or Rahmania, you will get a big piece of meat with a boiled egg, a nice juicy potato and fragrant rice. If made traditionally, the meat and potatoes are slowly cooked in ghee over low heat with ginger, garlic onion and spices. Then pre-cooked rice, the cooked meat and potatoes are layered useful to which cardamom, mace, saffron, cloves and kevda another ittars have been added.
This is then cooked on “stupiduntil the rice boils and becomes one with the meat, and the potatoes absorb all the flavours. A whole boiled egg is generously added on top of each plate. This is what I think is what drives most Kolkatan, at least those who don’t live in Bengal, grim, enthusiastic.
The most dominant influence in states like Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha as far as Muslim cuisine and Biryani goes is the rule of the Nawabs of Bengal and Murshidabad.
Murshidabadi cuisine is one of the oldest cuisines in India and is often known as a lighter version of rich Mughal food, embellished with nuts, cream, saffron and rich spices. In fact, the cuisine itself is a rich combination of Mughlai and Bengali food. It is believed that when Murshid Quli Khan was appointed as the Nawab of Bengal, he brought Biryani’s recipe along with him to Murshidabad.
The Murshidabad Biryani, like its cousin the Kolkata Biryani, is mild and fragrant, and with potatoes. It inherits the richness of Mughlai cuisine and simplicity of flavors from Bengali cuisine. But often uses fish instead of meat. Since fish is a staple in the area and also considered beneficial, the Murshidabadi Biryani is now usually a Mahi Biryani, or made with Hilsa.
The nature and origin of Katatki Biryani or Cuttack’s Biryani is ambiguous. Some say it was inspired by Hyderabad, others say it was influenced by a bit of both, the Hyderabadi Biryani and the Lucknow pulao. One thing is true, however, that the region had a strong Muslim influence and rich culinary heritage between the reign of Suleiman Karrani in 1568 AD and the surrender of the Nizams of Bengal to the Marathas in 1751 AD.
Khansaamas from Cuttack insists it’s the amount of oil and the amount of spice mix (miqdar) that gives the Kataki Biryani its character and consequently the Kataki Biryani is much fatter and spicier than the Kolkata and Hyderabadi.
Also, the meat is always half cooked and is layered with rice and these layers are then topped with an exotic mix of fried onions, koya, gulkandonuts and khishmish† But the most important thing is the ratio. The ratio of mutton to rice in a Kolkata Biryani is 1:1. In a Cuttack Biryani, the ratio should be at least 1.5:1, if not more. Some Hindu families and customers order Biryani in a 2:1 or even 3:1 ratio. That sounds more like my Biryani.
I am sure you are waiting for my verdict on which of these three Biryanis from the eastern states of India are my favorites. Sorry, but I’m not going to take sides. After all, I have too many Bangladeshi friends.
Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer from Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of this publication.
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