Kolkata Biryani is a dish very near and dear to my heart, and I’ve being wanting to write about it ever since I started my blog. However, I’ve been consciously putting it aside for a time I was better equipped to deal with it, doing it justice, so to speak. But unlike pastas or molecular gastronomy, an article on biryani is bound to be fuelled a great deal by the emotion, and so a scholarly approach seemed impossible to execute. So I finally decided to go down the Keatsian route and compose an ode to one of my most favourite dishes of the city.
Biryani is one of the major culinary imports of the Islamic culture, and every region in India over time developed their own unique style of biryani. In Hyderabad it is made by cooking the meat and rice together, the so called “kachhi gosht ki biryani”. It is rich, flavourful and served with raita and a gravy or salan made using classic south Indian ingredients like tamarind and coconut, along with others like peanut and sesame.
Lucknowi biryani is made by cooking the meat and rice separately before combining the two, the so-called “pakki gosht ki biryani”. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to taste authentic Lucknowi biryani, but I’ve had biryani in Delhi. It was back in June last year, my first outing with friends out of Rohtak. It was my first visit to Connaught Place and we were all hankering for some North Indian non-veg fare after weeks of aloo parantha and rajma chawal. We visited a biryani place and excitedly ordered the mutton biryani. It was rather underwhelming.
Don’t get me wrong, it was absolutely delicious, but it was strikingly different from the Kolkata biryani we were all so familiar with. Of course, there was the conspicuous absence of the potato, but more importantly, it was a pretty flavour-forward dish. As a Bengali, tasting a biryani outside Kolkata makes you realise just how subtle our version is.
That being said, it was an incredibly complex, flavourful dish which we finished in no time, but it was a pretty high-end restaurant. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see how this form of the biryani in the hands of a less skilled cook can become an almost intrusively potent concoction. I’ve had the misfortune of tasting such biryanis on many an occasion here in Rohtak. Rice stained with spices, too much brown onions and the inexplicable sprigs of mint make it overwhelming after just a few mouthfuls.
This is the exact opposite of the Kolkata biryani, where the end-product is subtle, almost shockingly so. For someone who has never had Kolkata biryani, this might evoke images of anemic rice with measly pieces of meat which taste of nothing. And that is where you’d be very, very wrong.
A proper biryani spice mix can have a total of 10-12 different spices, not including a whole array of intensely flavourful ingredients like saffron, khowa (milk solids), birista (brown onions), golap jol (rosewater), kewra jol (screwpine essence) and meetha attar (edible perfume), and of course the almighty mutton. Biryani made with chicken will never have the depth and complexity of flavour of a well-made mutton biryani.
Striking the right balance between these heavyweights isn’t easy. This isn’t the four-ingredient shada aloor torkari we talked about a few weeks ago, where each ingredient is allowed to sing. And this is what makes you realise just how skillful the cook has to be to control all of these ingredients with perfect restraint. Bong Eats has, in my opinion, the best recipe of Kolkata biryani (as well as chaap and firni, more on those later) on the Internet and here’s the link, as a case in point. https://www.bongeats.com/recipe/kolkata-mutton-biryani
The beauty of the Kolkata biryani is that it feels very light, but it isn’t. Making it takes an incredible amount of time and effort, not including the time needed to hunt down all the exotic stuff. But the flavours never overwhelm you. You aren’t hit with a waft of meetha attar or bogged down by too much caramelized onion. But take any of the ingredients away and a seasoned palate is bound to notice.
It is interesting that the dish that is traditionally paired with the biryani in most restaurants in Kolkata takes a much more center-stage, assertive role, flavour-wise. The chaap uses thin slices of beef or jointed thighs and legs of chicken cooked coated in a heady mix of dried fruits, spices and aromatics and cooked slowly in fat. The sauce is very similar to a Hyderabadi salan, only drier, and not as integral to the biryani experience, as many people find the chaap to be too potent and prefer to have the biryani on its own.
The flavours of a chaap are much more assertive, and too much of the cashew and poppy-seed laden gravy can coat and overwhelm your palate. I love chaap with my biryani, and Royal Indian Hotel in the Chitpur area in Central Kolkata makes an amazing versions of chicken and mutton chaap. The chicken chaap uses jointed thigh and leg pieces, while the mutton chaap has chunks of meat on the bone, bursting with flavour. However, Royal’s biryani has no potato, the one ingredient that defines Kolkata biryani. For more on Royal’s biryani and an insight into Kolkata biryani’s history, here’s a great article by Mr. Indrajit Lahiri. https://moha-mushkil.com/royal-indian-hotel-chitpur/
The potato is a New World import that reached the Indian shores via the Portuguese and spread throughout the subcontinent thanks to the British. In 1856, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah moved to Kolkata from Lucknow and decided to introduce elements of his culture there. The biryani introduced in Kolkata used potatoes which grew very well in the fertile Bengal soil, with a restraint of spices, both done in an attempt to cut costs. These are the two traits which define Kolkata biryani. Here is a great video which goes into the history in a lot more detail. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkFupD_crNg
We’ve talked about the spice restraint already, let’s now look at the humble potato. The ubiquity of this simple vegetable in many Bengali dishes is unmistakable, from vegetable preparations to chicken curries. It is a starchy vegetable that has a lovely texture and more importantly, the propensity to soak up flavours. The potatoes in a light fish or chicken curry, for example, soak up all the flavours of the sauce and turn soft and luscious. And the exact same thing happens in the Kolkata biryani.
The firm, waxy potatoes of the winter, ideal for aloo dum, don’t work for the purposes of the biryani. You need something more starchy, more bland, an edible sponge to imbibe all the flavours of the biryani. I’m very fastidious when it comes to the aloo in the biryani, which for me needs to hold its own and at the same time be soft enough to fall apart in your mouth without the slightest of efforts. Take too big a potato and the core can remain hard and uncooked, which is one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to biryani.
The aloo provides another dimension of texture, disintegrating into mash in the mouth with the greatest of ease. It provides the perfect foil to the flavourful mutton and aromatic rice. It adds a crucial layer to the multi-layered complexity of the biryani. Infact, the subtly flavoured long-grain rice, the fall-apart pieces of mutton and the perfectly cooked golden orbs of potato are the three pillars on which the almighty Kolkata biryani stands. Some places also add hard-boiled eggs to the biryani but to me it always feels like an add-on, never blending into the mix as seamlessly as the potato.
There are a lot of restaurants in Kolkata famous for their biryani, like Aminia, Shiraz and my personal favourite, Arsalan. Their branch in Hatibagan, North Kolkata was a frequent haunt for me back in my college days and is now a mandatory place of pilgrimage every time I visit Kolkata. My staple order at Arsalan is a plate of mutton biryani followed by a phirni, the third member of the biryani triumvirate.
Arsalan’s biryani epitomizes the very essence of Kolkata biryani: incredible complexity of flavour without ever being too assertive. Kolkata phirni is a kind of rice pudding made by thickening full-fat milk with rice flour, flavoured with saffron or kewra water, and served in shallow, terracotta pots which absorb moisture from the pudding making it thick and luscious, the perfect way to end the meal.
Like the Tangra chilli chicken, the Kolkata Biryani is a classic example of just how well we can take a foreign import and put our own spin on it. Kolkata biryani, by virtue of its paradoxically subtle complexity, has made an indelible impression on the culinary map.
Wishing all the readers of The Gourmet Glutton a very Happy Durga Puja!