How An Exiled Nawab Invented The Famous Kolkata Biryani

How An Exiled Nawab Invented The Famous Kolkata Biryani
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For someone who has lived in Kolkata her entire life, I can vouch that I couldn’t have spent my college life without having access to the affordable Arsalaan Biryani just round the corner. But how did this heavenly Mughal dish become such a popular delicacy among the city-dwellers?

Upon turning the pages of history, you would find that the legacy of the Kolkata Biryani goes way back to the 19th century. In the year 1856, Wajid Ali Shah, the 10th and last Nawab of Awadh, after having been dethroned and stripped off his royal privileges by the British colonisers, left Lucknow and settled in Calcutta. For a while, he was very hopeful that Awadh would be handed back to him, but that didn’t happen. The nawab sent his family to London to petition his case before the Queen and the British Parliament. In the meantime, the revolt of 1857 took place, shifting the attention of the British into quelling the rebellion, thereby, dashing all hopes of getting Awadh back. Shah was immediately arrested and kept in Fort William for a period of 26 months. After being released, he was given an opportunity to live anywhere in the country, and he chose Metiabruz on the outskirts of Calcutta. Here, the nawab built a replica of his beloved Lucknow complete with grand Islamic structures, a zoo of exotic animals, kabootarbaazi (pigeon-flying), kite-flying, and of course, food from the royal kitchen. Due to the shortage of funds, however, the cooks started using potatoes and eggs instead of meat for making the royal repast, and thus, was born the delicious Kolkata Biryani.

Manzilat Fatima, the great-great-granddaughter of the nawab, tells ToI, “The only difference between Awadhi Biryani and the Kolkata Biryani is that the latter has aloo. When Wajid Ali came to Calcutta, he did not have enough funds to feed his entourage in an elaborate way. But his culinary heritage was his biggest treasure and he was both khaane ke aur khilaane ke shauqeen (fond of hosting and eating). So, after a few years in Kolkata, the potato was introduced in the biryani. The tuber had been brought to India by the Portuguese and was considered a novelty since it was imported. It was also quite expensive, though not as much as meat. Apart from bringing down costs, the potato also helped to maximise the volume of the dish.”

However, in another interview, the great-great-grandson of the nawab clarifies that potatoes were used in making the royal biryani not just because of a financial crunch, but because of the nawab’s intense fascination for it.

Bengalis, who are till date known to be voracious consumers of potato or aloo in their dishes, appropriated the Awadhi Biryani with aloo into a staple Calcutta delicacy. It is also cooked in the dam-pukht style (slow oven cooking style), where the lid is sealed over the pot so the steam doesn’t go out. As a result, the fragrance, the aroma, the juices of spices, rice, meat, and saffron get absorbed in the meal, making it quite mouth-watering, and unlike any other biryani made in other parts of the country. The slow-cooked, golden-brown potato, along with the delightful aroma of the different kinds of spices used, made the biryani a delicacy for the nobles. Wajid Ali Shah liked it immensely and ordered that whenever biryani is cooked, the cooks should ensure that potatoes are added to it. Adding potatoes to the grand Mughal dish soon became part of the culinary tradition of Calcutta, and continues even today.

Arsalaan, Zamzam, Oudh, Aminia, Ali Baba are some of the best restaurants serving quintessential Kolkata-style biryani. If you ever come to the City of Joy, be sure to try them out!

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