The A in the B
Shahanshah Mirza cannot imagine his biryani without the aloo. Fatima Mirza could not imagine her biryani with the aloo. Till the girl from Lucknow was married into the Mirza family of Park Circus. “I remember finding the aloo in the biryani quite funny at first,” says Fatima, who friends insist serves up some of the best biryani in town. And yes, with the aloo.
Why are we so bothered about the biryani being cooked in the Mirza kitchen? Simple, that’s where the great “to aloo or not to aloo” debate was born for the Calcutta biryani.
Yes, Shahanshah Mirza is the great-great-grandson of Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Awadh. Foodlore has it that the nawab came to Calcutta after losing his throne and to cut costs, his cooks replaced the meat with the potato. And, foodlore number two: Wajid Ali Shah’s cooks added the aloo but only after falling on hard times following the death of the nawab. Either way, thus was born the Calcutta biryani the city now gorges on.
The nawab’s family line dismisses all this as, well, lore. “The nawab was a connoisseur of food and had given a free hand to his chefs to experiment with dishes. Once his chefs played around with the biryani and put potatoes in it. The nawab liked it so much that he ordered that the aloo be a constant in the biryani henceforth,” says Shahanshah.
And that is how it is cooked to this day in the Mirza kitchen — and in the kitchens of almost every biryani-serving restaurant around town.
With the royal exception of… Royal Indian Hotel.
What started as a humble rented shop in Chitpur to sell culinary creations by Ahmed Hussain, a migrant from Lucknow, is now a two-storeyed restaurant that seats 65 in its AC hall, 75 in the non-AC hall and 40 in the ground-floor dining hall and “remains full at meal times”.
But don’t dare mention the A (aloo) word here. “We only make authentic Lucknowi biryani and our patrons love that. Our biryani does not have aloo, it has kofti (meat balls),” declares Md Irfan, one of the directors of Royal Indian Hotel, stirring up biryani since 1905, the year Lord Curzon divided Bengal.
More than a century on, Calcutta still stands divided. Along the thick potato line when it comes to the biryani.
How tough it is to serve biryani without the potato in a city weaned on that is evident from what Luknow, an Awadhi food restaurant that opened in Park Circus and Ballygunge this year, had to face. With diners insisting that “aloo chhara biryani hoy na (there can be no biryani without aloo)”, Shalini and Vinay Arora, the couple behind Luknow, were in a pickle. The cooks from Lucknow at the helm said: “Awadhi biryani cannot be cooked with potatoes.” But on popular demand aloo was introduced in one of the 11 biryanis on the menu.
No wonder the most popular biryani places in Calcutta just pile on the potato. Arsalan, Shiraz, Aminia, New Aliah — you name it and all of them have it. Aminia of New Market that has been running since August 15, 1947, has three more outlets in Calcutta — at Gol Park, Jessore Road (Nagerbazar) and Rajarhat (Chinar Park). They have been serving aloo with their biryani since inception.
Arsalan, a relatively recent dot on the biryani map of Calcutta (2002), has zoomed to the top of the bestseller chart and now runs five outlets — two in Park Circus, including the landmark one at 191 Park Street, and one each in Ripon Street, Taratala and Hatibagan. For them, there truly is no B (biryani) without A (aloo). “Some customers even look for a second piece of aloo on the plate!” says Arsalan director Akhtar Parwez.
The aloo is also an essential part of the biryani at Shiraz Golden Restaurant, which dates back to 1956. It has 10 outlets in the city stretching from Garia to Dum Dum.
A new kid on the biryani block, Oudh 1590, has tried to create a destination for Awadhi cuisine with the decor and menu at its Deshapriya Park address. But with one concession for the Calcutta palate: the option of the biryani with aloo. “Yes, the Awadhi Handi Biryani without aloo is less popular. People come and specifically ask for the aloo-wala biryani,” admits Debaditya Chaudhury, a partner of Oudh 1590.
Among foodies batting for the aloo in the biryani is musician-food writer Nondon Bagchi. “It is a part of our tradition. The aloo should not be taken out of the Calcutta biryani,” he says.
And slightly further away from home, we asked economist Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, the celebrated co-author of Poor Economics and a fabled cook in his friends’ circle, where he stood on potatoes in biryani. “Potatoes can be very nice, especially if the biryani is sharp, like a Sindhi biryani,” said the man from MIT in the US. [Sindhi biryani is known to have mint, coriander and prunes in addition to the meat and rice. Originating from Sindh province in Pakistan, some of its variations have potatoes in it.]
The biryani boom
Enough of the potato, let’s get to the meat of the matter now.
To what lengths Calcutta can go for its fill of biryani is evident from the thousands who throng The Telegraph Biryani and Kebab festivals every year at City Centre (Salt Lake and New Town).
And it’s this passion for the rice-and-meat platter that has finally nudged Royal Indian Hotel to join the branching-out biryani brigade. Yes, Royal will have its first branch — “to be opened opposite Quest mall very soon”.
It took four generations and more than a century for this traditional biryani bastion to get a move on. So what prompted them to go south? “Our loyal customers from across Calcutta travel all the way to 147 Rabindra Sarani and often rue that we don’t have an outlet in their part of the city. We believe we are now ready to reach out and take our brand to all corners of Calcutta — north, south, east and west. We begin with south because it is a strategic location, where we can attract a wide clientele from the Ballygunge and Park Circus areas,” says Royal’s Irfan.
The restaurant that enjoys iconic status among loyalists says the popularity of the biryani here picked up after Independence. “Satyajit Ray to Uttam Kumar, Gunter Grass to Khushwant Singh, they all loved our biryani. Yesteryear actress Tabassum would get it packed and take it for Dilip Kumar. And now, Sourav Ganguly loves our Chicken Biryani,” smiles Irfan.
Royal may finally be stepping out of its crease, like Dada used to in his prime, but no one understands the biryani boom better than bestseller Arsalan. “If everything goes right, we intend to open three branches by June 2015,” says Arsalan director Akhtar Parwez. The locations on the radar are Barrackpore, Rajarhat and Jessore Road.
Simmering in the Arsalan handi is a target for “at least 50 outlets across Bengal” in the next 10 years. “If a Bengali loves and craves for Arsalan biryani, he should be able to get it near his home. That’s where we want to take our brand to,” says Parwez, reluctant to divulge the number of plates served per day in their blockbuster outlet at the Park Circus roundabout.
Multiplicity is the name of the game for Shiraz and Aminia as well. Aminia aims to open a branch in Behala, next to Ajanta cinema, and another near the Shyambazar tram depot. Shiraz has launched a chain of quick-service restaurants named Lazeez Express, which “does good business in Kasba”. For Zeeshan, which already has two outlets in the south (Deshapriya Park and Garia), another one near Lake Market is being planned. And then one in Kidderpore maybe.
Two new biryani players — Oudh 1590 and Luknow — are attracting a steady clientele in south Calcutta, enough for Oudh 1590 to eye a second serve near City Centre Salt Lake in January.
Multiplicity is married to makeover in the new-age biryani game, with words like decor and ambience coming into the dictionary. Take Oudh 1590. This Awadhi cuisine restaurant has created a “period dining experience” at its Deshapriya Park address.
The older players, too, are paying attention to the look and feel of their dining rooms. Aminia Rajarhat that opened earlier this year has been built on a Sufi theme.
“Today’s customers are hygiene-conscious and look for places that have a feel-good ambience. So we had to put in a lot of effort to make our Hatibagan address look chic and vibrant,” says Arsalan man Akhtar Parwez.
With the “need to reach out” becoming the mantra — from Royal to Lazeez — the biryani is taking the pizza route. Takeaways and home delivery are playing an important part. “You need to take special care as food items like biryani are best enjoyed fresh from the handi,” says Parwez.
“We depend largely on home-delivery orders, from domestic as well as corporate clients,” says Ishtiaque Ahmed of Shiraz’s Lazeez chain.
And then there’s Facebook, Zomato and Foodpanda for the smart(phone) set to book biryani on the go.
A foodnote: The great biryani debate doesn’t begin or end with the aloo. There’s a greater debate cooking, which questions the very standing of the biryani. But as with most things Calcutta, there is no place for the finer nuances or larger debates of life.
We turn the culinary pages to Abdul Halim Sharar (1860-1926), a courtier in nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s Lucknow durbar, who wrote in Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture that the real raeez of Lucknow preferred mutton pulao to biryani, which was bit of an aam aadmi food.
The last word is left, once again, to economist Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee from MIT. When asked to define the difference between pulao and biryani, he said: “Pulao is rice cooked in broth. Biryani is made with pre-cooked rice. Kachchi biryani is with marinated but not cooked meat. Normal biryani is with cooked meat. In both cases the meat cooks more and the vapours from that are used to flavour the rice.”
That, sadly, is too fine a flavour for the Calcuttan busy with a mouthful of biryani, aloo and all.
Do you like your biryani with or without the aloo? Tell firstname.lastname@example.org
source: http://www.telegraphindia.com / The Telegraph, Calcutta / Front Page> Calcutta> Story / by Sibendu Das / Sunday – November 23rd, 2014