Calcurator is introducing you to the iconic biryani joints in Calcutta and we hope you’re ready for this rollercoaster of a ride.
First Things First
The scrumptious piece of pink tender meat melts in the mouth, as the aroma of the scented white and yellow rice titillates the senses. The perfumed fragrance of the rose water blends with the pungent odour of the saffron, all the while striking a gentle balance, stimulating the olfactory receptors. But all said and done, with the absence of the starchy tuberous crop, popularly known as the potato, this dish is considered incomplete in the city of Calcutta.
The Awadhi Biryani
As the morning sun drowns the sounds of the Fajr prayer reverberating from the Nakhoda Masjid on Chitpur Road, the masalchis (kitchen helpers) at The Royal Indian Hotel, located right opposite the imposing mosque, prepare the restaurant for its avid clientele. Amidst the busy thoroughfare with attarkhanas (perfume shops), dawakhanas (pharmacies) and crowds of people jostling for space, the tantalising smell of the biryani emanating from Royal is a treat to the senses.
The biryani served here is what is known as the Awadhi or Lucknowi style, popularised by the nawabs of Lucknow. Established in 1905, The Royal Indian Hotel boasts of having inherited the recipe from the antecedents of its first cook, Abdur Rahim, who were rakhabdars (chefs of the royal imperial kitchen who cooked only for the nawabs, unlike the khansamas who cooked for the nawabs’ retinue) to Wajid Ali Shah. This recipe has now been passed down through generations, allowing Royal to remain a Calcutta institution for over a hundred years.
It is prepared in the ‘dum’ style, where the bottom of the handi (or cooking vessel) is first layered with meat, and rice is added on top. The vessel is then covered and sealed with dough in order to make it airtight and is cooked on slow flame over a considerable period of time. Cooked without the customary aloo (potato) and the egg, the subtle taste and the non-greasy, light appearance of the dish makes it one of the most sought after Awadhi style biryanis of Calcutta.
The Royal Indian Hotel, Chitpur Road: Be sure to pair it with Mutton Chaap and finish off with Shahi Tukra.
Oudh 1590: A new entrant to the city, Oudh makes a mean Raan Biryani–cooked and served in an earthen pot. Oh, and treat yourself to their Galawati Kebab while you’re at it!
The Calcutta Biryani
The advent of what is now the Calcutta biryani, has an interesting historical trajectory. The last nawab of Lucknow, Wajid Ali Shah, was dethroned and exiled to Calcutta in 1856 by the British. The story goes that along with his entire entourage, including khansamas and bawarchis, he settled in Metiabruz. Receiving a yearly stipend of 12 lakh rupees per annum from the British government was not enough to feed his cortège.
Hence, the aloo—a cheap local substitute for the expensive meat, made its way into the Awadhi biryani—more as a place of proxy than of pride. And behold! The birth of the Calcutta biryani! The addition of the boiled egg was probably an olive branch held out by the nawab to calm the frayed egos of his followers!
For a succulent version (and our favourite), head to Arsalan (remember to begin with the Arsalan special kebab). If you want a lighter do, Shiraz is the place to be, and you get to finish with their delightful Firni!
The Hyderabadi Biryani
Also dotting the culinary landscape of the city are restaurants serving the Hyderabadi biryani. It is believed that the Nizam of Hyderabad wanted to introduce this Mughal dish into his imperial kitchen and hence, the emergence of the Hyderabadi biryani. Slightly different from its Awadhi counterpart, the Hyderabadi biryani has two avatars: The Kachhi Gosht Biryani, in which the meat is marinated overnight with spices and yoghurt and then slow cooked in dum, and the Pakki Biryani, wherein the pre-cooked mutton is layered with par boiled rice and slow cooked in a handi in dum.
Starting from the use of mace, nutmeg, saffron and kewra water, to the seldom use of mint leaves, brings about an overabundance of flavours. It is characterised by an absence of potatoes and eggs. But if you eat Hyderabadi biryani in Calcutta, you are sure to dig up eggs if not potatoes.
Khawab is the place to go for Hyderabadi biryani, which they serve alongside raita and mirchi ka salan. Ask for their fabulous Mutton Shikampur Kebab before you dig in.
The Tahiri Biryani
For the much neglected vegetarian, there is the usually overlooked Tahiri biryani—a genre once popularised in Mysore by Tipu Sultan. An offshoot of the Hyderabadi biryani, the Tahiri biryani was truly for the vegetarians, by the vegetarians. The Brahmins of Mysore brought in Hindu cooks to prepare the dish.
After Tipu Sultan’s death, when his sons were deported to Calcutta, they are believed to have introduced this delicacy in the city. With its close resemblance to the Bengali pulao, the Tahiri biryani is not exactly a sought after recipe, in the city.
Khan Saheb in Tollygunge is one of the few places to serve a Tahiri which you can pair up with their Navratan Korma.
The way Calcutta has appropriated the biryani is best manifested in the innumerable roadside eateries that serve a huge section of the working population. With a large handi placed on the pavement, these eateries serve a diverse range of clientele from all walks of life. From the busiest crossings of Gariahat or Rashbehari Avenue to tucked away by-lanes in the labyrinth of Salt Lake, biryani is sold in every nook and corner of the city.
Feature Photo Courtesy Of: Oudh 1590
The article first appeared on Calcurator.