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Alu the catalyst in biryani brotherhood

Karachi restaurateur Sayed Iqbal couldn’t stop popping the irresistible query related to a Calcutta trademark: the quintessential alu in its biryani.

Aap biryani mein alu kyun daalte ho? Achchha lagta hain? (Why do you put potato in your biryani? Does it taste good?”

Iqbal has set up shop at the 26th Industrial Trade Fair at Milan Mela with his biryani chef Mohammad Gyaz. This is their maiden visit to Calcutta, the city they know of as the hometown of Sourav Ganguly and the alu biryani.

“I have been touring India for 15 years but never had the chance to visit Calcutta,” he said.

If Howrah bridge provided a dazzling introduction to the city, the rest, they said, felt “pretty much like home”. “Sab ghar jaisa hi hai. Log, khana aur sadke, sab ek jaise hi hai,” Iqbal said shooing away a stray attracted by the smell of spices and meat on his clothes.

Yeh bhi ghar jaisa hi hai (Even this mongrel looks like the ones we have at home).”

Iqbal, currently on his fortieth tour of India, had brought along about 100kg of special Pakistani rice but the entire stock got exhausted in the first two days of the fair. The rice, meat and salt are now Indian, while the “special spices” and recipe are uniquely Pakistani.

The Sindhi Dum Biryani from the Sindh province has been the talk of the trade fair thus far, drawing the connoisseur, the foodie and the curious from across the city. This flavoured favourite of the Mughals and Pathans could go into the list of biryani — Calcutta, Awadhi, Lakhnavi and Hyderabadi — that stirs up passionate debates. But as Ego the critic would say, indulge your taste buds first.

Unlike Calcutta biryani where rice and meat are cooked separately and added later, the Sindhi delight is an all-in-one potboiler. “Ek handi mein hi hum pehle paani, usspe masale, uske oopar chicken, dahi aur sabse oopar chawal de kar dum dete hain,” chief Gyaz explained in Urdu-laced Karachi Hindi.

It goes like this: a) pour water and spices into a handi; b) put the meat in; c) gently place a layer of curd and rice; d) cover the pot and seal it with flour dough; e) slow cook over low flame.

“I was 10 when I started cooking biryani. Must try it once with potatoes as well,” Gyaz remarked.

The Karachi duo have explored New Market and crossed Nizam’s and Arsalan while on their way to Milan Mela but have yet to taste Calcutta’s offerings. However, they have been impressing Calcuttans with theirs.

“We are touched by the love of the people here. Many have asked for the recipe. Some even asked us to set up shop in the city,” Iqbal said.

Dono mulq ki awaam biryani aur Salman bhai ke fan hain. Ye sarhad phir kis kaam ki (People of both nations are biryani and Salman Khan fans, so what’s the need for this border),” he signed off.