The Telegraph
| Sunday, June 25, 2017 |


Dum Mast Must

Or, why a crossover dish fit for kings, and probably improvised by a nawab in exile, has conquered Calcuttans across demographics. Manasi Shah reports. Photographs by Subhendu Chaki 

Food portals have 180 biryani brands registered with them.

Double the number of pizza places. Six times the number of places selling burger. Counting makeshift stalls would be like counting grains of rice.

One outlet of one of the betterknown brands — some brands have as many as 15 outlets — dishes out 2,000 plates a day.

About 200 kilos of rice — the cheapest Rs 25 per kilo, the expensive ones Rs 100 per kilo.

Big kitchens fire up seven handis at one go.

Each yields about 32 plates of biryani. One plate is laden with 75 grams of rice. Bigger plates are often shared by two people. About eight standard varieties exist, and improvisations abound. The cheapest biryani comes at Rs 50 a plate, the priciest at Rs 1,500- plus.

Biryani traffic patterns vary depending on establishment type. For a brick-and-mortar place, traffic peaks during lunch and dinner hours. Takeaways peak between 5 and 7pm and post 9.30pm. Even the newest delivery-only place in the city has served 35,000 people in the last 240 days. Works out to one person gorging on a plate of biryani every 10 minutes.

Not Hyderabad. Not Lucknow. Calcutta - India's new biryani capital.

Long, long before talks of an Iran-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline floated up, India had a biryani hotline with Iran. Divya Schaefer's 2015 doctoral thesis titled "Cultures of Food and Gastronomy in Mughal and post-Mughal India" corroborates this. It states that the earliest references to the Indian ancestor of the biryani appeared late 16th century onwards. Schaefer makes references to the " duzdbiryan" (in Abul Fazl's Ain-i-Akbari) and the " zerbiryan" (in Nuskha-i Shahjahani, an anonymous compilation of recipes of dishes prepared in Shah Jahan's time), basically the Iranian and the Indian precursors of the modern Indian biryani.

Both terms are used to refer to a kind of layered rice-based dish. In fact, the word " zerbiryan" literally means "undercooked" or "under-roasted". The word biryani (pronounced: bir-ee-ah-nee) is an Urdu word believed to have been derived from the Persian "birinj" meaning rice. Schaefer says the 17th century Spanish traveller Sebastian Manrique described rice dishes being sold in the Lahore camp bazaar thus - "Persian Piloes", "Mogol Bringes", and a rice preparation with vegetables called "Gujarat or dry Bringe". Birinj, bringe - one and the same? Possibly.

  • NAWABI NECESSITIES: A portrait of Wajid Ali Shah, who first chucked potatoes into the biryani and made a virtue out of penury

In an email to The Telegraph from Germany, Schaefer writes: "The recipe appears to have Persian/ Iranian antecedents... The Mughal Empire had close links with Safavid Iran, and many Persians migrated to India. So such a flow of food culture and recipes is likely to have taken place. In this sense, the biryani did enter the subcontinent through the kitchens of the Mughal elite..."

It entered Bengal, in all likelihood, courtesy Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Awadh, outed by James Outram and packed off to Calcutta.

Both Shahanshah Mirza and his wife, Fatima, food connoisseurs, are descended from the flamboyant Nawab; same tree, different branches. It is obvious they have done this biryani duet many times over.

Shahanshah tells us that the first Nawab of Awadh, Saadat Ali Khan, came from Khorasan in Iran. "The word biryan in Persian means fried. In Calcutta, the rice is fried before cooking the biryani," says Fatima.

The other thing about the Calcutta biryani is the presence of the potato peeping through the mound of rice like Mackenna's Gold. Just in case you thought it was some random plebian inclusion, Shahanshah tells you it was the epicurean Nawab's doing. "The Portuguese had just introduced this exotic vegetable [the potato] and expense notwithstanding - it was quite expensive - Wajid Ali Shah ordered its union with the biryani."

The Mirzas are unabashed purists. According to them, the markers of the "authentic" biryani are: old basmati, good meat - mutton, please - pure saffron, ghee - not mustard oil - a copper vessel and dum style cooking over wood fire. Absolute non-negotiables, they decree, their jaws firm, their gaze all steel.

But isn't that extremely elitist? "Absolutely," says Shahanshah with authority.

Mohammed Irfan is one of the directors of The Royal Indian Hotel, which is supposed to be the oldest restaurant selling biryani in Calcutta. He has his own brand of biryani elitism. "My great great grandfather who founded this place in 1905 was also some kind of a nawab in Lucknow, but no link with Nawab Wajid Ali Shah," he tells you with flourish.

The flagship restaurant is located in one of the most congested localities of north Calcutta, close to the wholesale market of Barabazar. It has a no-nonsense get-up. Heavy marble-topped tables and straight-backed wooden chairs. The moment you sit down, a waiter in uniform appears out of nowhere and bangs down a steel jug and a couple of tumblers, briskly but hospitably.

The elitism is in the fare. In the bed of lightly fragrant khushka (coloured rice). In the cut of the gosht. In the Firdausi koftis (meatballs). In the clove. In the cardamom... "We never put potatoes in the biryani. We are not sabziwalas. Besides, it is sacrilege," says Irfan. Then adds cheekily, "Apparently, Wajid Ali Shah's chefs added those to cut costs."

Sudipta Mitra is the author of the 2017 book Pearl by the River, an account of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah's years in exile on the fringes of Calcutta. He writes: "Wajid Ali Shah's subtle sensibilities logically flowed into the art of gastronomy. When the King came to Calcutta, he brought with him his own chefs, who sought to keep the deposed King in good humour by cooking Awadhi delicacies. The khansamas introduced the art of 'slow cooking' in Calcutta... The taste of biryani was brought to Calcutta by him."

Mitra's version of the biryani story works like a hyphen bridging what Shahanshah Mirza and Mohammed Irfan had to say. He tells The Telegraph that the deposed king was in penury when he arrived in Calcutta in 1856 with an entourage of 500. The much talked about princely pension didn't come through until after July 1859, a good three years later. The biryani, apparently, was tweaked to suit the altered fortunes.

He writes: "Culinary specialists hold that the deposed kin's entourage was in penury and found the potatoes to be a cheaper substitute for meat in biryani. Potatoes were added to the biryani along with small quantities of meat to feed his train of companions in Calcutta. Since then potato has become a veritable ingredient of the recipe of the biryani made in Calcutta."

According to Mitra, the Nawab himself spoke about his penury in his autobiography, Husn-e-Akhtari or Sorrows of Akhtar - Akhtar being another name of the Nawab. A printed copy continues to be in the possession of Mitra's research guide in this project, Meerza Kaukub Qadr, the grandson of Meerza Birjees Qadr, the Nawab's son. Mitra elaborates on Kaukub Qadr's credentials still further, informing us that he is a retired professor of Urdu from Aligarh Muslim University and the only heir of the Nawab to receive the royal pension awarded by the Government of India. "He was also research consultant to Satyajit Ray for the film, Shatranj ke Khiladi."

Schaefer says, "Culture is dynamic - it flows. 'Humble' dishes such as khichri made it to elite tables, and dishes like the biryani travelled in the opposite direction. In the course of time and cultural adaptation, cuisine evolves."

If the Mirzas and the Royals are at one end of the biryani spectrum, Dada Boudi's biryani lies at the other. The place is actually called Dada Boudir Hotel - a matchbox of an eatery close to the Barrackpore station in North 24-Parganas.

Even Shahanshah Mirza, who believes that ITC's Dum Pukht does the closest approximation of the "authentic biryani", has for some reason tasted the Dada Boudi version. And though he says, "it is everything but biryani", city lore has it, and online reviews and eyewitnesses testify, that every day around lunch and dinner time there is a mile long queue outside the place. Its USP: the large quantities of rice and the huge piece of mutton.

Subhashish Pal is a resident of the area. He works in a private company, but a year back contemplated purchasing or renting a small shop in Barrackpore to supplement the monthly income.

  • POTBOILER: A handi of dum biryani

I wanted to start a bookshop," he says. However, when the broker got to know of his plan, he dissuaded him. Says Subhashish, "He said, 'Dada, return chaile biryanir dokan din (If you want returns, open a biryani shop)."

There must be some truth in it because these shops are everywhere - skirting the highways, in the suburbs. The size of the shop and the quality of the product depends on the geography and target audience. Near auto stands and outside colleges you will find makeshift stalls and a man sitting with a huge handi. A packet could sell for as little as Rs 50. Of course, depending on the character of the place, the rice quality goes down, the saffron goes out, it is basically mangsho bhaat, with a little salad or raita on the side, no jhol nonsense here. Protein, carbs, veggies... Some places toss in a boiled egg or two. The biryani has also replaced the maachh-bhaat doled out at political rallies during the Left era.

Within the city precincts the latest trend seems to be high-end sit-down biryani places. There is the Royal Indian Restaurant in Park Circus, Only Alibaba Gold, also in Park Circus, the Arsalan outlet on the E.M. Bypass. From this month, Tolly Club's Tipu Sultan restaurant is being catered by Oudh 1590.

Oudh 1590 serves Awadhi cuisine, and what would that be minus a solid biryani presence. The first Oudh opened four years ago in the already bursting-at-the-seams city biryani scene. But why? Owner Shiladitya Chau-dhury talks about democratising the authentic biryani. "The kind you might find at Dum Pukht but cannot afford," says co-owner Debaditya Chaudhury.

He must know what he is saying because Oudh has got a 300-something workforce (60 per cent of the chefs are from Lucknow) and its own butchery (the cut of the meat is vital). He is not worried about the minnows in the game and is sure the new, very strict food and hygiene norms will seal their handis.

Everything these days has to be borne out by the online experts. In case you hadn't noticed, online food portal Zomato has introduced something called the Brilliant Biryanis under its theme-based section headed "Collections". The other categories are Great Buffet, Sweet Tooth, Terrific Thalis and so on. The only other cuisine-specific bouquet has been named after the pizza.

So you can understand our surprise when Santanu Sikdar brings up the pizza reference, unprompted. "Serving biryani at the convenience of pizza - this was our initial goal," says the XLRI dropout, who is one of the founders of Kabuliwala, a biryani start-up that debuted last October. Santanu, of course, prefers to call it a "delivery-only Indian food QSR (quick service restaurant) company".

Apparently, the vestigial memory of eating out and its consequent expenses during his struggler days was one of the triggers behind Kabuliwala. "Biryani is that one dish that offers a complete meal for Rs 150-180. Any other cuisine you'd have to order side dishes as well."

He is clearly taken with the pizza metaphor. He says, "Also when I want to have pizza, I don't have to disturb my kitchen. For a typical bachelor what can be better?" When you order from Kabuliwala, along with the food you get a plate, a tissue coin, a complimentary burhani (curd-based beverage to offset the richness of the biryani) in a clay glass. Santanu goes on and on about biodegradable packing, "no-plastic policy", "A2 ghee", branded saffron, offering service till midnight. And the innovations continue.

The biryani was not the only Persian import. Indo-Persian cookbooks, points out Schaefer, describe recipes for other kinds of rice dishes such as the khichri, pulao, tahiri and qabuli. Then why was such enduring popularity reserved for the biryani alone? That too among a fish-eating people? Well, the stomach has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.

Inputs by Upala Sen