Biryani without aloo! - Potato scarcity threatens age-old culinary tradition

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  • Published 7.11.13

The quintessential aloo in the Calcutta biryani is facing the threat of temporary extinction.

The spud has already disappeared from the biryani of popular joint Only Alibaba while others are struggling to retain it.

Scarcity of potatoes in the local markets has forced this aloo hibernation. “Our daily requirement is at least 15,000kg of the Jyoti variety of potato. Our vendors at Sealdah’s Koley Market couldn’t supply the required amount yesterday. So we had to temporarily stop putting aloo in our biryani,” said Aniruddha Guha Roy, proprietor of the Only Alibaba chain.

Only Alibaba prepares at least 3,000 plates of biryani every day to cater to patrons in 19 outlets and an expansive home-delivery service.

At Aminia, aloo will be served till stocks last. “We are forced to buy potato at a premium. If the situation persists, we might have to drop the aloo and replace it with an egg. As of now, we are managing with the stock bought last week,” said Nadim Amin, the director of Aminia.

The aloo in the Calcutta biryani has a nawabi history. Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Awadh, had brought with him khansamas from the royal kitchen when he was sent to exile in Calcutta in 1856. The gentry picked up the biryani recipe from the nawab’s cooks but swapped the gosht with aloo since they couldn’t afford meat.

If local economy gave biryani its special character in Calcutta, the current potato economics might put paid to a culinary custom. “It is a part of our tradition. It should not be broken. If necessary, restaurants must increase the price,” said food writer and t2 columnist Nondon Bagchi.

Is a price hike on the menu then? “We can neither take the aloo off the plate nor charge more than the current price of Rs 120 per plate of biryani,” said Jamal Ahmed Jamal, the director of New Aliah Hotel on Bentinck Street.

Biryani giant Arsalan Restaurant and Caterer requires 1,600kg of potatoes every day for its five outlets. “No compromise with aloo! We have been paying Rs 800 per sack (each containing 40kg) of late, but our supplier has not managed to replenish our stock. We had to source half of our requirement at exorbitant prices from retailers,” an Arsalan spokesperson said.

He said the rising cost of mutton and spices had already forced two price hikes in six months. “Before April, biryani sold here at Rs 115. Now it’s Rs 135 per plate.”

Shiraz is trying hard to stick to its price list. “We need at least 200kg of aloo every day and the stock comes from the Sealdah wholesale market. Potato prices have touched the ceiling but we cannot increase the price of our biryani,” said Ishtiaque Ahmed, the director of Shiraz Hotel Pvt Ltd.

“We can’t increase prices frequently, meaning our profits are taking a dip since we are paying more for potato,” said Shiladitya Chaudhury, the director of Oudh 1590 near Deshapriya Park.

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