What the Fork: Kunal Vijayakar Treads on ‘Dangerously Volatile Ground’ to Explore Biryanis of the East

What The Fork

I am now treading on dangerously volatile ground. I am about to explore the Biryanis of the eastern part of India, and I said “dangerously volatile”, because if you utter the word Biryani in front of a Bengali, what ensues is a bitter battle of one-upmanship. The conversation turns into a passionate, rousing and intense feud, to prove the superiority, artistry and brilliance of the Kolkata Biryani.

It’s the kind of brawl that I enjoy, because I love people who can get ferocious about the food they believe in, and trust me when I say that the Bengali truly and unashamedly and staunchly believes in his Biryani. As for me, I have to confess, for someone who grew up in Mumbai, I was brought up on a steady supply of Biryanis from the bhatiar-khanas of Mumbai’s Islampura. Bright yellow fragrant rice with spicy pink pieces of mutton cooked in a fiery, greasy masala, with chunks of potatoes softened with frying and soaked in spices. That was the Biryani I ate. Bold and audacious Bombay Biryani.

It was the same Biryani with a slight change in sourness or spiciness that I would rush for, at weddings of Bohri friends or at Iftaar parties, both which I really looked forward to with longing, singularly for the biryani. When the ITC Hotels introduced us to the delicateness of spices, the sophistication of aromas and the highest quality of cuts and meat, I was impressed. It was only several years later that I went to Kolkata and first fell in love with the Kolkata Roll that I set out to explore the famed, hallowed and venerated Kolkata Biryani.

Kolkata Biryani

There are many legends that surround the creation of the Kolkata Biryani. The most common one is that Wajid Ali Shah, exiled Nawab of Awadh, his treasures diminished arrived in Metiabruz in Kolkata with nearly 6,000 people, and he brought along with him a bit of Lucknow. Amongst those people were shopkeepers, gardeners, water carriers, tailors, goldsmiths, moneylenders, paanwalas and above all khansamas or cooks.

Trying to replicate his decadent life of Lucknow, the Nawab and his entourage started living it up and cooking kababs, kormas, kaliya, nihari, zarda, kulchas, sheermaal, rumali rotis, and of course, Biryani. But they say the Nawab was on a pension after being exiled, and couldn’t afford to ply his several revellers with enough meat in the Biryani. The potato had just arrived in Calcutta from Dehradun. So, his bawarchis added potatoes and boiled eggs to compensate for the shortage of meat. That became the Kolkata Biryani, or so one is led to believe.

Today, if you go to one of Kolkata’s famous Biryani shops Arsalan, Aminia, or Rahmania, what you get is a large chunk of meat, with a boiled egg, a nice juicy potato, and fragrant rice. If made traditionally, the meat and the potatoes are slow cooked in ghee, on low heat with ginger, garlic onion and spices. Then par-boiled rice, the cooked meat and potatoes are layered in a handi to which cardamom, mace, saffron, cloves and kevda some other ittars are added.

This is then cooked on “dum” till the rice cooks and becomes one with the meat, and the potatoes soak up all the flavours. A whole boiled egg is then generously added on top of each plate. This is what I believe drives most Kolkatans, at least those who don’t live in Bengal, stark, raving batty.

Murshidabadi Biryani

The most dominating influence in states like Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha, as far as Muslim cuisine and Biryani goes is the sway of the Nawabs of Bengal and Murshidabad.

Murshidabadi cuisine is one of the oldest cuisines of India and is often known as a lighter version of the rich Mughal food, embellished with nuts, cream, saffron and rich spices. In fact, the cuisine itself is a rich combination of Mughlai and Bengali food. It is believed that Murshid Quli Khan, when he was appointed as the Nawab of Bengal, brought the recipe of Biryani along with him to Murshidabad.

The Murshidabad Biryani, quite like it’s cousin the Kolkata Biryani, is mild and fragrant, and with potatoes. It inherits the richness from Mughlai cuisine and the simplicity of flavours from Bengali cuisine. But often uses fish instead of meat. Since fish is a staple in the area and also considered auspicious, the Murshidabadi Biryani is now most often a Mahi Biryani, or made with Hilsa.

Kataki Biryani

The nature and origins of Katatki Biryani or the Biryani of Cuttack is ambiguous. Some say it draws on inspiration from Hyderabad, others say it’s influenced by a bit of both, the Hyderabadi Biryani and the Lucknow pulao. One thing is true though, that the region had a strong Muslim influence and a rich culinary heritage between the reign of Suleiman Karrani in 1568 AD and the surrender of the Nizams of Bengal to the Marathas in 1751 AD.

Khansaamas from Cuttack insist that it’s the quantity of oil and the amount of spice mix (miqdar) that gives the Kataki Biryani it’s character and consequently the Kataki Biryani is much oilier and spicier than the Kolkata and Hyderabadi ones.

Also, the meat is always half-cooked and is layered with rice and these layers are then garnished with an exotic mix of fried onions, koya, gulkand, nuts and khishmish. But most importantly, it’s the proportion. The ratio of mutton to rice in a Kolkata Biryani is 1:1. In a Cuttack Biryani, the proportion has to be at least 1.5:1 if not more. Some Hindu families and customers order Biryani in a 2:1 or even 3:1 ratio. Now that sounds more like my Biryani.

I am sure you are waiting for my verdict about which of these three Biryanis from the eastern states of India are my favourites. Apologies, but I am not going to take sides. After all, I have too many Bengali friends.

Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer based in Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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