Being Women

An Abiding Love For Biryani

Tracing the trail of biryani, from Noor Jehan to Wajed Ali Shah, from Awadh to Kolkata and Hyderabad this is a saga of how Biryani came to arouse such strong passions and turned into a comfort food for all.

Is it a coincidence that Kolkata and Hyderabad – the two cities where I spent most part of my life – both have a long association with biryani? And unlike most Bengalis who turn up their snooty noses at the Hyderabadi Biryani I frankly admit that I like both.
Biryani is said to have been the brainwave of Mughal empress Nur Jahan who came up with the idea of a one pot meal for the Mughal soldiers which will have both carbs and adequate protein in the form of rice and meat. Well, the male chefs may have lorded over the royal kitchen but it was the woman who clearly kept in mind the nutritional aspect. Biryani was easy to cook and of course easy to serve as well, particularly in military camps.

Origin of Dum Biryani

Another delightful tale about the Dum Biryani originates in Awadh where the fourth Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah hit upon a novel plan to help his subjects during a devastating famine. He employed commoners to build the maze Bhulbhulaiya and at night the families of the nobles would take advantage of the darkness and demolish the structure. This subtle plan allowed the aristocracy to work without losing their dignity. As the first proponent of the food for work scheme the royal kitchen was in charge of feeding this vast army of construction workers. Hence, large cauldrons were filled with rice, meat, vegetables and spices and sealed with dough allowing it to be cooked slowly on the dum or its own steam. The slow cooking enabled the meat to release its juices and spices, their aroma and the delectable dish slowly made its way from the community kitchens of soldiers and workers to the dastarkhans of royalty with the addition of costly spices like saffron.

Potato – The Third Wheel In Biryani?  
Biryani came to Kolkata from Lucknow when the exiled Nawab Wajed Ali Shah of Awadh decided to settle in Metiaburj along with kathak, thumri and his menagerie. Heartbroken after the loss of his beloved Lucknow( remember the thumri penned by him “Jab chhor chale Lucknow nagari…”) he decided to recreate the city in Metiaburj. Unfortunately, the Nawab was short changed by history written by the victorious British who portrayed him to be an epicurean, much married man in order to justify their annexation of his kingdom, one of the most prosperous territories at that time. Hence, most believe that the potato made an entry in his royal kitchen and in the biryani handi only because the pauper Nawab could not afford meat. However, the Nawab received a fat pension of Rs 12 lakhs annually from the British. More likely, potato had just been introduced to India by the Portuguese along with tomato and made a grand entry into the royal kitchen as an exotic vegetable. Kolkata, the city of proletarians and plebeians has a number of lanes named after khansamas, like Chhaku Khansama lane in Sealdah and Chamru Khansama lane in Park Circus which are evidence of how much we appreciated their culinary skills. Karim Bux who served some nine governor generals had his oil painting displayed at the Raj Bhavan and a lane named after him in Taltala. But the name of the innovative khansama who had the brainwave to introduce the humble potato in the Biryani handi has been lost in the annals of time. Maybe like the unknown soldier we should put up a statue of the unknown khansama who transformed the biryani with this innovation and made it Kolkata’s own.

Meat & Potato – The Ultimate Jodi In Biryani
And to those who are snobbish enough to smirk at the very idea of potato in biryani and consider it as a sacrilege may I remind that all over the world, among the vegetables, potato complements meat dishes the best? So even with steaks or any meat dish you have mashed potato or fries as sides. Anyway, those who have not tasted the Kolkata biryani will never know how the addition of potato has upgraded the familiar Awadhi biryani to simply another level. The flavourful potato in Kolkata biryani can only be compared to the potato of the quintessential Bengali Mangshor (mutton) jhol and despite spending almost half a century on this earth I am still indecisive about which should be rated higher.

Hyderabadi biryani
After spending more than half of my life in Kolkata I should have turned up my fine, aquiline nose at the Hyderabadi biryani. But I embraced and adopted Hyderabadi Biryani as my own with a rare gusto. But before I sing its praises a disclaimer needs to be put in place. The overtly spicy dish that is sold everywhere as Hyderabadi biryani is actually its Andhra counterpart with lots of red chilli powder. The original Hyderabadi biryani is sold in smaller but older establishments. It is far less spicy but fragrant with more meat chunks than the Kolkata biryani. So, the best way to enjoy the authentic Hyderabadi biryani would be to wrangle an invitation to the weddings of your Muslim friends. But since weddings are few and far between and our hankering for Biryani comes on a weekly basis we often settle for the smaller but well-known establishments. Since most of them don’t offer fine dining options and the dingy eateries tend to put you off food we prefer to order in instead of dining out. However, I have not warmed up to the idea of having biryani with salan, a spicy and tangy curry made of nuts and chillies which is served as a side dish. Biryani which came to the Deccan with the conquerors acquired a new flavour when it merged with the local Telugu cuisine. And it really captured the taste buds of the locals. Even today, it is the most ordered dish in Hyderabad according to Swiggy and Zomato.

Biryani – The Comfort Food
I will conclude this saga of biryani with a personal anecdote. My husband is an awesome cook who loves to feed people. Even though he experiments with lots of meat dishes, particularly Persian, Middle Eastern or Pakistani dishes he always steered clear of the biryani, declaring some things should be left only to the experts. Then I fell sick with a life threatening disease. When my doctor told me I could eat only home cooked meals I told him I was going to miss my biryani. During those tough days I felt nauseated and tired and ate very less. And even when I could eat I hated whatever my South Indian part time cook was rustling up. I wanted my comfort food even if it was simple steamed rice and mashed potato or a light fish curry. And during that time the master chef in the family decided to learn to cook authentic biryani, right from the scratch after watching innumerable YouTube videos on a loop. Since then, he has already perfected the pakki biryani and moved to kacchi biryani, which is far more of a challenge since the rice and mutton have to be cooked at the same time during the dum process. In pakki biryani, the mutton and the semi cooked rice are prepared separately and then assembled before finally being put on the stove for the dum. So if you ask me what the biryani means to me I must confess it is no less than the Taj Mahal, a symbol of abiding love.

By Anindita Chowdhury

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