Friday, May 24, 2013

The Calcutta Biryani


Biryani is one of the greatest cultural gifts of Islamicate culture to South Asia. In the Hindu or Buddhist kitchen, no example of a mixture of meat and rice is known. Jains are vegetarians, so there's no point talking about them in the first place. In larger parts of the subcontinent, the average Hindu upper caste person faints at the smell of onion or garlic, leave alone meat. The entirety of upper caste North India always looked down upon the Bengali brahman because of his fish-eating habits. Imagining anything close to the sublimity of the biryani exuding out of such a taboo-dominated kitchen is nothing but a day-dream. But even in the middling or lower castes, I wonder if any parallel of the meat-rice combination could have been known independently of an influence of the Islamicate kitchen. In the far south, in Christian and lower caste sections of Malayalis and Kannadas, there is a thriving tradition of preparing fabulous dishes by cooking meat and rice together. But with all due respect, that isn't biryani.



Biryani was invented in the North Indian military camp sometime around the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries. At the end of a hard day of marching or military operation, soldiers would probably get together, throw some meat in with the rice to save the labour of cooking separate dishes and prepare something for themselves. By the early-seventeenth century, biryani attained a certain degree of eliteness by virtue of being absorbed into the Mughal kitchen. Nuruddin Jahangir (r. 1605-1627), the fourth Mughal Padshah, writes in his memoirs Tuzuk-i Jahangiri: 'Arriving in Sultanpur at dawn I remained there till noon. By chance, at this place and hour the victorious [Mughal] army encountered that ill-fated band [the enemy]. Muizzu-l-mulk had brought biryani, and I was turning towards it with zest when the news of the battle was brought to me. Though I had a longing to eat the biryani, I immediately took a mouthful by way of augury and mounted, and without waiting for the coming up of men and without regard to the smallness of my force I went off in all haste.'



After Aurangzeb Alamgir's death in 1707, Mughal political authority crumbled. Among the multiple polities that emerged in South Asia around this time were three successor states founded by Mughal mansabdars. The Mughal Wazir, who was administering the subah of Awadh, and the subahdars of Bengal and Hyderabad – all declared independence in the eighteenth century. While all of their dynasties continued to function inside Mughal cultural paradigm for a long time to come, they also interacted with and assimilated elements of regional culture into their courtly life. The Mughal biryani took on a new life in each of these regional royal kitchens and by interacting with local culinary practices, took distinctly different paths. Consequently we now have three different types of the Mughal biryani in South Asia – the Lucknavi, the Hyderabadi and the Dhakai. The Hyderabadi biryani was doing fine until it lost its way somewhere down the line by opening its doors to curry pata. Dhaka, now the capital of Bangladesh, has preserved its tradition of the sublime kachchi biryani. It tastes entirely different from what we have now in India, and if you haven't visited Bangladesh yet, consider it to be a reason enough. There is also a most offensively atrocious dish that is served around Delhi by the name of biryani; but we need not dignify it with a discussion here.

Yes, that's the expression Dhakai kachchi biryani brings to your face!


When the English East India Company deposed Nawab Wajed Ali Shah in 1856, they packed his bags and sent him to Calcutta. The sad Nawab came along singing “Jab chhod chaley Lucknow nagari/tab haal adam par kya guzri?” and settled down with his entourage in Metiaburuj (meaning 'clay bastion' in Bengali) in the English port-city. With him, the tradition of the Lucknavi biryani also reached Calcutta. What remained behind in Lucknow, judging by what you get in the old parts of the town today, was fantastic stuff. It was perhaps a tad more spicy than how its successor in the new imperial capital of South Asia would turn out to be. Here it took on a new life. The Calcutta biryani came to find its ideal companions in the boiled egg and the boiled whole potato.



In Calcutta, even neighbourhood joints are serving biryani these days, as are the different multi-cuisine mumbo jumbos. Obviously there is no reason to take them seriously. The headquarter of the city's biryani craft is the Muslim-dominated Park Circus-Mallick Bazaar area in South Calcutta. It houses several restaurants that serve quality biryani. The more famous ones are Shiraz and Rahmania in Mallick Bazaar, Zeeshan and Arsalan in Park Circus. Among these, Shiraz and Rahmania are really by-gone glories. Arsalan is the best among these joints. For some time now, the Arsalan biryani is among the best in the city. The suppleness of the meat, the aroma of the rice and the brilliant kabab accompaniments will surely make anybody's day. No wonder it has three outlets between Park Circus 7-Points Crossing and Park Street and more in other areas.



Further south, there are a couple of good joints around the Gariahat-Golpark area. The older ones, Hatari and Bedouin serve standard quality biryani. But two new joints are grabbing the limelight these days. One is Ta'aam, right next to Priya Cinema on Rashbihari Avenue. The other is Southern Aminia right next to Mouchak at Golpark (this one being named after the leading biryani joint of the past -- Aminia -- in the Esplanade area). Ta'aam may be a tad more expensive than the other places, but they make it more than worth your money. Also, the prices of biryani has increased quite a lot over the past 6/7 years. But in terms of the quality of meat, the subtlety of the taste and the aroma of the dish, these two places will leave you starstruck. If you are wondering when or where the hell these cropped up from, you are backdated buddy. You may call them upstarts, but I am telling you, the best biryani of the city is rolling out of their kitchens even as we speak.

Ta'aam

Some of the more upscale restaurants of the city, like Flame and Grill, Sigree and Barbeque Nation, also serve very good biryani. Much of their biryani is genuinely delicious, and the flavours are quite light and subtle. But for me, the unlimited tide of kababs that these places serve in the beginning of the buffet always spoils the biryani fun. By the time one reaches the biryani one is already struggling to make space in one's stomach by reshuffling the hurriedly gobbled kababs. In any case, the high price of the buffet means that for the average food-enthusiast, it can't be the everyday option.


Barring the Dhakai kachchi biryani, all this while we have been talking about mutton biryani (who eats chicken biryani anyway?). Beef biryani is considerably rare in Calcutta, although one gets it at the small Muslim-owned joints around the Park Circus area, like Nafeel or al-Habib. To be honest, they are not very good. However, the bloody best biryani I have ever had is in fact outside the city proper. It's on the railway station premises of Baruipur, a half-an-hour train ride from Sealdah. The place, called Asma, serves the most delicious beef biryani and beef chaanp in the world. You can't even begin to imagine how delicious it is, so don't waste your time. The rice is nothing extraordinary; in fact one may argue that Ta'am or Southern Aminia's rice is better. But their beef is the softest biryani meat I have ever had. The supple, succulent and tender beef is so good that it will make you want to sleep with it. The aroma of the beef spices up the entire rice and makes you want to brave the crowded trains of the Sealdah-Baruipur route day and night. If possible, catch a train and see for yourself what you have been missing on.


Recently the Calcutta biryani has also taken the national capital by storm. The Kolkata Biryani House at the Market 1 in CR Park, with its assortments of biryani, chaanp and rezala, is already a rage in the Bengali circles of South Delhi. Word in the street is that the research output of budding Bengali social scientists of the nearby Jawaharlal Nehru University has increased manifold since the opening of the joint.

One needs to acknowledge that given all the diversities of biryani traditions in South Asia (obviously not including the various pseudo-biryani traditions of the north and the south), there are rival claims to culinary greatness. Against this backdrop, we can either be tolerant and stupid and say that 'to each her own', or we can be brutal and truthful and admit that the Calcutta biryani is the greatest of all Mughal biryanis. The choice is yours.

27 comments:

  1. Respect, for the franks conclusion. I, with the 'to each her own' mentality had let my taste-buds suffer. Not anymore.

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  2. Hehe, Asma went into my review a long time back, so did Ta'aam. DO check out Mezban and Arafat. The former for the mutton biryani and the latter not so much for the beef biryani as for the incredible beef boti kababs they serve straight off the sheekh. Dont have the oily fried ones, though. They aren't that nice.

    Best,
    Poorna
    http://presentedbyp.blogspot.com

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  3. Thanks a lot for your feedback Poorna. Clearly, you are very updated on your food. Will try out these two joints for sure.

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  4. Please do and let me know. Always a pleasure to meet fellow Kolkata biryani appreciators.

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  5. Very interesting writeup, thoroughly enjoyed it. One minor nit, though:

    > When the English East India Company deposed Nawab Bahadur Shah Zafar in 1856, they packed his bags and sent him to Calcutta.

    (ahem, ahem) Wajid Ali Shah?

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  6. Thanks a lot Abhik. Silly mistake. Corrected.

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  7. ahh, I can smell the biriyani, or eat it out of your blog. desire desire desire - my taste buds crying out loud!

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    Replies
    1. Remember Dhakai kachchi? Oooh mama!

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  8. Nice piece, but one major bone of contention. Curry patta a) is still not the essential element of Hyderabadi biriyani (Pudina and dhaniya and patthar ki phool is), and b)Asma, which I also absolutely adore and almost survive on, also uses curry patta (and diced limes too) in their biriyani.

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    1. Thank you Baidurya-da for pointing this out. You certainly know much more about Hyderabadi biryani than I do. I will correct that in the post. But are you sure about Asma? Even if they do use curry pata, may be it does not change the taste much from the normative taste of the Calcutta biryani, because frankly, I did not notice this.

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  9. Excellent, possibly the most comprehensive article on biriyani. I agree with every point made. I and a friend of mine have single-handedly initiated a huge populace of college going crowd to Aasma - its biriyani, and their mind-numbing beef chaap. Arsalan is obviously a favourite too. I have had biriyani is some of the best biriyani places in hyderabad (Shadab, Paradise, etc) and I don't deny enjoying them. But Calcutta biriyani seems to be the height of refinement of biriyanidom.

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    1. Thank you for your feedback Saptarshi. It's always a great joy to interact with fellow biryani-enthusiasts.

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  10. Arre! ki dukkho dile go amar pet ke! knadche, just knadche!

    (But this was lovely.)

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  11. Thank you, Saptarshi and Sayantani. It's always a great joy to interact with fellow biryani-enthusiasts.

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  12. Restaurant biryani is always mass produced , and quantity and speed are prime movers rather than quality and taste. All the restaurants described are just decent at most - with the exception of Kolkata Biriyani at C.R. Park, New Delhi. If you think that is good biriyani, then you haven't had biriyani.
    Consistency can be a problem - the main issue being the quality of meat. Today it might be the meat, tomorrow, the spices, or the rice or potatoes.
    I agree - Arsalan is your "good mutton biriyani" whereas Asma @Baruipur is on and off "good beef biriyani" though recent reports state otherwise. Try Zam Zam in Entally.
    Also , another thing is that people tend to generalize biriyani preferences - in reality - some people like their biriyani redder and more coloured, some like it oilier and richer with the flavours running deep , some like it light and fragrant and dry with free falling long grains of rice ( described as " jhur- jhure " ). And some like it grubbier - almost close to tahri or your standard meat-rice ( gosht- bhaat ). Personally, I like mine slightly more yellow than white, tender mutton of young goats under a year old, fragrant and that which leaves a light residue of oil on the plate.
    Your best bet at sampling good biriyani is getting a wedding invitation where the hosts pay attention to the main event - the mutton biriyani - rather than serving appetite killers rubbish like paneer - chholey bhature- fish fry before it. This is a ploy to take your attention off the biriyani.
    Ah yes - and the ever elusive kacchi biryani. I pity those who haven't had good kacchi . More on this later.

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    1. Thanks a lot for your feedback Ari. Clearly you know your biryani. Your point about quantity being a prime driving force for restaurant-produced biryani is very true. The point of different subtle variations of how people prefer their biryani is also accepted. However, I think in spite of these subtle variations regarding colour of the rice, consistency, there is still an overarching normative standard to which biryani produced by the different restaurants of the city try to conform to. As to how this normative standard evolved is a more complicated question.
      I spend the three-fourth of the year in Delhi. I think Kolkata Biryani House of CR Park produces standard, though certainly not top-class biryani. In absence of any good biryani in Delhi at all, the taste of even this mot-top-class biryani appears to be heavenly. So I guess that sensation it creates in a biryani-starved mouth plays a role in my thinking that the CR Park biryani is quite good.
      Lastly, thank you for suggesting the Entally joint. I will surely visit it soon. Thanks again.

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    2. I lost the link to this blog and found it again. I hope you're still active. I had just moved back to Kolkata from New Delhi in May '13. I stayed for about eight months at C.R. Park before moving, where I tried the available options. But sadly, they were quite disappointing as mentioned earlier. Rather, I was quite surprised by Flaming Wok - a rather reasonably priced Chinese Restaurant.
      Try Golconda Bowl's (Hauz Khas Village) biriyani ( Hyderabadi ).

      In May '14 I visited Dhaka and tried Haji's , Star's Kacchi, Nanna Miya's Morog Polao and Ghoroa's Vuna Khichudi, out of which the khichudi stole my heart.

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  13. hi

    I dont know you, but I love this write-up and I hate you for letting me feel so hungry whenever I read this blog.
    And yes I stay outside Calcutta and hence cannot devour this stuff all the times I want to :(

    Good job-

    madhubantir@gmail.com

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    1. Thank you for your feedback Madhubanti. Much appreciated.

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  14. Lovely blog. Some extremely interesting posts here!

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  15. Yeah, my friend Taj swears by Zam Zam. Haven't been yet though. And as for Arsalan @ Park Circus, their standard mutton biriyani is amazing, ofcoss. But what I adore is their "Special Lucknowi Mutton Biriyani" which comes in a huge portion size, more oily and hence much "wetter" than what the normal one is, tastes quite different (different spices I think) and very, very heavenly. Worth the extra price, totally. Try that the next time you visit. (Last year I did experience some consistency issues though--once it felt like the normal one they prepare, and I was majorly disappointed).

    Also, Shiraz Golden Restaurant near the AJC Bose Road/Park Street crossing with the erstwhile "rooftop" sitting option has now been transformed into a ket-marka, hi-fi type table-cloth wala restora in the ground floor of the hotel which has been built there!! Eta goto bochor dekhlam. Maane ak laaphe swanky hoye gechhe, and I'm sure lost most of their common-man-off-the-streets clientele. Anyway the new revamped restaurant has good biriyani too. Esp. check out their fish kababs--boddo bhalo.

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    Replies
    1. Kaichu .. Poushali ? Sounds familiar ? Have we met ?

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  16. getting deprived of the heavenly flavor in Hyderabad..it'd be so good if arsalan biryani could be parceled here..biryani in Hyderabad is nothing compared to the heaven of park circus 7 point crossing..

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  17. haha..liked that.."who eats chiken biryani anyway"..
    heard a lot about asma,but been lazy and never tried it.
    noh..kichu ekta kortei hochche..

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  18. I personally feel that the variations in the taste and preparation methodology of Biryani in Delhi and elsewhere in India is the perfect example of the diversities of biryani traditions in the entire world. I was also amazed to know that Biryani is one dish that is cherished by people across various parts of the world. However, i still find it difficult to trace the origins of this delicious dish.

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  19. This article, it was really informative. I’ll be looking forward for your next, visit Restaurant in satya niketan delhi for Your Delicious Order.

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