The curious case of potato in Kolkata biryani and how the British fed us a lie
For those of us growing up in the cocooned city of Kolkata, comprising Victoria Memorial’s buggy rides, roadside bhelpuri and phuchka, the restaurants and nightlife of Park Street and the club culture of Tolly and Royal Calcutta Golf Club, biryani was always something that was to be relished and had whenever one got the opportunity. It was only by accident that most of us Kolkatans discovered when we were out on a holiday or had moved out of the city that biryani somehow didn’t taste the same like it did back home. Gradually we came to know that there were different kinds of biryani like Lucknowi, Hyderabadi etc. And the aloo, it seemed, only belonged to Kolkata biryani.
But what exactly is Kolkata biryani and how did it originate?
“The Kolkata biryani is more similar to a Persian pulao than any of its brothers and sisters around India. It’s very lightly spiced on the yakhni and you’ll often see potatoes crop up in pulaos in Iran and across the region. Let’s face it, once you’ve had the Calcutta biryani, with the slow-cooked yakhni oozing, there’s no other biryani to eat,” says Kolkata based British chef Shaun Kenworthy.
“The reason why they put potato in the biryani was because it was less expensive than meat and also because it provides a nice texture- so the main reason was the cost aspect of things. Personally, I love Kolkata biryani as it’s a lot lighter than the one in Lucknow and very different from the one in Hyderabad and Kerala,” says Zorawar Kalra, owner and MD of Massive Restaurants.
“However, my personal favourite is our very own Awadhi biryani, even though it is the richest of the lot. The meat to rice ratio of Awadhi biryani is also totally dependent from restaurant to restaurant or from you know from chef to chef,” adds Kalra.
However, as we later found out, the cost factor was actually a myth perpetuated by the British to defame Indian rulers, and the record was set straight for us by Shahanshah Mirza, the great-great-grandson of Wajid Ali Shah, and is a senior GST officer in the ministry of finance, posted in Kolkata.
Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh
“When Wajid Ali Shah came to Calcutta in 1856 , he was very hopeful that Awadh would be handed back to him, but that didn’t happen. So he sent his mother, son and younger brother to England to place this petition before Queen and British Parliament. While negotiations were going on in London, the revolt of 1857 took place and all hopes of getting Awadh back were dashed because the entire attention of the British was diverted in suppressing the rebellion.
Shah was arrested and kept in Fort William for a period of 26 months. When he was released, he was given an opportunity live anywhere in the country, and he chose Metiabruz in Calcutta. When the people realized that he had settled in Calcutta, musicians, chefs, hakims, the general public- all of them started to visit the place, and within a short span of time, Metiabruz developed into a different culture. And it was almost like a mini Lucknow,” says Mirza.
The potato comes to India
“Now the rulers of Awadh among other things were also connoisseurs of food, and they always encouraged their chefs to try and experiment with new dishes. Now in the early 16th century, potatoes, chillies and tomatoes were cultivated in India for the first time by the Portuguese.
They had cultivated potatoes in Surat, and over the next few decades it spread to different parts of the country. It was brought to Bengali by the English traders. And in those days because the cultivation was low, it was not an easily available vegetable and was also considered to be an exotic vegetable,” Mirza explains.
Kolkata biryani meets potato
“In one of the experiments, the chef added potato to the biryani. The Awadhi biryani is cooked in the dum-phukt style. In the dum-phukt style, the lid is sealed over the pot so the steam doesn’t go out. As a result what happens the fragrance, the aroma, the juices of spices, rice, meat, saffron all gets absorbed in the meal, which makes the dish very delicious. So when potato was cooked along with the saffron spices, meat, it tasted very delicious, tasty when it was served to Wajid Ali Shah, he liked it immensely, and he said that henceforth whenever you will cook biryani make sure that the potato is added. So that’s how it all started in the court of Wajid Ali Shah in Metiabruz.
When it was served to the nobles they loved it, and when biryani was cooked in their house, they told the wife to add potatoes to the dish, and very soon this became a part of Calcutta’s culinary heritage,” Mirza informs us.
Rumours spread by the British
“A lot of people will tell you that Wajid Ali Shah had fallen on bad days and that is why he could not afford to add meat and hence chose potatoes, which isn’t true. When the British had annexed Awadh, it was a very rich state. English historians had compared Lucknow with Paris and London of those days. And that it was fairer and more prosperous than London or Paris.
One of the weapons of the British was to defame the Indian rulers in different ways. Hence this was part of the ploy to spread ill rumours about Indian rulers, which wasn’t true at all. As a matter of fact, Wajid Ali Shah used to get a pension of Rs 12 lakh annually and was one of the highest-paid pensioners in India. Apart from that, he was also an animal lover. In 1864, he had founded the world’s first open a zoo. He used to spend 25% of his income on the upkeep of animals. Now a person who could spend 25% of his income on the maintenance of a zoo could certainly afford meat, right? Those were all rumours spread by the British, and perpetuated by us since we believe everything which a ‘gora’ says,” concludes Mirza.
So the next time you have Kolkata biryani, you can thank Wajid Ali Shah and his chefs for coming up with the idea, and remind yourself of how the Britishers had even gone to the extent of using food to perpetuate myths against Indians.
The author tweets at @shadowwarior and can be reached at email@example.com and Instagram.com/kabirsinghbhandari