A large, saffron-tinged potato, soft and delicious, nestled in a bed of fragrant rice (a mix of white and yellow) and chunks of meat – that is perhaps how a Kolkatawalah would like to describe a biryani. Yes, with a veritable stress on the potato. And this potato in the biryani, a strange anomaly to the rest of the country, is what lures many to a plate of Kolkata-style Biryani. A true-blue Calcuttan would defend it with their heart and soul (and fist if need be, perhaps).
And the city owes its beloved Biryanir Aloo to the star-crossed Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, ousted by the British and doomed to a life in exile in far away Calcutta – or, rather, to the Nawab’s khansamas who accompanied him to his new home. The opinion varies as to what prompted the royal cooks to add a potato to what is essentially a rice and meat dish. Most believe the Nawab couldn’t afford enough meat and hence the cooks made up for it with potatoes. But there are others, including the Nawab’s great-great-grandson Shahanshah Mirza, who argue that the royal cooks were encouraged to experiment in the kitchen and the potato in the biryani was merely an inspired innovation (after all, if the Nawab could maintain a zoo, he could buy meat alright).
But adding the potato to the typical Awadhi biryani, albeit the most commended accomplishment of the Nawab’s Metiaburj (where the Nawab built his home) kitchen, was not the only innovation. In fact, what the Lucknowi khansamas and bawarchis trumped up at the Nawab’s new address, tweaking traditional recipes to suit local conditions and produce, evolved into a distinct cuisine.
The ITC Sonar Kolkata is currently showcasing this unique cuisine as part of their Kitchens of India series, in an event titled Metiaburj Daawat. What has been dubbed as Metiaburj cuisine is essentially reminiscent of the food cooked in the Nawab’s kitchen or, rather, what trickled out of it, perhaps accidentally (considering how fiercely guarded these recipes were).
There are not too many records of the culinary experiments that transpired in the royal kitchen, so Chef Md. Mansoor Alam, born and brought up in a family of bawarchis in Metiaburj, has rummaged through the family recipes handed down through generations to come up with a spread fairly representative off the cuisine that developed in this patch of the city, with inputs from Mirza.
The spread is lavish – smoky kababs, rich curries and, of course, the biryani. First up are the spicy paneer tikka and murgh reshmi kababs flavoured with ginger and cardamom. Move on to the soft gosht tikia, spicy shallow fried lamb patties (the meat is marinated with spices for at least four hours) served with thin Mughlai parathas (not to be confused with the city’s famous Moglai Porota layered with eggs). Or pair your parathas with the light and creamy dal fry made with green urad dal (instead of the usual yellow lentils) – a fantastic option for vegetarians.
A rare dish on the menu is the paneer champ: thick slices of cottage cheese marinated with a spiced poppy seed and coconut paste and fried on a griddle, in ghee – something usually not seen on restaurant menus. Chef Alam’s chicken champ laced with dry gravy made with poppy seeds, coconut and warm aromatic spices, sans the obligatory film of oil that floats on top of a typical Kolkata-style chicken champ, is also quite different from the version dished out at most Mughlai eateries in the city.
And finally, there is the Gosht Metiaburj Biryani with the soft golden potatoes in place, and boiled eggs too. It is served with a thick dahi pudina ghol, or you could opt for a Burrhani Raita. Vegetarians could try the deliciously fragrant aloo and chana dal biryani instead. For desserts, there is phirnee, zarda pulao and lachha.
The festival is on till April 23 and you could enjoy the Metiaburj feast for dinner only at Eden Pavillion, the hotel’s round-the-clock dining destination.
An independent journalist based out of Calcutta and a dedicated food enthusiast, she writes mostly about food and travel, and has worked and written for publications India Today, The Telegraph, Live Mint as also Lonely Planet India’s website. She also loves to experiment in her kitchen and runs a food blog – allthatsdelicious.com. But mostly she eats, frets about how much she eats and then eats some more.
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