The vibrant city of Kolkata has acquainted us with culinary treasures that occupy a revered corner in our hearts. One such culinary gem is Kolkata Biryani, which is held dear not just by Kolkatans but food connoisseurs worldwide. Nevertheless, the story behind this exquisite dish transcends its fragrant rice, succulent meat, and the star of the show - the humble 'aloo' (potato). In contrast to prevailing notions, the incorporation of potatoes into Kolkata Biryani did not arise from mere necessity but rather from a stroke of culinary brilliance.
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A Culinary Marvel Rooted in History
Often regarded as an ingenious creation of the biryani family, Kolkata Biryani is unique in its own right. It's often whispered among food aficionados that this particular biryani shares more than just a passing resemblance to the Persian Pulao. In Iran and its neighbouring regions, pulaos are known to feature the humble potato, and a subtle rogan infusion brings these dishes to life. On a parallel note, the mystique surrounding Kolkata Biryani's charm is concealed within its meticulously slow-cooked rogan, which is painstakingly extracted through 5-6 hours of patient meat frying, staging a symphony of exquisite flavours.
But why the potato, you ask? The commonly held belief is that potatoes were added to Kolkata Biryani as a cost-effective alternative to meat by the bawarchis of Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh - a ruler with a significant impact on Kolkata's culinary heritage. As we delve deeper into history, we discover that this notion was nothing but a British fabrication aimed at defaming Indian rulers.
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Unravelling the Nawab's Influence
The truth emerges through the revelations of Shahanshah Mirza, the great-great-grandson of Wajid Ali Shah. Mirza, a senior GST officer in the Ministry of Finance, reveals the real story behind the potato's journey to Kolkata. When the Nawab of Awadh arrived in Calcutta in 1856 with hopes of reclaiming his kingdom, he couldn't have foreseen the turn of events. His dreams were shattered by the eruption of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, which diverted the British's attention away from his case. Shah was arrested and detained in Fort William for 26 months. Upon his release, he chose to reside in Calcutta's Metiabruz, and that's when the magic happened.
The Portuguese Culinary Gift
Metiabruz transformed into a cultural hub as chefs, musicians, hakims, and the public flocked to the area in response to Shah's presence. It became a mini Lucknow, replete with the rich culinary traditions of Awadh. It was here that the introduction of potatoes to Kolkata Biryani took place. It was in the early 16th century when the Portuguese first introduced Indians to a treasure trove of exotic ingredients. Among their culinary gifts were three treasures - potatoes, chillies, and tomatoes. Little did they know that these foreign arrivals were about to embark on a journey that would forever transform the landscape of Indian cuisine.
The Humble Potato's Remarkable Journey
Following this, English traders brought potatoes to Bengal, and because of their limited cultivation, it was considered exotic and rare. One day, a bawarchi in the court of Wajid Ali Shah in Metiabruz decided to experiment by adding potatoes to the biryani, which was cooked in the dum-pukht style - a method where the lid is sealed to trap the aromas and flavours. The result was a revelation! The potatoes absorbed the saffron, spices, and meat juices, enhancing the dish's taste and texture. When it was served to the Nawab, he was fascinated by its deliciousness. He insisted that potatoes be a permanent fixture in the dish, and thus, a legendary culinary masterpiece came into being. As word spread, nobles and households across Kolkata began adding potatoes to their biryani, and it became an integral part of the city's culinary heritage. Fortunately, the revelations brought to light by Shahanshah Mirza led us to the actual truth, dispelling the notion of poverty and necessity perpetuated by the British. It was revealed that Wajid Ali Shah lived a comfortable life, receiving a substantial pension, and even leaving a remarkable legacy as the founder of the world's first open zoo.
Fast forward to the present day, countless biryani giants in the city have embraced this culinary innovation of incorporating potatoes into their biryanis. The next time you indulge in a plate of Kolkata Biryani, pause for a moment to express gratitude to the Nawab and his visionary chefs, who gifted us this culinary masterpiece.
About the author: Azra Asher Ather is the Director of Sales, Aminia.