I know for a fact, what sight every Kolkatan ~ Bong at heart, would undeniably start salivating at – the Calcutta Aloo Biryani. There’s no biye-bari (bong wedding), mukhey-bhaat (naming ceremony), nor any bong feast complete without a delicious plateful of potatoes and meat in rice pilaf. Neither any pujo pandal – hopping is complete without a trip to Arsalan, the biryani-heaven of Kolkata. The biryani they serve here speaks volumes of the eternal bong affinity to aloo (potatoes). And I am no exception either. Thank god, I haven’t contracted diabetes, yet!
This New Year has been very special; we booked our first car and decided to celebrate it big, again with biryani. To gear up to the Mughlai-Awadhi mood, I coaxed my wife to wear the Anarkali suit we had specially got stitched for her. Being the woman with a mind-of-her-own, that she always is, wifey pleasantly declined my offer. How I wish I had a son who’d join me in nagging his mom into concession. Anyway, these are trying times for bong wives’ husbands, and thus, to each her own.
How the humble potato made its way into the royal biryani:
It’s difficult to say how bongs, especially the Kolkata species, got bitten by the biryani bug. And to it, they added a seemingly blasphemous twist, their infamous obsession with aloo. Much as it’s tricky to say if the biryani travelled to India via north through the invading Persians, Afghans and Turks or via south through the Arabs settling in for trade, so is it hard to conclude whether the khansamas (royal cooks) of Awadh (erstwhile, Lucknow) brought it with them to Kolkata or it travelled eastwards from the Pathan bawarchis of Dhaka.
I’ve a small story to tell YOU ~ about one of the many biryani episodes overheard in colonial Kolkata. While the royal chefs were busy experimenting and perfecting the biryani recipe best suited for the humid Kolkata climate, a young aspiring moslem chef decided to stir things up a bit, with a presentation so unique and intricate that it almost cost his life.
It was a fateful eve of the Viceroy’s visit to the deported Nawab of Awadh’s residence in Metiabruz, the southern suburbs of Kolkata. The fastidious visitor was known for his temper and the only way to redeem the critical matters of state was by showing off the best mehmaan nawazi (hospitality) possible. It fell upon the chefs to conjure the finest meal ever cooked in the shahi henshel (royal kitchen).
As the head cook shuddered in hesitation, our young hero came up with his dazzling plan of coating each grain of the pilaf (let’s call it so instead of biryani) with chandi ki barakh (silver paper) tied with a strand of saffron, each! After hours of laboring, when it was finally presented before the king and his phirang (foreigner) guest, the young chef stood hiding behind the chilman (tapestry) hoping the Viceroy would sing praises of his dish.
The guest dispassionately had his food, alternating each morsel with a serious affair of the state. Not a single second wasted in appreciating the pain-staking presentation or commenting on the brilliance of the biryani. The Viceroy left, promising to come back the next night, to take things forward. The eager chef was emotionally spent. Such nonchalance shocked and grieved him so much so that he decided his life was no more of any value. Expecting nothing but death, he jumped from the nearest window he could find.
Lo and behold! He did not die but landed on a basket of boiled potatoes instead, being carted to the prisoner’s pantry. As if divine providence had shown him the way, the chef thanked Allah, praise be to Him, and decided to give life and biryani a second chance.
That very next night, he boiled potatoes in yakhni (flavoured water) and ghee (clarified butter) and stuffed it inside the biryani being steamed on dum-pukht (a slow-cooking technique). The aloo absorbed all the flavours of the meat and assumed a golden avatar never seen before in biryani history.
True to his promise, the Viceroy had come visiting and was served biryani again. Half-inclined at first, he grinned at the rice and bit into the aloo. Immediately he was teleported to cloud nine, or food nirvana if you say so. “Golden flesh,” the Viceroy shrieked, “I’ve just tasted golden flesh!” He ate and ate until his bowels could take no more. The treaty was signed. Amid the flowing tears of joy of the young chef, the Calcutta Aloo Biryani was born …
Chicken & Potatoes Biryani:
If you are still reading, let me share my edition of the biryani ~ a mix of yakhni, kacchi and dum techniques. The best part is, this is a relatively healthier version since it uses very little oil or ghee, as the rice-starch is not drained off. I’ve always believed that biryani cooked with the lightest amount of spices, is probably the tastiest. My variant tries to mimic the minimalist, less-is-more philosophy which is in direct contrast to my excessive and un-necessary blabbering.
- Rice ~ basmati (long grained variety); wash and soak for fifteen to twenty minutes
- Chicken ~ murgi; quartered pieces of the fowl give you best results. You would need the exactly one and half times the quantity of chicken to rice by weight
- Potatoes ~ aloo; I prefer the Jyoti aloo variety and that has nothing to do with myself hailing from a family of Marxists. Again same quantity as that of rice
- Onions ~ peyaj; use half the quantity of potatoes. Divide in two portions. Finely chop one and make a fine paste of the other
- Ginger-garlic ~ ada-rosun; together they would weigh less than a quarter of half the portion of onions. Blend into a smooth paste ~ use three parts of ginger to one part of garlic. Quite an arithmetic, eh?
- Yoghurt ~ tok doi; double the quantity of ginger-garlic paste
- Flavoured water ~ golap jol (rose water), kewra essence, meethi attar
- Clarified butter ~ ghee; Cashew nuts ~ kaju; soaked and kept aside for garnish
- Cooking oil ~ sada tel; vegetable oil for a change; Bayleaf ~ tejpata; for added flavour
- Spices ~ garam masala; the safest bet is to go to nearest vendor and goad him to make the right mix for you. The best concoction is a merry jumble of gol moreech, saa moreech, shahi jeera, jaifol, javitri, choto elach, labongo, daru chini, shukno lonka ~ black pepper, white pepper, caraway seeds, nutmeg, mace, green cardamom, clove, cinnamon, red chilli
- Saffron ~ jaffran; please do not use anything except original saffron strands
- Milk ~ ek bati eshot ushno doodh; a bowl of warm milk to dissolve the saffron in
- Salt, turmeric ~ noon-holud; marinate the potatoes for about 15 minutes with some
In case you require further help with the ingredients, please feel free to write to me at email@example.com
Divide the whole garam masala into three equal parts. Boil water with a third of it to get yakhni (flavoured stock) and par boil the pre-soaked rice in most of it with some bay-leaves and salt, until half-done. The measure of the water should be such that you would not have to drain off excess and let the rice retain its starch.
Grind to a powder another third of the garam masala and rub over the chicken. Heat oil and fry the chopped onions until golden. Dump in the garam masala infused chicken pieces and stir with onion paste, ginger-garlic paste and whipped yoghurt, one by one. Cook until the chicken is fully done and oil separates. Spoon out the chicken pieces. Reserve the gravy.
Lightly fry the potatoes in oil. Boil with water and yakhni, secured from the half-boiled rice. Dry-roast another third of the garam masala and blend it into a fine powder. Now grease a flat bottomed degchi (steel cauldron) and arrange the rice, chicken and potatoes in alternate layers. Drizzle some melted ghee, the flavoured water, saffron-coloured milk, powdered garam masala and chicken gravy over each layer. Garnish the top layer with cashew.
Cover with heavy lid and steam (dum) for over half an hour on a medium flame.
Uncover and let the aroma out. You’d swoon with the sight and smell, guaranteed … 🙂
P.S. : This recipe is inspired by the exploits of culinary greats like my nani (granny) and sasuri (mom-in-law) and of course, wifey-the-great …