The Gau Sewa Ayog, or the Cow Service Commission, of the government of Haryana is concerned about beef being mixed in biryani sold in Mewat district of the state. Most Bengalis, including this writer, would be far more worried if two ingredients went missing from their biryani: potatoes and hard-boiled eggs.
While I'm tolerant of most varieties of biryani, as a self-respecting Bengali, I've never been able to take any other, than our very own Kolkata biryani, seriously. (For the record, I have to confess, ever since moving to the South, I've developed a certain fondness for Thalassery biryani, though I'm still quite ambivalent about it.)
As an eighties child, I grew up in a Kolkata where eating out, especially if it involved a proper meal that was not a snack, usually meant going to one of the following establishments—Shiraz, Aminia, Arsalan or Nizam—each a legend for the biryani it serves.
The visits would be more frequent during the festive season. After a morning of intense shopping for Durga Puja, usually at New Market in central Kolkata, a queue of tired parents and hungry children would throng the doors of these restaurants.
Like Proust's tea and madeleine, the odour of steaming Kolkata biryani is likely to unlock a valve of nostalgia in many exiled Bengali hearts.
Distinctly unglamorous by today's standards, these eateries were grimy, mostly without air-conditioning but almost always full to capacity. Liveried waiters shuffled around them, slamming down food on stainless steel plates on the tables. A familiar, heavenly, aroma of biryani lingered in the air and often stuck to your hand long after the meal was over. (The grease levels would be such that simply washing your hand after the meal would not get rid of it. You needed to rub salt on your palms to clean it.) Like Proust's tea and madeleine, the odour of steaming Kolkata biryani is likely to unlock a valve of nostalgia in many exiled Bengali hearts.
To me, biryani has always meant fragrant rice, cooked in dalda or ghee, with the most exquisite spices, onions lightly browned, and mutton made to perfection—but, most crucially, served with two large potatoes, crisp on the outside and soft within, and a sliced hard-boiled egg.
Humans with less evolved taste look down on Bengalis for putting these last two items in their biryani, when potatoes and eggs are almost like staples in most Bengali households. Before multigrain bread and cereals became synonymous with healthy breakfasts, middle-class mothers would force their children to eat rice, potato mash and boiled eggs, before packing them off to school. Be that as it may, potatoes and eggs, carb-on-carb meals, are far from being an abomination in a regular Bengali diet.
The addition of potato to biryani is, apparently, a legacy of the last nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah. While spending his final years in Metiabruz in Kolkata and living on a tight budget, the man was forced to order his chefs to put potatoes in the daily biryani to make up for the vast quantities of meat needed to feed the nawab's sizeable entourage. Fortunately, the recipe stuck, and was passed down to Kolkatans in its current form. And this same biryani, let it be said, has done more good than harm, really.
Be that as it may, potatoes and eggs, carb-on-carb meals, are far from being an abomination in a regular Bengali diet.
Romances have blossomed over it, fighting couples have made up over a plate of it—people can't stay angry after eating it—and generations of matrimonial alliances have been blessed over menus that had included it as a popular mandate. Until recently, a Kolkata wedding that did not serve mutton biryani to guests would be the subject of endless derision, often becoming a part of the unfortunate family's lore, mentioned by friends and relatives with a mix of scorn and incredulity for years afterwards.
One of my last meals, before I left Kolkata five years ago, was at Royal, near my then workplace in Central Kolkata, where I had eaten the platonic ideal of a biryani. Since then, as a Bengali living in North India, I had to compromise on several items that used to be part of my regular gastronomy—phuchka, egg roll, fish fry (in fact, fish in general), jhalmuri, almost every Bengali sweet I can name—in their most authentic forms. But it is the loss of Kolkata biryani that I have never quite recovered from.
Yes, I know, in a globalized world, you can get anything you fancy on your plate anywhere in the world. But eating Kolkata biryani in Delhi's C.R. Park is not quite the same as eating it at Arsalan in Kolkata, amidst the fellowship of Bengalis, chattering and chewing in harmony.
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