Biryani. And that too, Kolkata Biryani. Two words that are enough to make my life complete. And I think that I pulled up a great act in holding my Kolkatan head high, cooking a pot full of Biryani in front of a live audience. I didn’t burn the place down as I spoke over the microphone, amidst ridiculous hand movements, trying to churn out somewhat cooked and unburnt Biryani. The audience split up into two groups – my food blogger friends and my Bengali friends. The former made me feel like a star, clicking pictures like Paparazzi and tweeting LIVE and posting some brilliant pictures on Instagram. The latter group, however, consisted of the ill-fated ones. These are the ones who have never given up on me or have never been spared by me talking about the few limited subjects in my life – food, travel, Kolkata, Dubai, the Z Sisters and on this one particularly fateful day – Biryani. The stage was unique – this was the expansive Lafayette Gourmet, situated on the third floor of the Galeries Lafayette. Tasting a sophisticated Christmas dinner amidst candles ensconced in festive flower wreaths and mini Christmas trees shimmering in gold might be quite characteristic of this place, but cooking Kolkata Biryani in front of live audience at the Lafayette Gourmet – the experience? Priceless!
The essence of Kolkata Biryani
Biriyani has it’s variations across different regions in India – Hyderabadi Biryani, Malabari Biryani, Kashmiri Biryani, Parsi Biryani and also across the subcontinent – Lahori Biryani, Karachi Biryani, Dhakai Biryani and many more. But for Bengalis, specially those who may have had any Kolkata connection, associate Biryani with the one which has been cooked in the Lucknowy/Awadhi style. The one thing that shines through the Kolkata Biryani is the Aloo or the Potato hiding amongst the fine aromatic grains of Biryani Rice. Many Mughlai restaurants in Kolkata specialise in the Lucknowy Biryani and each restaurant has it’s own loyal following. Special Biryani written in the Menu card would also mean that you are doubly blessed with a Deem or a boiled Egg in it – but of course at an extra cost. The pleasure of digging into the oily Rice in the search of the Aloo or the Deem, is a huge culinary adventure by itself.
Although the Awadhi cuisine has traveled far and wide, no where has it settled down strongly as it has in Kolkata. Blame it on history, I suppose. Mohammed Wajid Ali Shah Bahadur (1822 AD-1887 AD), the Nawab of the princely Indian state of Awadh or Oudh (which is modern day Lucknow), was a well known food aficionado. The Dum Pukht style of cooking was invented in this Nawab’s kitchen. This is where the meat, rice or vegetables are covered and sealed in a copper or an earthen pot with a flavoured dough of flour, and everything is let to cook in it’s own juices on a very slow flame. In other words, this was the ancient Indian version of today’s Sous Vide cooking. Exotic nuts, herbs and aphrodisiacs went into the Dum Pukht meals that were cooked for the Nawab. Bless you Nawab! In 1857 AD, when the Awadh kingdom was annexed by the British, the Nawab was exiled to Calcutta (today’s Kolkata). His passion for gourmet food traveled from Lucknow to Kolkata and was nurtured, garnished and fuelled by his special Bawarchis – the Chefs of the Nawab. A politically incorrect statement here, but yes, Bless the British! Unfortunately, the financial difficulties of the Nawab later led to the addition of Potatoes in order to substitute meat and this started the tradition of the Kolkata Biryani – the Biryani with Potatoes and occasionally some eggs too. It is believed that only a handful of chefs with royal khansama or lineage know the secrets to the authentic Awadhi Cuisine and each Mughlai restaurant in Kolkata claims to have one such gem working in their kitchen!
Discovering the Kolkata connection even in Lafayette Gourmet!
How did I end up cooking the Kolkata Biryani in Lafayette Gourmet? Now that is what I would call destiny. Lootah Premium Foods had organised a week long ‘Meet the Blogger’ event in Lafayette Gourmet, where a few food bloggers from Fooderati Arabia and other celebrated chefs were invited to showcase their dishes. I had initially sent them a different recipe altogether. But I wasn’t happy with it as I’m always trying to showcase food from my region (Luchi in Ahlan! Gourmet or Rasgulla on Dubai One or Aam Pana for the UAE National Day). I told Chef Russel Impiazzi, the Culinary Director of Lafayette Gourmet, just the day before I was scheduled to cook, that I wasn’t happy with my recipe and proposed the Kolkata Biryani. ‘With Dum?’ he asked me. ‘What if it turns out to be half-cooked and soggy?’ I asked him back. ‘Don’t worry! We’ll put in into the Pizza oven for 5 minutes’, he assured me. He introduced me to Chef Andy (below right) who was going to make sure that I didn’t bring the place down. Chef Andy went one step further by suggesting that I also make Keema Naan (minced meat and Naan) and some more starters like Chicken Tikka while the Biryani was being cooked. ‘Are you sure? In such a short time?’, I asked and he said ‘Don’t worry! I have got a great team in the kitchen who can do whatever you ask them to do. I’ll keep everything ready. You can walk in just 15 minutes before the demo. Till then, take pictures, sip coffee and have a good time.’ I really did have a good time. Although I ticked off the Keema Naan from Chef Andy’s ambitious menu, I created a nice Starter dish – Chicken Tikka Salad in Poppadam shots (above; photo credit goes to my blogger friend who writes Coffee, Cakes and Running) by using raw Mangoes, Pomegranates, Green Chillies, Onions, Tomatoes, fresh Coriander, Mint leaves and mixing them up with small cubes of Chicken Tikkas. I spiced it up with Chaat Masala, topping it all up with Lime juice and Yoghurt.
A successful day indeed! The credit goes entirely to the team at Lafayette Gourmet and I loved the fresh produce, the Saffron and all that I used from LPF. There were surprises waiting for me in my journey that day – I didn’t have to explain where Kolkata was on the world map this time. Two of the cooks in the Lafayette Gourmet team hailed from Kolkata. One is Niranjan (above right with Chef Andy) and the other was Joseph Lee, from Chinatown in Kolkata (above left). But there was a lot of explanation needed for why I wanted to put the Potatoes in the Biriani. Niranjan buddy, why couldn’t you show some more support for me? After all, the uniqueness of Kolkata Biryani is the Potato! ‘Nobody eats them’, he said. If that’s the case, then where did they all disappear? I turned to Chef Andy and asked him ‘Did you know that these two are from Kolkata?’. He answered in Hindi, ‘Ha, ha, maloom hai’. It means ‘Yes I know’!
A pictorial journey of my Biryani making… my animated hands as I talk about Biryani; the flour dough for the Dum before the Biryani pot went into the oven; the Biryani pot after it comes out; I’m opening the seal and the aroma hits me… and finally, the empty clay pot that once contained the Biryani that I cooked (another awesome picture clicked by Coffee, Cakes and Running)!
The Tweaked Recipe
This is not the traditional recipe but a tweaked and an easy version that I do at home. It tastes just the same. Generally, there are two preparation styles in Biryani – the Kachi-Biriyani, where the meat and the rice are cooked together. And the Pakki-Biryani, where the meat and the rice are cooked separately and then cooked together in the final step. Both are traditional methods of cooking Biryani. I’m a bit skeptical of the former cooking style since meat takes longer to cook and rice cooks off faster, there is always this ‘chance’ that the rice gets overcooked or the meat remains under cooked. Although I cooked Chicken Biryani in Lafayette Gourmet, my recipe here is with Mutton or Lamb – I prefer Mutton over Chicken in my Biryani any day.
Serves 8 people
Preparation time – 2-3 hours maximum
Basmati Rice – 1 kg, long grained one
Mutton or Lamb – 1.5 kg (meat with bones leave an unique flavour than boneless ones)
Whole spices: Cinnamon – 2-3 pcs; Clove – 8 pcs; Cardamom – 8 pcs; Star Anise – 2 pcs
Onion – 400-500 gm, sliced thinly
Ginger-Garlic paste – 4 tbsp
Kashmiri Chilli powder – 1 tbsp (this is for colour only, it wont make the Biryani spicy)
Mace powder – 1 tbsp
Nutmeg Powder – 1 tbsp
Garam Masala Powder – 2 tbsp*
Yoghurt – 500gm
Fresh Mint – 1 bunch, chopped finely
Fresh Coriander – 1 bunches, chopped finely
Saffron – 1 pinch
Milk – 1/2 cup
Butter/Ghee – 400 gm
Cream – 500 ml
Flour – 3 cups to make the dough for the Dum
Soya Sauce – 1 tbsp (my non-traditional tip, inspired by Singaporean Biryani)
Vinegar – 2 tbsp (another non-traditional one there!)
Rose Water – 100 ml
Prunes – dried, 1/2 cup
Cashew Nuts – sliced into half longitudinally, 1/2 cup
White Oil – 1 cup
Salt – to taste
Sugar – 2tsp
Pepper – 1 tsp
Potatoes – 8 small round ones, half-boiled and peeled (considering one Aloo/person)
Eggs – 8, hard-boiled ones (again considering one egg/person)
1 small Muslin cloth
Method of Preparation:
– Wash the Rice in cold water, drain and spread over newspaper/kitchen towel (above) for 15-20 minutes
– Marinate the meat with Yoghurt, Soy Sauce and Vinegar (the Soy Sauce and Vinegar are my additions, inspired by the Singaporean Biryani. It adds a lovely taste and makes the meat succulent).
– Soak the Saffron in Milk
– Heat the Butter or Ghee in a deep bottom pan. Add 1/2 tsp of Sugar. Add the sliced Onions and fry them till they are golden brown. Set them aside on tissue paper so that the excess oil is absorbed and they become crispy (A cheat idea – you can use caramelised fried Onions available in supermarkets, for example – Hunters!)
– Add White Oil. Fry the boiled Potatoes till they are golden brown in colour. Add a pinch of Salt and Pepper. Don’t over cook them. Set aside
– Add the boiled eggs and fry them in the same way as above. Add a pinch of Salt and Pepper. Set aside
– Add the Cashew Nuts, stir them lightly and set aside
For the Mutton:
– Heat some White Oil. Add the whole spices. Once the aroma starts drifting out, set them aside and put them in a Muslin cloth (this is for those who do not like the whole spices coming into their mouth, while making sure that the aroma is intact
– Add some of the freid Onions, Ginger-Garlic Paste and the rest of the spices. Fry the spices, taking care that you don’t burn them
– Add the marinated meat. Add Salt and Sugar
– Cover up the meat pieces with enough water. Add the cream and put the lid on. Let it cook in slow flame until the meat is 3/4 cooked. Try to maintain enough gravy that can be used while layering of the Biryani
For the Rice:
– Heat some Ghee/Butter. Stir in the Rice lightly. Add water till the level of water is more than double the height of the level of Rice. Drain off the water while the Rice is 3/4th cooked
Layering of the Biryani:
– Take a deep bottomed pan or a clay pot perhaps? Lather the bottom of the clay pot with little Ghee. Layer with some portion of Rice. Then spread a few Mutton pieces over the Rice layer along with some gravy. Add some fried onions, Potatoes and Eggs. Sprinkle some chopped Mint and Coriander leaves. Repeat the process of layering twice or until it fills up your pot
– Once the layering is done, pour over the Saffron soaked in Milk along with the Rose Water. Add a dash of Ghee/Butter around the sides of the pan, so that the Rice doesn’t stick to the Pan. Add the dried Prunes, fried Cashew Nuts, fresh Mint and Coriander leaves. Sprinkle a bit of Garam Masala on top
– Make a dough with flour and a bit of sugar and flatten it into a shape, that can cover the cooking vessel. Seal the top of the vessel with this dough without the slightest opening
– Preheat the oven to 200ºC. Place the Biryani pan in the oven and let it cook for 10 minutes (max)
– You could also cook this over a stove top over a slow flame and cook for 15 minutes
– Serve it with a simple Raita
A Rocket Scientist’s tip here… please open the seal only before serving and let the burst of flavour and aroma engulf your senses!
The Biryani Nostalgia
Many of my college memories in Kolkata consist of take-away Biryani packets that we would pick up from either Shiraz, Rahmania or some other Mughlai restaurants around the Park Circus region. Our small-budget random parties could only afford a packet of Mutton Biryani, Chicken Chaap and a Firni (an Indian Dessert made with milk and powdered rice set in an earthen pot, and here’s a recipe on my blog) per person. We didn’t care if the menu was repeated several times – budget was limited and our love for Biryani was immense, specially the Kolkata Biryani. And the potato in the Biryani is my favourite part of the dish. While the original Lucknowy Biryani is more meaty than it’s version in Kolkata, the latter is flavourful and less spicy and tugs at the heart. Can attack the heart too if you believe too many stories about what’s going into the Biryani – a saturated fat in the form of Dalda going into the Biryani instead of pure Ghee! Replicating this Biryani nostalgia in Lafayette Gourmet was indeed an experience. It was also a great initiative by the Lootah Premium Foods to introduce the food bloggers of this region to their readers in such an interactive session. S managed to attend this event – that is definitely a first. Although I know that it is his love for Biryani that prompted him to do so, I would like to believe otherwise!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
Disclaimer: The opinions stated here are my own and are independent. I hope you enjoy reading the posts with lot of visuals. Please do not use any material from this post. You can see more pictures of my travel and food journey here.
Would you find Kolkata Biryani in Dubai?
My friends know my love for one such restaurant in Kolkata that I always visit, more from nostalgic point of view rather than the authenticity of cooking – Shiraz. Apart from Shiraz there are many Biryani stars around Park Circus, New Market and the Circus Avenue area – Amenia, Rahmania, Amina, Zeeshan and more recently Arsalan or Bedouin (in Gariahat area). Facebook updates from my Kolkata friends suggest many new names in the Biryani market – and I am waiting to try these out on my next Kolkata visit. My treks to Shiraz… during Ramadan while I was in Kolkata, and the one in Dubai, which is good enough to satiate the Biryani cravings for Bengalis living in Dubai and our occasional home deliveries from there.
Other related articles from the blog:
• Lafayette Gourmet’s Festive Menu | Christmas Is In The Air!
• Shorshe Bata Maach – Mustard Salmon In This Case | A Detour From Thailand To Wish Shubho Noboborsho!
• Luchi Featured In Ahlan! Gourmet | My Ode To Phulko Luchi!
• Firni or Ferni, Ramadan or Ramzan, Mallick Bazar or Karama | It’s The Same Festive Sentiment!
• UAE National Day… Aam Pana | My Dubai My City
• On Dubai One & Noor Dubai TV | Making Rasgulla Macapuno
Related articles on the event from other bloggers:
• My store cupboard saviour – Tortilla or Spanish omelette (My Custard Pie)
• Ready, steady, cook – Meet the Blogger (Coffee, Cakes and Running)
• Herb Mushroom Pasta with Truffle Oil (Pear Tree Diaries)
• Watermelon Curry and Pantry Diva Live at Blogger Week (Pantry Diva)