Travelogue Archive

Biryani Chronicles (Part II)

The following is an excerpt from my 3 part article on Biryani. (The Biryani Chronicles)

Calcutta (Part 2)

A plateful of aromatic rice with a couple of slabs of goat or chicken is a snack and meal rolled in one on Kolkata’s bustling streets. At his “Biryani Corner” fronting a busy intersection, 45-year-old Shibu Das works endlessly, measuring out equal helpings on sparkling white, mid-20th century-ish porcelain platters. His assistant, Kanai Guin, does the handing over as passers-by stop to help themselves to this tasty, wholesome and remarkably easy to digest Indian version of a New York hot dog. And, yes, inexpensive too –prices at Shibu’s haven’t changed in two years.
Ninety rupees for chicken, hundred for mutton”, says Kanai to the first-timer.
The price is reasonable considering the constant shuffling the customer has got to do while savoring the delight standing up in the middle of a pavement where pedestrians ought to have right of way. In more comfortable environs, like the air-cooled “Arsalan” (“Lion” in Urdu, the language of north Indian Muslims), the rates were adjusted to inflation last month – now “chicken” goes for Rs. 175 and “mutton” Rs 195. Of course, there’s a boiled egg in each with a vaguely fried exterior and two potatoes, each the size of your fist, to go with it.
The Biryani is ubiquitous. In the land of my ancestors; the Malabar shore-line of Kerala (India’s southern most state) the Biryani is moister, much less spicy and served on banana plant leaves with ‘achar’ –a local mango pickle – just in case you need more pluck in your meal. And, yes, it has the distinctively “southern” aroma which is lent by curry leaves.
In Calcutta (where I was born and spent my first 6 years), the Biryani was a reigning people’s favorite even before I arrived on the scene. I must have had my first morsel early enough, because my mother can recall me demanding ‘beeyani’ even before I joined pre-school.
Bengalis normally swear by rice and fish. The Biryani was brought here by a potentate from the northern province of Awadh (corresponding to modern Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh) whom the British deposed and pensioned off in Kolkata, then known as Calcutta. Now, modern Lucknow still boasts of the original Awadhi Biryani where the “Dum Pukht” style of cooking meat in its own juices and bone marrow, dominates. So how come the Kolkata Biryani is drier and delicately complexed? Most would say that the Bengali Biryani got affected by the same cross-culturization between Hindu and Muslim ways of life which has marked India’s culinary story.
Indians love comparing their form of the Biryani with that of the neighboring region. The Kolkata Biryani had the most famous brand ambassador –India’s cricket captain Sourav Ganguly. The Biryani tour de force has, for me, been a conscious experience. Having visited all its states, I think I have been lucky to savour first-hand some of the finest regional variations. The aggregates of these recipes thrive today as the defining identity of each city. Unbelievable but true, people attach the “Biryani identity” of each city to its brand image. Mumbai may be the city of Bollywood films, but the local variant (known as “Bombay Biryani”) is threatened by a Bengali eatery chain which has opened under the “Hangla” (literally, “glutton”) sign.
Or so says “Khana Khazana”, the widely popular foodies-only TV channel operated by the Zee group. It featured a half-hour special on “Hangla”, owned by a Bengali former news photographer, Soumitra Ghosh, who is intent on teaching Mumbaikars a thing or two on how Biryani should be cooked and eaten –at all times of the day, unlike their old way of serving it only at wedding feasts.
But even Ganguly would admit to the classical ascendancy of Awadh. Now, the great “Dum Pukht” moved to other parts of Islamic India – to Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, and Delhi, which is still the capital. It’s medium is the “Pakki Biryani’ which is eaten with the assistance of the curd-based “Raita” and a variety of succulent kebabs and gravies.
The northern Biryani symbolizes royal indulgence and uses some of the most expensive ingredients – clarified butter, saffron flower dust from the Himalayan foothills, dried fruits and nuts. The custodians of this high order operate from a musty lane under the shadows of the domes of the 17th century “Jama” (or “for the masses) Mosque. It’s everybody’s favorite Biryani joint in India’s capital – “Karim’s” (the never ending Sunday lunch lines bear testament to my statement).
The Biryani has made it big in the international food scene as well. In another of those classical Indian revenges on the British, the Biryani now features as part of an “English lunch” in some London walk-ins. In Malaysia, Singapore, China and Australia “Biryani” signage has become part of urban art.
Success, they say, has many fathers. In the 1990s, Londoners witnessed quite an amusing PR offense, launched by some cash-rich Bangladeshis who claimed that Biryani was not an “Indian”, but actually “Bangladeshi” gift to the world.
Not that the Indians minded very much. Just as the Americans have “patented” Yoga, the Biryani’s global acceptance is a matter of time. As every Indian, including this writer, knows – everything ultimately belongs to history.

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