Cooking the Kolkata Biryani

Cooking the Kolkata Biryani

in Video
Published on: 14 August 2018

Manjari Chowdhury in conversation with Somrita Urni Ganguly

Manjari Chowdhury studied mass communication. She is a food blogger, a home chef, and presently a freelancer working on qualitative market research. She is a dreamer who loves furry creatures especially meows, and she is trying to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle by avoiding plastic. She makes time for gardening, loves reading, and has a keen interest in knowing about the history of food from different cultures. She believes that food can bring people together and conversations can start over a slice of cake. What Manjari cooks depends on whom she is cooking for, but on any given day Manjari loves baking gateau, cheesecakes and biscuits. Manjari’s recipes can be found at

Somrita Urni Ganguly is a professor, researcher, and literary translator, published in India and the UK.

Manjari and Somrita went to the same school, Calcutta Girls' High School, and have known each other since 1994.

Manjari Chowdhury shows the viewers how to cook the Kolkata Biryani at home, while talking to Somrita Urni Ganguly about the history and the roots of the Kolkata Biryani (Kolkata, October 10, 2017)

Somrita: We’re in the Entally Market region of Calcutta. This is located in the heart of Central Calcutta. In pre-Independence India upper caste Hindus didn’t stay in the Entally Market region primarily because of the presence of a slaughter house, as also the presence of the tanneries in Tangra which kept the upper-caste Hindus away. This area back then was mostly inhabited by lower caste Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Chinese settlers. Mother Teresa lived and worked from here, setting up the Missionaries of Charity and building the Mother House in the Entally region. Entally as a region therefore continues to be an intersection of various communities—of people coming together from different religious faiths, cultures, and eating habits. Behind me you see the Entally Market—we’ll try and take a closer look it.


Manjari Chowdhury whom we are meeting today was born and brought up in Entally. She was born to upper caste Hindu parents and she studied in a Christian Methodist school. She taught me how to buy the best pork sausages from Entally Market, that we just saw snapshots of, and today she will be cooking for us the Moghlai delicacy to which Calcutta added its own touch—the Kolkata Biryani. 


The Kolkata Biryani itself stands for intersection: it brings together people from different class, caste, politics and religious backgrounds. We’re standing outside Miss Manjari Chowdhury’s house. Let’s go in and see what she has on offer for us. Ms Manjari Chowdhury will be cooking the Kolkata Biryani from her kitchen today. Let’s take a look at her kitchen. And she’s going to be showing us how you too can prepare this royal dish in your personal home space.



Manjari: Hi, there!


Somrita: Over to you Manjari.


Manjari: How have you been?


Somrita: How have you been? 


Manjari: I’ve been doing great.


Somrita: Right. So Manjari, you are going to be cooking the Kolkata Biryani for us today!


Manjari: That’s right!


Somrita: Have you made this before at home?


Manjari: Yes!


Somrita: So, when did you make the biryani for the first time—the Kolkata Biryani for the first time?


Manjari: Well, you see, now, the Kolkata Biryani actually has its roots in the Nawabi biryani of Lucknow, that, you know, Wajid Ali Shah, when he came over to Calcutta, was, actually got in his troops, and he got the biryani.


Somrita: That’s right!


Manjari: And his original biryani did not feature the potato.


Somrita: That’s right!


Manjari: And there are many contradictory stories, but one of them that I would like to believe, is, you know, he found this new vegetable, which was, you know, very exotic at that time, and he also had to feed, you know, a large crowd—army—of generals and men and so he included the potato in the Kolkata Biryani.


Somrita: That’s right! Potato and its story also –


Manjari: You know, I started off with the original one which doesn’t feature the potato. But there is hardly any difference, except the Kolkata one can be milder, but it also depends from cook to cook.


Somrita: That’s right!


Manjari: So, we have so many heritage restaurants these days and if you actually go there you’ll find that each one has its own different flavor, texture and taste, of course.


Somrita: Absolutely!


Manjari: So, you know, this is just my version of the thing.


Somrita: Yes, let’s, let’s quickly take a look at the ingredients.


Manjari: Yes please.


Somrita: If you would explain these to us –


Manjari: Okay, so, this is very basic. See, the other thing is that, you know, when it comes to biryani, there is—there are—too many emotions. There is the, there is love, there is passion, there are passionate discussions about its origins—which one was right—I believe all of them are right.


Somrita: That’s right!


Manjari: But in terms of, you know, having spoken to chefs, and from books what I gathered is, there are two kinds, there are two ways to make it. You have the ‘kachchi’ style and the ‘pakki’ style.


Somrita: Right!


Manjari: So, the ‘kachchi’ style is, you know, where you marinate the meat and, you know, you have your rice, you layer them and you cook them, and that is how, as far as I know, Hyderabadi Biryani is made.


Somrita: Yes!


Manjari: Whereas, for Lucknowi Biryani, and when I say Lucknowi Biryani, you have to have that understanding that it has a clear connection with Calcutta, it is the ‘pakki’ method, where the meat is cooked and the rice is cooked and then they are layered and then you have the ‘dum’.


Somrita: Right. So, we’re following the Lucknowi-Awadhi style today?


Manjari: Yes, but you know, it has been adapted to suit the Calcuttan style. So, it’s a little less mild. It’s, it’s nice, you’ll see. So, we have –


Somrita: Let’s take a look at the ingredients from up close.


Manjari: So, you obviously have the basmati rice, which is really, really important, because, you know, the quality of the rice plays a major role. If you go down south, they don’t use basmati rice. There is, there are other variants of rice that they use. Interestingly, in Dhaka there is a biryani that I know of which uses a short-grained rice. Anyway, we will use the basmati which is used in the Calcuttan biryani because it derived from Lucknow and personally because I love the smell!


Somrita: Okay!


Manjari: And we obviously have the meat, which is the star, and the meat plays a very important role, not only as the meat, but the cut of the meat is very, very important.


Somrita: Yes, if you could please explain this to us!


Manjari: So, you know, so in Calcutta the Bengalis would originally want the, you know, the kid goat.


Somrita: The kid goat?


Manjari: Because, you know, as far as I know, you know, these would be offered as sacrifices and mind you these would be cooked without onions and garlic, which was used by Muslims. But in biryani, or any preparation which is, you know, kind of, I mean which we have gotten from the Muslims of our country—


Somrita: Right, Moghlai preparations/ Mughal preparations?


Manjari: Well Awadhi is Awadhi and Moghlai is Moghlai.


Somrita: Yes, Moghlai is different.


Manjari: There you have to have the fat. So, I don’t know if it is a Hindi word but we know it in Bengal. It’s called ‘reyaji patha’. So, it will have the ‘purdah’. So, and as you can see, it will have some amount of meat. And the cut cannot be from the hind leg, it has to be from the front leg, or the neck, or your chops, because you know in biryani we want this to cook quickly, even if it is the ‘pakki’ style. So, you know you have to have the fat but you also have to have the cut so that it cooks quickly. So, what I am holding is probably a chop. It’s definitely a chop, I mean. And then, the spices are very few.


Somrita: So, Manjari, going back to the meat again, so do you go to your meat seller and request for this particular kind of meat?


Manjari: I think, you know, living in Entally I have taken a lot of things for granted, which when I went to other cities I realized that I did. Because you know, we’ve, like, for generations, I think they bought meat right from the end of our street. He is a jolly, well man, who sits with his butcher’s knife, and he gives you the meat. You just have to go and tell him where—like, you know, which house you’re coming from and he will give you the meat!


Somrita: Oh, that’s lovely!


Manjari: So, you know I’ve never had to worry about meat but when I moved to Bombay—now you know the problem is that, you know, the quality of the meat is dependent on what the goat is fed.


Somrita: That’s correct!


Manjari: So, you know if you’re going to Rajasthan you have a particular taste because they survive on a different diet; whereas, you know if you go to Kashmir it’s different; you usually have lamb, as far as I know. So, when I went to Bombay I just could not find the right meat and I was too young, I was 23 years old, and I thought—why am I not getting the flavor? And, you know, then I realized that it’s because of this—because this has the perfect amount of meat to fat ratio. If there is too much of fat, that’s not done. If there is no fat then also it will not do. So, the first thing when I went to South Africa what I did was I wanted to find a good butcher; because if you are living outside India, goat is not too popular, lamb is popular, and obviously there is a subtle difference, not a subtle but quite a difference in the smell—it can be substituted. So, if you have lamb there’s nothing to worry about.


Somrita: That’s right!


Manjari: It’s almost the same with a subtle difference! So, you know, our Kashmiri brethren actually use lamb.


Somrita: Right, for their biryanis?


Manjari: Absolutely.


Somrita: You know, Manjari, I remember –


Manjari: I’m not sure if they use it for their biryani, but they use it for all their other preparations.


Somrita: The gosht, yes!


Manjari: As you can see from this book—this is the Wazwaan book—and it features a lot of good recipes. I’m not sure if this features the biryani recipe but it has a lot of other good recipes.


Somrita: Lovely! But you know Manjari, going back to something that you had told me a few days before about the place that you buy your meat from and you said you definitely prefer the local over going to chain stalls for buying your meat.


Manjari: Absolutely!


Somrita: So, is that a conscious choice?


Manjari: Um, you know, I would say, it’s something to please yourself. Because you know in India knowing the source of the meat is very difficult. I mean, you know, I know my butcher’s source of meat and I know what actually they are fed because I can see them. Now a lot of people would consider this to be, you know, unsightly, to see your live goats before they are butchered.


Somrita: That’s right.


Manjari: But I think it’s better because you know what they are being fed, you know there are no antibiotics. I mean of course you can argue that, you know, that they are being given antibiotics at night. I would like to believe that it’s not so.


Somrita: Right.


Manjari: Preferably, I would have preferred grass fed, free range meat.


Somrita: Right.


Manjari: Because you know the whole problem is—other than being passionate about cooking, I am also passionate about the environment which is, well, I would say a recent development. But, once you come to know about things, you know, we are learning every day, I think it is very important that we take this seriously. You know, mass produced meat is not good for our planet. And if anyone has watched—you know, at least if they have watched Before the Floods which released last year they would know how critical it is that we take it seriously. But India doesn’t really have the problem of beef, we don’t mass produce beef, and you know, while there would be a social argument about that, I am not going to get into that, for the environment it is actually good.


Somrita: Right.


Manjari: And you know if you see the chart, you know, you’ll see that right after beef is lamb which you know most dangerous for the environment. I am not saying this, you can go on the internet and type your data.


Somrita: Right.


Manjari: So, which is why, you know, I have drastically reduced my consumption of meat and, you know, biryani is a heavy meal. I hate substituting clarified butter for oil because I believe that this is a dish that needs to be relished, you know, you don’t relish these dishes every day.


Somrita: That’s right! It’s a once in a month, once in a week affair.


Manjari: You don’t really listen to Bach every day. You wouldn’t read—I don’t know—Charles Dickens every day.


Somrita: Correct! Unless you’re in this profession!


Manjari: Yes, of course, I mean you have to read, you know!


Somrita: Yes!


Manjari: But given a choice you would probably want to go for other light readings on our lifestyle. But so biryani is a very special occasion kind of meal. So, you know, you can, you can, you know, just, kind of, throw caution to the wind and you know just cook your heart out.


Somrita: Okay, so, yes, let’s cook our heart out.


Manjari: Yes. As you can see, the spices are very less. So, cloves. And, since talking about the meat, see one of the other reasons why I prefer local meat markets is because—you see these, there is no plastic involved.


Somrita: That’s right!


Manjari: So, you know, firstly you can use—buy—just the amount that you want, and you have your perfectly beautiful spices. You can smell this.


Somrita: Oh my god, yes, ‘elaichi’.


Manjari: Exactly. But, you know, and this, everything comes in little paper wrappings.


Somrita: Yes. So, going back to that—you know, this is also something we were talking about earlier, you said you get your meat in this little silver bowl that we can see right over here instead of taking the plastic bag which some other people do; which sometimes even the seller might offer you. Is this a conscious choice?


Manjari: Again, this is a conscious choice, yes. Like I said, you know, there can be debates over your local meat versus the meat you get at supermarkets but what you can definitely do with your local market is, if you really want, if you’re conscious about the environment—and these is, if you’re not, you’re not—but, to quote a scientist, if you’re that callous about, you know, your footprints in the world, it’s almost criminal that your ways are affecting others around. But anyways, going back, so I can not use the plastic, I can carry my own container.


Somrita: Right!


Manjari: Um, see, this is not a great example, I carry a bigger container, but you see that little container—so if I get meat for like one person I could use that and you know carry my fresh meat in that. And I think social media plays a huge role. When, you know, so when discarding plastic, one of things that, you know, we were talking about was, what do we do about fish and meat? Because you know, I am conscious about the environment but I also want, you know, my convenience. Nobody wants to let go of their convenience. You don’t want to think about the environment every time you do something. So, then somebody suggested, you know, um, this is what I do, I never—and that is one of the reasons why supermarkets are avoided by people like me because you don’t have the option of carrying you steel container. She said, you know, I stay in France, I mean, I stay in Belgium, we have supermarkets all around, I make a conscious, conscious, you know, um, decision to actually get my meat that way and I thought, wow, I don’t even have to make an effort. My market is just five minutes away. Thank god we had the corporations which built markets for each area. And everything is spread (out) and I can just go about with my little container.


Somrita: Yeah. So that’s how we see the meat here and Manjari actually—


Manjari: No! this is just—I did not carry this large bowl with me—


Somrita: Yes, you carried something smaller, something more convenient.


Manjari: And you know we cannot you know have dirt, pollution, there are hygiene issues there, even though the meat should be cleaned after you obviously bring it in.


Somrita: Right! So, Manjari, could you tell us how you got everything together, got your act together here.


Manjari: So, like, you know, this is the star of the Calcutta Biryani, the potatoes. And what I have done is, you know, while you were coming in, as you can see, I have pricked the potatoes, so that the flavor seeps in.


Somrita: You have pricked the potatoes with a fork?


Manjari: Yes, because you know with meat it’s fibrous, so it absorbs the flavours. I can hit someone with a potato and he will be, well, scarred. So, you have, you have to make, you have to find a way to make sure the flavours seep in. And this is, I do it on my own, I don’t know if it’s done.


Somrita: So, you’ve made little perforations in the potatoes with your fork.


Manjari: This can be used as a weapon as well.


Somrita: That’s right! That too can be a weapon you know. Okay, so do we begin the process right about now?


Manjari: Yes!


Somrita: How long does the whole thing take to prepare??


Manjari: Um, see, the other thing is I don’t pressure cooker. I think you know, there again, see, you cannot like, you know, using pressure cooker on a normal day is preferable because you’re using, you know, you’re consuming less fuel, but for a special day the flavor of the meat just doesn’t come out that well when you’re, you know, when you’re using the pressure cooker. You have to slow cook it and it has to be in a heavy pan. So, I’ll be using a wok. Also for me the meat must be soft. I cannot stand tough meat in biryani.


Somrita: Yeah, none of us can!


Manjari: I mean, you know, many experts might say, I mean, they must have studied it and they might say this process is not really right for biryani but then it makes the meat soft, so, I would prepare it that way.


Somrita: Okay, let’s see where we take it from here.


Manjari: So, as you can see, I, this is, you know, an aluminum ‘kadhai’, and it’s heavy. I don’t like steel, because you know it burns quickly so the meat, or whatever, so, um, also, I prefer using as few utensils as I can, because, you know, um, ours is an old household, but we are like four members where three members are over 60, okay, over 55. So, you know, I’m just going to make sure that the spices are dry roasted.


Somrita: So, right, we are dry roasting them.


Manjari: It’ll just be for a few minutes.


Somrita: How many minutes?


Manjari: That’s the other thing, you know, um, I have a blog. So one of the things I realized was a lot of people feel that you know, um, you must give exact, precise, you know, measurements.


Somrita: Correct!


Manjari: While you know for baking that is essential, when it comes to cooking Indian meals, we don’t really need that. And you know as my grandmother would say, my maternal grandmother, that, you know, then how is the cook doing any work if everything is given to him?


Somrita: That’s right. This is not a prescription. So you figure it out -


Manjari: By eyeballing it. And by making it over the years.


Somrita: Right!


Manjari: You were asking me when I made my first biryani. See my, I think, you know, my story is also different when it comes to biryani. And—


Somrita: We’re grinding this here now.


Manjari: So, my father—I mean most people would talk about Shiraz, or, you know, about Aminia –


Somrita: Shiraz, Aminia, you mean the heritage places serving Biryani here in Kolkata?


Manjari: Right. I kind of grew up with my father’s biryani.


Somrita: So that’s where you had your first Kolkata Biryani? From your father’s kitchen?


Manjari: He would make a lot of biryanis actually. And you know, so, I have very fond memories of Thursdays when my father, would, you know, I mean, my father is a doctor so he had his chamber, and he is also, he was also a mountaineer, so I did not really see him, you know, too often. You know, when we did, it was usually when he would cook. I was always given the task of you know making the salads.


Somrita: I see! So that’s how it started—bonding in the kitchen?


Manjari: Exactly. So I never expected that I would have to cook biryani. Till one day I realized, you know what, you know, once you grow up, I love the emotions that are there when it comes to food, I wanted to try something different. My father’s method is a little different. And so, I did. And this was as an adult, I had made quite a lot of other dishes by then. I would say this was 2013. So, I was 24 then. 2013 was the first time. But the first time was the Lucknowi style. And slowly I incorporated the potato. Bengalis love potatoes as well, it’s not just the Nawab as you know.


Somrita: That’s right. So, we see you working on your spices here.


Manjari: And the other thing, the other thing with Indian food is, and other food also, is you use your hands. So, you need to constantly wash your hands in the kitchen. I mean I don’t see the point of using plastic. As you know, I wouldn’t use plastic, you know, to cover my hands. I mean, as long as you wash your hands with liquid soap, you know, you’re fine. So, I’ll grind it really well, because this will go with my meat. So, I’ve put in cloves, I’ve put in a little bit of mace, and I’ve put green cardamom.


Somrita: Could you repeat the ingredients for us again?


Manjari: There’s mace, which is this. There’s green cardamom, which is this and there is the clove, which is this.


Somrita: Right, and we are grinding this together after slow roasting them?


Manjari: After dry roasting them.


Somrita: Dry-roasting!


Manjari: Yeah, you could call it slow roasting as well. I like it! So now, we’re not going to be stingy with the clarified butter.


Somrita: Right.


Manjari: First I’m going to—you have you see there’s so much clarified butter in this so I’m going to put that in and it’s going to melt away.


Somrita: That’s interesting.


Manjari: Yes, because you don’t want to waste any.


Somrita: Yes, we don’t want to waste any of this. It’s an expensive dish, is it not Manjari—the biryani, making it at home?


Manjari: Um, you know, I think it’s worth the expenses.


Somrita: It’s worth, it’s worth the expenses! That’s the best way of putting it!


Manjari: Come to think of it, you know what, Bengali dishes, you always add a little ghee in the end. Ghee equal to clarified butter.


Somrita: That’s right.


Manjari: So, you know when it comes to food, Bengalis are never stingy. I think half of their salary goes into, in buying food, be it raw ingredients, be it in restaurants.


Somrita: That’s right!


Manjari: It’s definitely the case with me! So, I think we are done with this but just to make sure I’m going to put this here with the rice. Whatever clarified butter is left can be absorbed by that rice.


Somrita: So, you’ve put the remaining clarified butter from that little cover of the tin can on the rice.


Manjari: I’m using about, roughly about 30 grams of clarified butter, and see in Bengal we usually love brown clarified butter which is cooked a little more for that brown colour which is lovely with rice. But when you’re cooking you need the clarified butter which looks like this from pure—this cannot be buffalo milk clarified butter. It has to be from cow's milk. But it also has to not be cooked to that brownish effect. Because that is already overcooked. Now if you’re cooking with that then you’ll get a burnt flavor.


Somrita: So, we go in for the white clarified butter?


Manjari: Not white clarified butter. It should just look like this.


Somrita: Right.


Manjari: It’s just, it’s kind of a difference between salted butter and unsalted butter, in the Indian style of course. So, I am going to wash my hands.


Somrita: Correct.


Manjari: And, so, I have marinated the meat in ginger paste, garlic paste and a little salt. And the paste must be really, really smooth. Um, with ginger, you know, no matter how smooth you make it, there can be a few, you know, I call them little fibres, so I just take the juice out. And so, first on high heat, I am going to sear the meat. So, what this does is, this will give it that light brownish effect, not really barbequed, not really deep fried, but you know what I mean. So, and I put everything in. and we’re not going to throw this away by the way. I know a lot of people would but I think all the flavour is in there. So we cannot throw that away.


Somrita: Manjari I must admit, the smell, the smell is brilliant, already!


Manjari: Yeah, it’s brilliant. I mean, I don’t know if it is brilliant, sorry, but this is pure ghee, clarified butter. What I’m going to do is, I’m going to use this and I’m going to turn it a little bit and this is when spice the things and we add the spices.


Somrita: This is when we use the spices that you had been grinding so far. You’re adding that to the meat.


Manjari: Yup. And, um, I didn’t bring out two ingredients because they kind of spoil easily when kept outside. So, you’re going to see them as surprise, surprise, when I use them!


Somrita: Okay, so we have two surprise ingredients coming in later!


Manjari: Which are used all over the world by the way! So, anyway you can see that the meat has been seared. Now you don’t really need to add a lot of water, I mean meat itself has a lot of water, so we put the thing on sim, which is like low heat. I take, you know my—and I use this—now I just cover it and this will cook for, till the meat is soft. I’m using one kilo of meat which usually takes about one hour, to one and a half hours, depending on the quality of meat.


Somrita: So, we’re going to let this one kilo of meat sear, cook—


Manjari: No this is not sear, this is slow cooking, so that it’s soft. And it cannot overcook because you know, when you’re, when you’re, when you want slow cooking, you want the hind leg of the animal because then it’s, the fibres are not going to be, you know, um, disintegrate. What happens when I’m using the front leg and chops is, it becomes soft and then the fibres completely disintegrate, and what you have is a mess. So, we don’t want that, we’re going to check up on that from time to time, but we’re going to let it cook.


Somrita: But approximately an hour and a half you say.


Manjari: Um, in between I have to add two ingredients.


Somrita: Secret ingredients come somewhere in between!


Manjari: Haha. Secret because, you know, they are, they have not been included by me.


Somrita: All right! Okay, we’re checking on our meat again.


Manjari: And as you can see, there is a lot, I didn’t add any water. But you have the water which has come out of the meat. And you can see how lovely and juicy it is in fat.


Somrita: Right.


Manjari: And now I’m going to add my little ingredient that I told you about. Which is nothing but curd. So, you know, you don’t really need to beat it. I used the fork and that’s fine but you can use a whisk. And you just …


Somrita: So, we’re adding one of your secret, hidden ingredients now, which is the yogurt.


Manjari: Haha, secret, I just named it as secret ingredient because it was in the refrigerator—the most common one!


Somrita: Right!


Manjari: And this also softens the meat and adds flavour.


Somrita: Right!


Manjari: You know you can always find, of course you’ve eaten biryani in Calcutta, and it has this mildly, you know, not sweet—the sweetness comes from another ingredient—but the yogurt does add a lot of flavour. And we’re not going to throw this away because we’re going to reuse this with water.


Somrita: Okay!


Manjari: I’m just going to give this a quick stir so that it mixes well and—I know a lot of, I mean, I know some people, who actually like marinating the yogurt, I mean marinating the meat with yogurt because it softens the meat. But, personally speaking, I just think this is a lazy process, otherwise if you have to do too many things before you’re cooking, as you know we have very busy lifestyles. I work from home, so, you know, it’s not that the corporate world really understands that you’re cooking. So, while I prefer the old-fashioned method for some of the things such as slow cooking, which I don’t do too often, um, I would never ever substitute oil for butter, but this doesn’t really, kind, you know, take up my time, so, if possible, I would like to reduce the time, without out, unless and unti—


Somrita: Right, unless it’s absolutely necessary?


Manjari: No, you know, I would only, I would, I would never substitute, like the time, I mean, I would try to do it quickly but I would not follow the quick method if I believe that it, kind of, intrudes with the flavor or the ultimate product. Because you know, you’re not really, like, I mean, come on, all of us have put on weight, so do we need to really like cook fancy dishes with wine or with clarified butter every day? So, you know when we do it can be a gala thing. And usually I do it with my friends over, as you know, and this becomes an affair in itself, you know, cooking together, you know—


Somrita: Yes, just that bonding space over food in the kitchen, at the dining table, absolutely.


Manjari: So, you know, it doesn’t matter if you had a lot of time. I mean, so imagine, you know, if you have the mommy and the daddy and the little child, and you know doing this together on a Sunday. It’s a fantastic way of spending your time, than, you know, if you’re playing online games.


Somrita: -- with your family, that’s right!


Manjari: I’m going to cover this again and I’m going to let this cook.


Somrita: So, we checked at approximately 15 minutes or so, we checked on the meat, added some yogurt to it, and we’re covering it again, letting it cook on slow heat.


Manjari: So, I think I was too quick in closing the lid, we also have to put in our potatoes because that’s how it’ll get its flavor.


Somrita: Right, so we’re going back to our cauldron and adding the potatoes to the meat to which you had added the yogurt before.


Manjari: Yes. And so, what I’m going to do is I’m going to put the potatoes inside. I mean I’m going to try at least to, so that, you know, it gets cooked nice and well and it’s soft and it’s beautiful. And this is when I add a little bit of water to the container that I had the yogurt in.


Somrita: Okay, so we’re adding a little water to the container in which we had kept the yogurt.


Manjari: Mix the yogurt so that we get all of it.


Somrita: And we’re mixing it.


Manjari: And what we’re going to do is we’re going to sprinkle a little bit.


Somrita: Manjari, is there a particular reason for not emptying the entire contents of the bowl into -


Manjari: No, I’m going to use it, a little, if I see the meat drying up while getting cooked.


Somrita: Right. So, we’re using a bit of it now and saving some of it for later in case we see the meat going dry later.


Manjari: I think we’ll use most of it. For now, I’m just going to add this.


Somrita: Yeah. So now we let the meat and the potatoes cook again.


Manjari: Yes.


Somrita: And while we have the meat cooking we have with us in Manjari’s kitchen, Manjari’s father, Dr Chowdhury, um, from whom Manjari says she has learnt the art of cooking to a great extent, of course, later improvising and perfecting it herself. Hello Dr Chowdhury, thank you so much for being with us today, in Manjari’s kitchen which is also your own kitchen. So, as you know we’re talking about the Kolkata Biryani, we’re trying to map the origins of the Kolkata Biryani, which is a heritage item in the Indian kitchen. So, Dr Chowdhury, could you tell us about your first biryani experience? When did you have biryani for the first time? Was it at home or did you buy it from some place?


Dr C: Actually, biryani I had from my Muslim friends but, um, I had it first time, many years ago. When I was in my pre-medical one of my Muslim friends, um, he invited us, just around the corner one day, where there is a government office, his home was there, on Eid, Bakhri-Eid. So, that was the first time, I took biryani. But I had heard of it. After that, no, but you see, many years ago I had a dog, for her I had to cook this meat and rice, and it smelled so nice I thought, why couldn’t we have it! But I had never had it at that time. After that, people were not aware of biryani so much, fried was in vogue, biryani came much later. But then slowly it picked up and suddenly—here I had to often cook for various reasons. So, I thought, let’s try it. So, I read a book, you know, all these Bengali cookeries they have, some of them are very nice, so there they outlined so many types of biryani, how to do it at home, and so I tried my luck.


Somrita: Right. So, it started with a cook-book?


Dr C: Cook book means so that I could have the right masalas. I had not heard the name of so many each ingredients put in the biryani. Some of it I heard because it is also used even in ‘pulao’.


Somrita: Yes.


Dr C: And then also there’s a thing, we had in our culture, ‘pal-anna’. That was meat and rice cooked together with, I mean, little spices.


Somrita: Dr Chowdhury, could you tell us the name again?


Dr C: ‘Pal-anna’. ‘Pal’ plus ‘anna’. Yes, that was meat and this thing. But ‘pal-anna’ that is, that was tasty, the cook, the Hindus don’t take it, because it was long way, and they used to have calves’ meat. After that it went out of vogue, okay? Now, speaking for myself, for the first time I tried, and the method outlined was the classical one, that is you settle everything, layer by layer you do it, and you put it under pressure, some pressure. So, that sort of, it’s called ‘dum pakht’. But that’s what pressurized cooking, I had seen my mother do it for fish, you know, she used to have a container she would seal it up with this, either flour rolled, and it used to cook itself. And also, it would never go out because after some time the steam was very high, automatically there were pores for it to escape, but nevertheless it would cook. But I tried the pressure cooker. But I followed the book religiously. Well, like you know first time when you play cards, you call it luck. So, I was in luck also, it tasted so nice. After that, after that I used to sometimes cook. That is my part. But you can improvise like anything.


Somrita: Right. So, Dr Chowdhury, have you had other kinds of biryani, besides the Kolkata Biryani?


Dr C: Other kinds, I tried my luck, there’s a type of biryani called, you know, the basic ingredients I found in that cook-book was the meat, rice, and other small ingredients. Now one type of biryani is there where you don’t use ‘dahi’, curd. You use milk and ‘khowa’, ‘khowa kheer’.


Somrita: ‘Khowa kheer’.


Manjari: No, ‘kheer’ is, it’s, it’s a step ahead.


Dr C: And ghee is used in biryani, it’s very, very important. There’s a type of biryani where ghee is used in copious amount and that type of biryani you don’t you can’t have it in amounts.


Somrita: Hmm, in large quantities. Yes.


Dr C: That’s the North-Indian type and I believe Lucknow people, some people used to have it, I don’t know. And that’s why their story, I don’t know, how true that story is, Lucknow gentry, or aristocrats, when they used to go out for lunch or dinner in their friends’ house, so that they are not marked as eaters, so they used to have some food at home. But nevertheless, this kind of biryani, they can’t, you can’t have it.


Somrita: -- eat too much of it, anyway. Yes.


Dr C: So, this type of biryani I also tried and it’s very, very rich. After that, having a little bit will put you off for the day. You can’t have anything else. This is my story. And, and I don’t think I have taught Manjari biryani.


Somrita: No?


Dr C: No! She has just observed and got it.


Somrita: Yes. So, Dr Chowdhury, what are some of your favourite Biryani places in Kolkata? Do you have any favourites?


Dr C: Oh, you want to know Calcutta Biryani. Calcutta Biryani specialty for using potatoes. And sometimes boiled eggs.


Somrita: Boiled eggs too, that’s right!


Dr C: So, I’ve had, um, in very few places. Number 1 was near New Market. The famous place—what was it called?


Somrita: Aminia?


Dr C: Aminia. It was very famous at that time. And then there was another, in the, down in the Chandni Chowk area, which is that?


Somrita: Um, the Royal?


Dr C: Royal. Er, not Royal. Royal I didn’t go. On this side. Um.


Manjari: Sabir.


Somrita: Oh, Sabir’s!


Dr C: Sabir. Sabir’s biryani was not nice like Aminia. Then Shiraz.


Somrita: Yes, Park Circus.


Dr C: Shiraz was very popular because it cost, it was not very costly. And it catered for the middle-class people very much.


Somrita: Right.


Dr C: So, um first time I had at Shiraz was from a friend was working in, um, Atlas. He told me about Shiraz was there and it was very nice and all. After that, this thing came up –


Somrita: Arsalan?


Dr C: Arsalan. But what I find there, there’re also very nice and all, is somewhat they don’t use ghee much. So, ghee has a special subtle taste. It has its own flavour. Plus small outlets here-there, like Royal. But I’m not satisfied. Because I like to cook my own biryani.


Somrita: Haha. So, Dr Chowdhury, you also mentioned this very interesting point about how biryani was rather inexpensive when you had for the first time, like it catered to the middle classes. Could you recall how much it cost back then, a plate of biryani?


Dr C: Yeah. Less than 20 rupees.


Somrita: Less than 20 rupees! The prices have gone up to almost 250 these days, a plate.


Dr C: At that time 5 rupees was a lot of money.


Somrita: That’s right!


Dr C: In our days it was famous in Calcutta, that was from Wajid Ali’s time, he introduced it. But what I read recently was that this potato business that was done by Wajid Ali’s cooks—why? First of all, they used to have lavish kind of biryani. When Wajid Ali came the English did not pay him anything. So, he was in a—this thing—how to pay, how to feed his huge entourage of not only noblemen, servants, everything. So, they had, for noblemen, the original biryani. And for the ordinary servants and all, they had, of they added potatoes, the meat reduces.


Somrita: The meat ration, yes, comes down by adding the potatoes.


Dr C: It was much cheaper, the cost came down. Instead of ghee they used, I understand, mustard oil.


Somrita: Mustard oil instead of ghee, yes.


Dr C: But definitely, although its taste different, it cannot replace ghee, never. Clarified butter would be best.


Somrita: Yes, so, Dr Chowdhury, also because you cook, and you’ve cooked it yourself, do you have any tips for people who want to try making the Kolkata Biryani at home?


Dr C: Yes, first is to, if they can have somebody who can show them in the kitchen how to do it.


Somrita: Right.


Dr C: That’s one thing. And they can read up also. Also, in addition to having this practical training of somebody showing it, you need to also read up because otherwise you will not develop the trend of improvising.


Somrita: That’s right. It’s very important to improvise, no matter whose recipe you’re following. That’s how you make it your own work.


Dr C: Absolutely.


Manjari: I once remember he cooked this biryani with pomegranates and you know how I’ll find it now but as a child I was pretty excited about that.


Somrita: Oh, was that a special kind of biryani? Do you think it has a name?


Manjari: I’ve no idea!


Somrita: It was just something you improvised in the family kitchen?


Manjari: Yeah, he improvised and it was brilliant. I mean at least for a child, you know, it was red, the colour was there, it was, I think he used it right in the end because I felt very excited that day, because you know, biryani with, you know, pomegranates, was very exciting.


Somrita: Absolutely, so you added your own touch to the Kolkata Biryani.


Manjari: My father did. I couldn’t cook back then.


Somrita: Your father did it. Yes. So, Manjari, would you tell us what you’ve learnt as a chef from your father, what you’ve imbibed as a cook, or, um, what you’ve—also with particular reference to the biryani—are there things you’ve picked up from Dr Chowdhury?


Manjari: Yes, of course. One, is, of course, you know, there should be minimum wastage. Even if it’s biryani. I mean, you cannot skip on ingredients but there cannot be wastage. And the second would be, I mean, I think I buy my meat from the same place where he buys his meat from, so, yes, it should be of good quality, because you know, I mean, he’s more of an expert in the department of meat. He can actually touch the raw meat, or look at it and tell me whether it’s good or bad. I have to depend on the butcher.


Somrita: Right.


Manjari: And other tips would be—yes, the rice. It cannot be overcooked, it cannot be undercooked.


Somrita: So, these are things you’ve picked up from Dr Chowdhury but also obviously you’ve been adding your own touch and flavours.


Manjari: But you know when you see your father cooking you observe that, and that probably makes a difference.


Somrita: Absolutely. And the kitchen, as we were discussing before, becomes that space for bonding, among members of the family, but also, if you’re inviting guests over then a space for communal bonding and harmony.


Manjari: Yes.


Dr C: Yes.


Somrita: Thank you so much for talking to us, Dr Chowdhury. Maybe we could take a look at the meat. How are we doing for the meat, Manjari?


Manjari: I think the meat is almost done. And, the problem is—I mean, I think, I mean, it’s not possible practically, but, if you have the same size of potatoes it helps in cooking it for, you know, the same time. So, what has happened is, I checked on some of the potatoes, and they still need a little bit of cooking but some of them seems, you know, done to me. So, I took out the potatoes. I mean, I think, this is you know, the advantages of, you know, cooking at home, because you’re not cooking a large quantity. So, you know, you can check up on these things. And see I did not really add to much of water. But I told you, you know, the curd went in, and you know, this is all the water from the, you know, from the meat.


Somrita: The curd and the meat, yes.

Manjari: So, as you can see, I did not really add a lot of water. I sprinkled hardly about, I would say, 15 ml. So, this is, you know, I know the meat will be done when this will, my fork will literally go in –


Somrita: —without any effort.


Manjari: Yes. But here since I have to put some effort, I’m going to let this cook.


Somrita: Right. So, we’ll let it cook for a little bit more. I think we checked on it after about 45 minutes, or so. We will check back in an hour and a half, maybe?


Manjari: No, not that much. Because then, like I said, because the meat is from the front leg, the neck and the chops, it’s going to overcook and the fibre is going to disintegrate. So, what we need to do is, since it’s been forty-five minutes, we’ll just have to hardly wait another, half an hour, I would say. And then the layering will be done.


Somrita: Okay.


Manjari: Quick tip, if you want, when you’re cooking it the ‘pakki’ style, I don’t like it because I feel that that way you lose the flavour, you can put it in a pressure cooker, when you’re cooking the meat that is, instead of slow cooking it. And you put it on low heat and you let the pressure kind of build up and when you get the first whistle you immediately stop it. So, that takes a little less time. But the flavour is much more intense this way. I’m going to cover this.


Somrita: The faster alternative would be the pressure cooker but for flavours we would like to cook it this way.


Manjari: And then you know, biryani is not an everyday meal for us.


Somrita: Yes, we would like to invest some time in it.


Manjari: The biryani will be made, like once the meat is cooked I have to seal it and for that I need to make a dough. So, what I have done is—whatever water and you know yogurt mixture was there, I used that, so that, you know, that imparts flavor even from the seal. And I’m going to add a little bit of ‘ittar’, just a little.


Somrita: You’re adding a little bit of ‘ittar’, some water that was left from the initial yogurt and water mix –


Manjari: I’ll also take a little cardamom.


Somrita: —adding some cardamom, to prepare the dough, with which to seal the biryani once it’s cooking, when the rice is cooking.


Manjari: So, I am going to layer the biryani now, which is the main part. And I have already put a layer of clarified butter and now I’m going to use the rice. So, usually, you know, I mean, sometime, in the ‘pakki’ style the rice is supposed to be cooking from before. But I personally prefer it this way. Because that makes it easy for me to cook. And I should be comfortable with the cooking. So, I’m going to take the meat.


Somrita: So, our meat is finally cooked and we are now going in for the layering. You coated the pan with a layer of clarified butter and you put the uncooked grains of rice in, and now you’re layering it with the cooked meat and the potatoes.


Manjari: Correct!


Somrita: Manjari, can you tell us how much rice you’ve used, in what quantity?


Manjari: I completely eyeballed it, I’m sorry. So, I’ll use say, one or two of the cardamoms, a little bit of mace and—you can also put it in a little muslin cloth but if you’re not using too much, it’s fine. I’m just going to use a minimum amount of that.


Somrita: You added mace, cardamom and cloves.


Manjari: Right. And then I’m going to add the rice again.


Somrita: And you’re going to layer it with some more uncooked rice. Is there a particular meat-to-rice ratio that you’ve followed?


Manjari: Um, no, yes, I have actually. So, for every one kilo of meat I would take about 600 grams of rice.


Somrita: For every kilo of meat you’re using about 600 grams of rice. And you’ve added a second layer of the meat and potatoes. And I think we are ready to cook this now. You are now preparing the dough.


Manjari: I’m just rolling out the dough to put it on the ‘dum pakht’.


Somrita: You’re rolling out the dough. That’s right. So, you’re now covering up your pan with the dough.


Manjari: Yup. And now this is where it stays on ‘dum’.


Somrita: Right, so can you quickly tell us again what went into that pan?


Manjari: Um, there is the rice, actually, there is a layer of ghee, and then there is a layer of rice, and then you have a few spices, the same spices that we used for the meat. Which is mace, cardamom and clove. And then you have ‘keora’ water and you have ‘mithi attar/ ittar’, and then you have saffron soaked in water. I like using water because then you know the colour comes out more intense, at least that’s what my experience tells me. And, I, for the rice to cook, I just did not use, like, water. There was some stock left from the meat that we cooked earlier and I mixed that with milk and a little bit of extra water and put it all in.


Somrita: Okay. And how long do you think this takes to cook?


Manjari: Um, normally, you know, there’s a very easy method of cooking basmati rice, so that takes about 15-20 minutes. Um, no, that takes about 15 minutes, so this will take about 40 minutes to 45 minutes.


Somrita: Okay, we’ll check on the rice in a bit again.


Manjari: No, next time we check it’ll be done, because there’s no way of opening this and checking this. So, once you layer the biryani you cannot really check whether it’s done or not. It has to be done. And we will know it’s done when there’s a smell.


Somrita: Right. So, 45 minutes, maybe.


Manjari: Yes. So, as you guys were smelling it and I understand that it is done.


Somrita: Yes, looks like our biryani is cooked and clearly if you ask me, how did we figure out—a little bit of it was from smelling, but,Manjari...?


Manjari: So, also as you can see this has hardened quite a long time back. The dough which is used as  the purdah to seal everything. It’s completely hard, but it got hard quite some time back.


Somrita: Right. So, this is what the end product looks like. It smells brilliant, I could tell you, but also, this is what it looks like. Beautiful. The Kolkata Biryani. 

And so, here we are, with our home chef, Miss Manjari Chowdhury. The biryani is ready and we’re going to ask Miss Chowdhury to quickly sum up for us what she’s done today. Just a quick summary of the ingredients, preparation, time, etc?


Manjari: So, you need about one kilo of meat, and about 500—600 gram of rice, Basmati rice, preferably the best quality, and you need cardamom, you need mace, and you need cloves. And, of course, you need clarified butter, you need yogurt, you need milk, and, um, I think, yes, saffron, you need ‘meethi attar/ ittar’, and you need ‘keora’ water. You need to marinate the meat in ginger-garlic paste with salt. Then you need to fry it, I mean you need to sear it in clarified butter and then slow cook it till the meat is soft, and then what you have to do is, you have to, let it, like, cook, and, um, you have to also add cardamom, mace, and clove which you dry roast and put in the meat, and then you layer the rice with the meat, with cardamom, mace and cloves, and you use, on top, you use a bit of ‘mithi ittar’, ‘keora’ water and saffron soaked in water. And finally, you put it on ‘dum’, for 45 minutes to an hour. But you must make sure that the quantity of rice to meat ratio is, doesn’t exceed beyond 600 grams of rice because if it does, then you know, the balanced gets disturbed. And then you know the cooking time will be difficult to understand.


Somrita: Right. Thanks Miss Chowdhury, um, for your time and for teaching us how to recreate this royal dish in the comfort of our home space. I hope our viewers have had a good time watching it and they’re going to try preparing it at home as well.

Author Details

Somrita Urni Ganguly

Somrita Urni Ganguly is a professor, researcher, and translator, pursuing her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She teaches British Literature to undergraduate students, and translates from Bengali and Hindi to English. Her work has been published extensively. Somrita is a recipient of the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund Award and Sarojini Dutta Memorial Prize.

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