The Kolkata Biryani: Culture, Identity, and Politics

in Overview
Published on: 14 August 2018

Somrita Ganguly

Somrita Urni Ganguly is a professor, researcher, and translator, soon to complete her PhD from the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She teaches British Literature to undergraduate students, and translates from Bengali and Hindi to English. She has been invited as translator-in-residence at Cove Park, Scotland, in October 2017, and in December 2017 she was invited as poet-in-residence at Arcs of a Circle, Mumbai. Somrita’s work has been showcased at the 2017 London Book Fair and she has been published in Asymptote, Words Without Borders, In Other Words, and Muse India, among others. She has been selected as a Fulbright Doctoral Research Fellow to complete the last stage of her PhD at Brown University, USA, in 2018-2019. Somrita has twelve academic publications to her credit and is a recipient of the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund Award (2013) and Sarojini Dutta Memorial Prize (2011). She is currently translating a novel on the Russian Revolution, a retelling of the Mahabharata, and an anthology of erotic verses, to be published later this year.


Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the tenth and last ruler of Oudh[i], who was on the throne from 1847 to 1856, is said to have brought the biryani to Calcutta in 1856, when he settled in Metiabruz, on the outskirts of Calcutta[ii]; an impeached, broken ruler. The Nawab, who is known to have been a patron of music, dances and literature, (and who has often been critiqued for his extravagant lifestyle[iii]) carried with him, all the way from Lucknow to Calcutta, via Kanpur, a taste of home: the Lucknowi/ Awadhi biryani, cooked in the dumpukht style and served in a sealed handi which also led to this variety of biryani being called the dumpukht biryani or the handi biryani. Dumpukht refers to a style of slow oven cooking. This is a cooking technique associated with the Awadh region, in which the meat, rice and vegetables are cooked on a very low flame, in sealed containers known as handis. The Calcutta biryani departs from its royal Awadhi origins in one distinct way—the presence of the humble aloo (potato) in this regal biryani, which makes it unique.


The Kolkata biryani, traditionally, is a dish where the meat and the potatoes are slow cooked in clarified butter, on low heat (dumpukht). The uncooked rice, the meat and potatoes are then layered in a big-based pot (handi) to which certain spices such as cardamom, mace, saffron, cloves and sweet ittar are added. The handi is sealed and then cooked further in the dumpukht method. More often than not, in Calcutta, eggs are also added to the rice along with the meat and the potato.


At what point in history did the potato make its entry into this dish and why? While it is difficult to pinpoint an exact date, we can conclusively say that the aloo made its way into the handi when the Nawab made his way to Metiabruz, in 1856. The addition of the potato to this rice and meat combination has given rise to several conjectures and theories. One school is of the opinion that by the time Wajid Ali Shah had come to Metiabruz with his begums[iv], bawarchis[v], and royal entourage, he was in financial crisis. However, the men would have to be fed and thus potatoes were added to the biryani to decrease the meat-rice ratio[vi]. The contrarian opinion, supported by Begum Manzilat Fatima, the great grand-daughter of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, suggests that the addition of the potato was in fact an innovation to the biryani and had nothing to do with cutting down of expenditure[vii]. She insists that the potato was a non-native vegetable in India and in 1856 including it in the royal dish did not in any way lead to a cutting down of costs but, in fact, was an exotic, expensive experiment conducted by the Nawab’s khansama[viii].


The first potato farms in India have dated back to the 1830s[ix]. It is believed that the Dutch brought potatoes to India and it was then included in the diet of the British and the Muslims. It might be interesting at this point in time to make a slight etymological digression. The Dutch word for potato is aardappel, which literally means the apple of the soil. The French word for potato corresponds to the Dutch lexicon: pomme de terre. Pomme is the French for apple and terre means earth or soil. The Persian word for potato used in Iran, is sibzamini, which also means the apple of the soil. The Sanskrit (and therefore Bengali, Assamese, Hindi, and some other North Indian languages) and Urdu word for potato is aloo and it came into popular use around the 1830s. In Persian, aloo refers to a plum and when the potato was first introduced to Fath-Ali Shah’s kingdom in Iran by Mirza Melkaum Khan, it was called the Aloo Melkaum. The vegetable might have appeared as a plum to have earned its name. In some Persian dialects the name was then contracted to aloo, though in standard Persian in Iran the word used is sibzamini. In Afghanistani Persian the word for potato is kachaaloo. The word potato comes from the Spanish patata, which was derived from batata, from the Taino language of the Caribbean Arawakan group. The English word gained currency in the sixteenth century. This somewhat lengthy discussion on the etymology of this humble vegetable that feeds millions of people in this globe shows us that indeed in 1856 the potato was not a part of the everyday diet in India.


Today, not only the potato but also the Kolkata biryani is so woven into the very fabric of existence in Bengal that one cannot imagine of either of these as foreign or derived. Conservatively speaking, there are at the very least two hundred restaurants in Kolkata alone (big, small, and chains included) that serve the Kolkata biryani every day to the burgeoning population of this city. Heritage restaurants like Arsalan, Aminia, Shiraz, Zeeshan and Rahmania have several branches all over the city, with their main outlets located in the Park Circus area, all five minutes apart. That itself shows that the demand for the Kolkata biryani must have always been high enough to sustain not just five big biryani doyens in the same locality, but also their various outlets spread across the city. Arsalan has eight outlets in Calcutta, Aminia eleven, Shiraz five, Zeeshan ten and Rahmania eight. New restaurants like Oudh 1590, or C/o. Bangali are giving tough competition to the heritage restaurants not only because of the taste of the Kolkata Biryani that their handis unleash, but also—and primarily—with their ambience and décor. There are also small Biryani outlets like Aliah, Afreen, Arafat, Shimla Biryani, ZamZam, Asma, Dada Boudi, Haji Saheb, Afza or Alishan mushrooming in almost every residential colony within the city limits and beyond.


What is it about biryani that gives it the status that it today occupies in the culinary map of the city/state? 'There’s a large chunk of meat, there’s an egg, there’s a potato, there’s rice, all in one plate,' says Sushavan Das, a biryani enthusiast who lives in Calcutta, 'What more do you need?'[x]


'Biryani is the heart of Bengal. The two B’s are inseparable,' says another Biryani aficionado, Anannya Bhattacharjee[xi]. The price of a full plate of chicken or mutton biryani in Calcutta ranges from INR 80/- to INR 275/-. The smaller shops, mentioned before, are able to keep the prices low because they are almost always take-away outlets which cut down the cost of production. Sometimes, the quality of rice is compromised on, at other times the clarified butter (ghee) is replaced partially by hydrogenated vegetable oil (dalda). However, the meat, the potato and the egg are all in place.


The Kolkata biryani, therefore, has the unique ability to transform from being a solid egalitarian food, to an elite delicacy, and vice versa. Food plays a cultural role which is as important as its nutritional role. Food has always been at the vortex of religious and political issues and presently we are living in times when food has acquired a character of its own, especially as governments try to censor people’s eating habits[xii]. In times like these 'food has become a commodity that finds pride of place not only in conversations revolving around health and diet but also politics (what to eat, what not to), anthropology (who eats what) and culture (who eats how)'[xiii].


Distinctions in food preparation, eating habits, and modes of dining are a crucial axis around which cultures and groups consolidate themselves. In Bengal, the humble biryani plays a significant role in uniting people of different classes, castes and religious backgrounds. During Hindu festivals, such as Durga Puja, Bengali families queue outside the Oudhs and Arsalans with families and friends. Eid is celebrated with plates of biryani. Christmas calls for cake and biryani. Its beauty lies in being affordable and providing great value for money. It can be had by itself. No sides need to be ordered with this dish which is entire and complete in itself. The Kolkata biryani is light, with mild flavours, which makes it easy to digest, with perhaps a glass of aerated drinks as an accompaniment.


Pointing out what makes the Kolkata Biryani special, Kalyan Karmakar, food blogger and author of The Travelling Belly: Eating Through India’s By-lanes writes in his blog Finely Chopped:


'I think there are two things that make Kolkata’s, or any biryani for that matter, special. First is the fact that this is case of a royal repast that has been made accessible to commoners. A great example of the democratization of a dish that has led to great joy and happiness, and employment opportunities too. … Second is the fact that it is a dish that is a beautiful symbol of communal harmony. A dish that originated in families belonging to the Muslim community and is today enjoyed by people across caste, creed and religion, and for those who don’t eat meat, there are vegetarian versions too! A wonderful example of food uniting all and breaking walls.' xiv


Most restaurants in Kolkata serve two versions of the biryani: the regular version and the ‘special’ version which comes with two pieces of meat and is sufficient for two people. Thus, the Kolkata biryani is an example of the adaptability of the dish itself and the flexibility of the people who have embraced it. An Awadhi dish from Lucknow is today known by the name of the place which has given it its own distinct character. This is an osmosis that has benefited both the dish (in terms of its longevity and popularity) as well as the people it feeds. The Kolkata biryani transcends the realms of being just food and transforms into becoming a cultural symbol, a sentiment, an emotion.



[i]The kingdom of Oudh was a princely state in undivided India during the British Raj. The area roughly corresponds to the modern Awadh region in Uttar Pradesh.


[ii]Metiabruz is located in the Garden Reach area in the fringes of Kolkata. Adheesha Sarkar’s article in The Telegraph called ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ published on July 14, 2011, gives us an interesting insight into the present condition of modern-day Metiabruz.


[iii]Ishqnama, considered to be the autobiography of the Nawab provides details of some of his escapades. More contemporary readings on the Nawab include the essay ‘The Cultural and Literary Contribution of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah by Tahir Hussain Ansari published in IJELLH (vol. 2, issue 3, July 2014). Rosie Llewellyn-Jones brings in her scholarship on the nineteenth century ruler in her book The Last King of India: Wajid Ali Shah (London: Hurst and Company, 2014). Nidhi Dugar Kundalia’s article in The Hindu on June 4, 2017 titled ‘Debauchery, Dissipation and Low Pursuits’ also highlights an aspect of the late Nawab’s life.


[iv]Begam comes from the Turkish (bigim = princess/ big = prince) and refers to a married Muslim woman.


[v]Bawarchi is the Hindi for chef.




[viii]Khansama comes from the Persian (khaan+saaman = master of household goods) meaning a male cook and/ or the steward.


[ix]D Balasubramanian’s article ‘Potato: historically important vegetable’ published in The Hindu on October 16, 2008 (which was regarded as the ‘Year of the Potato) brings to the table the historical significance of this vegetable and how it came to be popular in India.


[x]Personal interview.




[xii]The Indian correspondent to BBC news, Soutik Biswas’s article ‘Is India’s ban on cattle slaughter ‘food fascism’?’ published on BBC News June 2, 2017, gives a comprehensive insight into the dietary profiling that has become common in India today.


[xiii]Ganguly, Somrita. ‘Hunger Games: Reading Food Cultures and the Politics of Representation.’ Impressions of Eternity: Journal of Language and Literature Studies. Vol1, 2016.


xivIn Karmakar’s article dated March 17, 2017, titled ‘What Makes Kolkata’s Biryani Special? The Story of a ‘Blue Blooded’ Biryani’.