Biryani is not just food, but emotion
There are only a few food items that unite the country, and Biryani comes on quite the top of that list. Whether in Kashmir, Awadh, Chettinad, Malabar, Andhra or Bengal; the dish has loyal followers everywhere.
It is believed that the Calcutta biryani has evolved from the Lucknow style, when Awadh's Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was exiled in 1856 to the Kolkata suburb of Metiabruz. Nawab Shah brought his personal chef with him from Awadh - the Shahi Khansamas. The Kolkata biryani is predominantly characterized by the unique presence of a big whole potato in it, along with the meat that makes it unique. It is often said that the Nawab, having lost his kingdom then, could not afford meat, so his chefs tried to compensate by adding a potato in the dish and the potatoes absorbed the flavours so well that it elevated the dish.
But this is disputed and many historians have rejected this as a myth. When Wajid Ali Shah arrived in Kolkata, potato was an exotic vegetable in India and the former Nawab of Awadh, being a connoisseur of great food encouraged their chefs to try new
ingredients in the dish and that is how the dish came to be invented. The Kolkata biryani is much lighter on spices but high on flavours, unlike the South Indian biryanis which are much spicier. Although Kolkata has many iconic old places that serve authentic Biryani, one that has caught the imagination of the city for the last 19 years is the iconic Arsalan situated right on the Park Circus, transforming the area into a Mughlai food hub.
Chicken Arsalan Kebabs ( Rs 415 )
Vegetable Biryani ( Rs 215)
Firni ( Rs 60)
The place is crowded and like what! There is literally no space to sit. If you do manage to get a seat, you are lucky. The place is very famous and that can be understood from the footfall.
I have already tried Mutton Biryani from Arslan that has a huge mutton piece laden with fat, in aromatic rice. The whole potato steals the show normally as it is absolutely soft, piping hot and has soaked in all the flavours.
This time, however, I ordered what many people do not even consider Biryani: Vegetable Biryani! I wanted to see how Arsalan makes this and whether it is like the non-vegetarian Biryani or the Pulao. A lot of my friends believe this dish is blasphemous and I wanted to check just that in this order.
So, the good news is that the Vegetable Biryani was not like a Pulao. The flavours, herbs and spices used in Mutton or Chicken Biryani were very similar to the one used here. The only difference was that this had diced boiled potato. It also had soya bean chunks. There was paneer at the bottom of the rice. Surprisingly, it did not taste bad. In fact, I feel that if someone is off non-vegetarian food, this is a very good option to try.
Alongside, I ordered the Chicken Arsalan Kebabs. A skewer of tender Malai chicken tikkas ( six big pieces) had been coated in a thick envelope of cheese and baked in the tandoor. The cheese coating had become thick and crusted the entire dish well. One had to dig in the cheese envelope to reach the chicken and the combination was divine. The Kebabs were served with mint chutney and salad.
The mint chutney was made in yoghurt base and was a perfect dip for the Kebabs. The best thing about these Kebabs was that they were not spicy and the cheese coating had made the dish filling and very nutritious too. It was like comfort food and you love munching it.
I ended the meal with the quintessential Firni of Arsalan. The place serves another dessert, Shahi Tukra but that is very sweet and Firni is milder. The Firni was made with crushed rice slowly cooked in milk, thickened with saffron and served in earthen cups. It was a dreamy end to an elevating meal.
WHAT I LOVED
I loved everything. The food was fresh, flavourful and the quantity was decent. Magic!
Despite many excellent places in Kolkata serving good Mughlai and Biryanis, do try Arsalan for authentic Kolkata Biryani and some good Kebabs. Marhaba!
(The columnist is a food connoisseur who loves experimenting with culinary delights and a career bureaucrat in the IRS Income Tax)