Friday, May 18, 2012

Kolkata Biriyani : Drool till you die

If there is a single word that invariably causes a tsunami of saliva within my mouth, this would have to be "Biriyani". Irrespective of the time of the day, condition of my stomach or my general state of existance, a mere mention of Biriyani is enough to make me react like Pavlovian dog. 
Before I proceed further, let me clarify one important point. For me, Biriyani means the one and only Kolkata Biriyani. I also like the Lukhnow style (Awadhi style) biriyani but the Kolkata Biriyani remains, in my mind, the real and only single malt among the Biriyanis. Wikipedia may list some 23 types of Biriyani but for me, barring Kolkata and Awadhi, rest might as well not exist.  
I have to admit that many zealous friends have tried to convince me to try out other forms of Biriyanis - the Mumbai biriyani for example. I am eternally grateful to these well meaning friends; without them I would have never realised how infinitely superior the Kolkata Biriyani is. 
Take, for example, the Lucky's Biriyani at Bandra. This is, arguably, the single most hideous stuff I have ever consumed in my life. It is best described as a kind of spice rice with spicy mutton curry mixed in a non-homogeneous mixture which raises the inner surface temperature of our oesophagus to Farenheit 451 or higher. Lucky's probably derives it's name from the popular saying "You gotta be lucky to survive Lucky's".  
I was also lured into trying my luck at the Noor Ali near Hazi Ali (who claims to serve the authentic "Pakistani" Biriyani), an experiment which has permanently damaged a few of my taste buds and some cells of my large intestine. Noor Ali Biriyani also has a delayed action. It makes sure that you remember them the next day morning as well. The only good thing about this place is that it is very close to Hazi Ali which means you can probably say your last prayers in one of the Sufi Durgahs and also have some excellent fruit juice . 
Even the much acclaimed Moti Mahal as well as Delhi Durbar (Colaba) Biriyanis were strictly "just passable" stuff. The Delhi Durbar Biriyani comes closest to the Kolkata Biriyani as it smells like the Kolkata Biriyani and is probably okay if you only intend to smell your food. Unfortunately,  and that's about the beginning and end of it. Compared to this, the names of those wonderful joints of Kolkata - Shiraz, Amminia, Rehmania, Zishaan....aah - one feels sated just by uttering these names.
As far as I can recollect, my love affair with Biriyani started at Aminia. They used to sell something called "Aminia Special" those days - which was a slightly larger portion of Biriyani with some fancy garnishing including a boiled egg. One could smell the aroma of their Biriyani  even from the opposite side of the road and you required a certain dexterity of limbs and fixity of purpose to enter this ever crowded joint. And every meal must conclude with their famous phirnee - which will be so well set that you could turn the container upside-down and watch the stuff defying Newton!  
Aminia was soon dislodged from it's throne by Shiraz and Rahmania and they jointly held this spot for many years. Both had their die-hard followers (almost like the East Bengal / Mohun Bagan rivalry) and no objective conclusion was ever reached by anyone about which is superior. The popular verdict was - if one wants to eat at the restaurant, Shiraz is better while for takeaway, Rehmania would score higher. Some also used to argue that the side dishes at Shiraz are much better in comparison to Rehmania, a statement I tend to agree with. Shiraz had (and probably still has) a boneless mutton preparation called "Pasinda" which is to die for.   In between, another shop came up in the same area (in fact bang opposite of Shiraz) called Tandoor Mahal which also was making excellent Biriyani. Grapevine had it that Tandoor Mahal's owner was the son-in-law of the owner of Shiraz and therefore many used to consider it to be an extension of Shiraz and not really a separate restaurant. I believe that this has now been taken over by Shiraz and is called the "Shiraz Golden Restaurant". 

Parallel to these "mainstream" Kolkata Biriyani's, we had some "doosra"s which were equally enjoyable. Ambar, with it's "Nargisi Biriyani" immediately comes to the mind. This mouthwatering Biriyani had tiny bits of chicken or mutton balls mixed into the rice. As a restaurant, this was also much more sophisticated and classy compared to Shiraz / Rehmania and also more expensive. They also had a takeaway counter called "Sagar" which used to serve conventional Biriyani. Sagar was also one of the firsts to start serving Biriyani in Bengali weddings, thereby destroying the traditional Bengali marriage dinner menu forever! 
Last time when I was in Kolkata, I tried the latest "flavour of the season" restaurant - Arsalan. This has got (as far as I know) two joints - one located off Free School Street and the other at Park Circus. I was forced to acknowledge that Arsalan is at least as good, if not better than Shiraz. There is also a new chain of take-away Biriyani joint called Alibaba who have also started serving "Biriyani made with Saffola" for the health conscious (bloody hell!!). 
Legend has it that Biriyani, though originally an Iranian cuisine, had evolved to its present form under Noor Jahan, who prescribed this food for her soldiers. Whether this is historically correct is not known but the development of Kolkata Biriyani from the Awadhi Biriyani is a well established historic fact. It seems that when our "Satranj ki Khilari" nawab of Awadh (Lukhnow) was deposed by the British and send to Kolkata, he brought this delightful dish with him. In exile, the impoverished Nawab Wajid Ali Shah could not afford enough meat for the copious quantity of Biriyani that was cooked for his entourage, boiled potatos were added in the Biriyani as substitute for meat - something which has become the signature line of Kolkata Biriyani. 
The Awadhi Biriyani that I have tried in Bangalore as well as in Delhi/Gurgaon are excellent - The Nawab's at Super Mart I, Gurgaon being one of my favourites. It is a small unimpressive looking shop which regularly dishes out extremely impressive dishes including Biriyani. I also tried out the Biriyani at Kareem's near the Jama Masjid and was extremely disappointed by it. It was had a very confusing taste and did not confirm to any particular genre. I am yet to try out the stuff in Delhi proper - particularly at CR Park, where, I am certain, there must be restaurants selling the Kolkata Biriyani.  
I am also not a great fan of Hyderabadi Biriyani. I had tasted it at "Paradise" in Hyderabad, which is supposed to be the most authentic Hyderabadi Biriyani joint. Though I  thoroughly enjoyed it but would certainly not rank it at par with the Kolkata Biriyanis. It also is usually spicier that the Awadhi / Kolkata Biriyani which also tends to be a discouraging factor for me. 
I got to put a full stop now as I have some doubts as to whether my laptop is designed to be drooled upon to this extent. Time to say "enough is enough", order out Mutton Biriyani with Chaap-i-Akbar and pour a stiff one while I wait. Cheers!