Being an Indian and not loving Biryani is, umm..well let’s say, unheard of. Its grandeur, taste, subtlety and refinement remain unmatched since it first came to India. The origin of biryani in India is uncertain. But one cannot deny the deep debt we owe to the Muslim community; for it is they who introduced the gamut of biryanis and pulaos to us. And since then the dish has spread across the four corners of the country and has taken many forms to suit the local tastes.
Just so you know, biryani is also quite popular in several countries, other than India and those predominantly Islamic. Owing to various reasons, and primarily migration, this dish has slowly merged into the local cuisines in these countries, and feature with some interesting localised adaptations. In South Africa, for example, it features fried potatoes and black lentils, while in Britain it retains its original form except for being toned down on the spice levels. In Burma, it is eaten as danbauk; in Thailand as khan mok; in Malaysia and Singapore as biryani bokhara; in Phillipines as nasing biringyi; and in Indonesia as nesi kebuli.
Biryani’s origin in Indian might be hazy, but its advent and history in Bengal is quite the opposite. It came to Bengal along with Nawab Wajid Ali Shah in 1856, when he was exiled from Awadh. He came to live in Metiabruz, then a suburb of Kolkata, and spent the rest of his life there. While in exile, he tried to keep the sweet memories of his Lucknow era alive, be it music, dance or food. He had brought along with him, his personal chef, and from this kitchen came the first biryani for Bengal.
This dish gained popularity, to an extent where poorer households which could not afford meat, used potatoes instead. And this, went on to become a specialty of the Calcutta biryani, where every plate of this lightly spiced biryani is adorned with a piece of meat, the bong favourite potato and sometimes even a boiled egg.
The Kolkata special mutton biryani is, however, not the only one that happened to Bengal. The royal families shared their loved biryanis and pulaos with the populace and in due course they underwent Bengali orientation and acquired their own special flavour with the use of fish and mustard.
The aloo bokhra diye maacher biryani (fish biryani with plums), for example, has an unusual blend of fish, dried plums and mustard seeds. Then there is this apricot biryani, which is made with boneless chicken unusually flavoured with apricot puree and is cooked in chicken stock. There is a more uncomplicated yet very delectable fish variant, for the more reluctant cooks, that is gently spiced with garam masala and shahjeera only; perfect when you are on a short notice and do not want to run around searching for ingredients. There is also the Ramzan Biryani of erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh), that is specially made during the holy month of Ramzan. Use of green tomatoes and mint leaves, sets it apart from many others of its siblings.
Plums and fish, or potato and egg. Apricot and chicken or tomatoes and mint. But one thing that has not changed in the much loved biryani, is this magical way the rice transforms into something ambrosial - absorbing all the rich flavours of meant and spices and scented with the dizzying aromas of saffron and rose and kewra. It is true, if there is such a thing as the food of the gods, it is undoubtedly the biryani.