Possibly the biggest debate that has plagued the country, often driving a wedge between friends and families, it is crucial to have an academic conversation on the subject — why is it important to have aloo in your biryani. That leads us to a bigger question — what does the biryani mean to you? A concept, a rice-and-meat dish, or an emotional experience?
I used to be that Bengali chap who would say that Bengali biryani is the only kind that deserves to be called “biryani”. Over years of food journalism and extreme gluttony, I have realised that the biryani is a complex sociological-economical-political-cultural product of history, region, and religion. The Bengali in me had to swallow quite a bitter pill, as the academic in me started understanding that the biryani, as a dish, has travelled the country, absorbing ideas and flavours, and adapting itself to regional palates. As a concept, it has stayed as authentic as it ever was. It is a dum-cooked, one-cauldron, rice-and-meat meal. Varieties and additions have not been able to change the concept of the biryani, which is why it is still different from the pulao.
But, beyond being a dish or a concept, the biryani, for the Indian subcontinent, is an emotion. And that is the crux of the “should the biryani have potatoes” debate.
What does the biryani mean to you? Is it a quick meal that can also be had on the go? Is it a celebratory dish for social gatherings or occasions? Or, is the biryani an occasion by itself? I have had biryani around the country. Down south, the Kerala, Thelapakatti, and the Dindigal biryanis are my favourites. I am not a fan of the Hyderabadi version, even though I love Nizami food. But, what the south Indian varieties pack with flavour, they lack in finesse and subtlety. Almost all the varieties I have had — and I adore south Indian cuisine much more than north Indian grub, so #NoHate — deem the spices more important than the produce. Attaining the correct spice blend is the identity of south Indian food, and I am not surprised that the spices are respected more than the other components in a biryani. The rice, as a biryani, does not necessarily have a luxurious mouth feel, and the meat is often overpowered in the spice commotion. Do I love the flavours? Absolutely. Does it make for a great biryani experience? I am not too sure.
The Maharashtrian, Konkani, and Bombay biryani is similar in attitude to the southern varieties, but lack the complexity. That also comes from the fact that the biryani is not respected in the West. It is seen as a quick one-bowl meal, great for sustenance, and zero hassle. Every restaurant, eatery, shack, has the biryani on the menu. It is seen as an easy dish to cook up — layer up a spicy gravy, white rice, coloured rice, and meat, and you are done. While I love a spicy treat at Lucky’s in Bandra in Mumbai sometimes, in my head, I am digging into a pulao. Mahim has a few spots that are able to elevate the dish, and Jaffer Bhai’s is a good solution when you are really craving some of that spicy Bambaiyya, but the Bombay biryani only checks the box for sticking to the concept.
Now, we come to the north. The biryani has two epicentres here — Delhi and Lucknow. While Delhi, being the melting pot it is, serves all kinds of biryani, Lucknow still has a few hotspots for that authentic Lucknawi Nawabi biryani experience. For the Bengali palate, Delhi’s biryani is familiar. Unlike the south, the northern biryanis are subtler, more aromatic depending on the skillful rendering of succulence to the meat, the fragrance and personality of the rice, and is definitely identified by the olfactory trio of saffron, kewra water, and meetha attar. While meetha attar is an ingredient introduced by the Nawabs of Lucknow, it is that distinctive “biryani” scent that north Indians have learned to cherish. Lucknow serves up two options — the kachhi or raw, and the pakki or cooked. These are the two traditions of either layering raw meat with the spices, aromatics, and rice, and cooking it in dum (steam), or layering cooked or semi-cooked meat in the spice mix and finishing it off in dum with the other ingredients. My go-to biryani in Lucknow for a sit-down biryani meal is definitely Dastarkhwan, but if you want a whiff of Awadh, Idrees’s shack at the Chowk is your destination. A mind-boggling experience of flavour, hints of heat, and fragrance, Idrees Biryani should be on everybody’s gastronomical bucket list. It’s Lucknow’s darling secret, revealed only by Lucknawis.
And then, finally, we come to Bengali biryani — the only ones who champion the potato. The biryani travelled to Bengal when Nawab Wajid Ali Shah was packed off from Lucknow, and he was made to travel east. We are extremely grateful to him and his descendants, who allowed the dish to bloom and flourish. There are many stories about why the potato was introduced. Some say, he was short of finances, and so his chefs added potatoes to compensate for less meat, while others say that he had lost all his teeth, and the soft-creamy potato helped him swallow his favourite dish — but I’ll tell you why the potato survived, stayed put in the dish, and convinced a whole population to champion it. For Bengalis, the biryani is an emotion. We don’t need an occasion to make the biryani — the biryani is the occasion. Every family has a restaurant they are loyal to, because they refuse to compromise on the experience. These established veteran restaurants are celebrated for their decade and century-old consistency, quality, quantity, and produce. The biryanis of different restaurants are passionately compared, rated, and evaluated. The biryani is an obsession for Bengalis, purely because of the warmth, joy, and enormous satisfaction the dish brings for them. My uncle, someone whose experienced palate I put immense faith on, once said, after a hearty biryani meal, that the biryani had been like a relaxing cool breeze for his heart. The true pehchaan of good Bengali biryani is this lightness, this cooling effect, this unmatchable satisfaction brought about by a dish that is packed dense with carbs, fat, spices, and fragrance. The soft creaminess of a plump roasted potato, firm on the outside but luxuriously velvety inside, laced with the flavours of all the spices but still holding onto the innate sweetness of the spud, adds to that sensory and emotional experience. The potato binds the flavours, becomes a blanket for the rice, and an earthy textural contrast for the spice-packed meat. It absorbs the aromatics before the rice and meat, while the meat imbibes the flavours of spices, and delivers a multi-sensory punch together. For those who criticise the potato, what will be the vehicle for the fragrances in the biryani then? What will provide a constant source of juice to help the mace, nutmeg, attar, and black cardamom to mature? What is the point of a layered dish when nothing will help the ghee, saffron milk, rose and kewra water to travel?
The importance of the potato is understood by those who believe that the biryani is an emotion, an experience. My favourite restaurant for biryani is Arsalan in Kolkata. They used to have outlets in Mumbai at one time, and I used to be a regular there. But then, they left Mumbai, and left me heartbroken. I remember coming down to Kolkata a couple of years back. I was going back to Arsalan after quite some time. During Durga Puja, people queue up for hours outside the restaurant. So did I. When I finally got a table after 50 minutes, I placed a quick order — Special Mutton Biryani (that means two pieces of mutton), Chicken Chaanp, Extra Aloo — and a steaming plate of God’s own goodness, piled high, was in front of me within minutes. I always slice through the potato first — it should cut like a hot knife on butter — and I did so, and took a mouthful of the potato and rice and succulent, juicy mutton. I welled up, and unexpectedly tears rolled down my eyes.
When people celebrate a dish like it is a religious experience, you trust in that magic.