The fascinating story of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and the invention of Kolkata Biriyani

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The fascinating story of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and the invention of Kolkata Biriyani

Bongs maybe divided by East Bengal – Mohun Bagan or Illish – Chingri or Ghoti – Bangal but the one thing that unites Bong as well as foodies across India if not the world is the famous Kolkata Biriyani. Today we take a look at the fascinating story of how an Exiled Nawab, a Portuguese tuber import and a recipe from distant Lucknow gave birth to the mouthwatering Kolkata Biriyani.



Even being a Bengali myself I can say without any bias that Kolkata has the most diverse collection of cuisines in India. I can say this with a certain degree of confidence knowing well that my Punjabi, Gujarati, Kannada or Malayali friends won’t be contradicting me. If my friends from the different parts of India or world had tasted just one recipe from Kolkata the famous Kolkata Biriyani, I am sure they would all unanimously agree with me. While I can probably write volumes just contemplating the delicacy and delight of the Kolkata Biriyani it is also worthwhile to talk about the story of the invention of this famous dish and how it came to be the way it is. Mix of classic Lucknow Cuisine with an “Alu” (Potato).


It all started on 11th February 1856 just 2 days before Nawab Wajid Ali Shah the Last King of Oudh’s ninth coronation anniversary. Oudh like other kingdoms of India had been occupied by the East India Company for most parts. Now the last king of Oudh was not the stereotypical Nawab that boasted of masculinity, warfare expertise and action. In the fact Nawab of Awadh was quite the opposite as instead of politics and power the Nawab was in love with Poetry, Plays, Dance and Arts. Nawab was a great patron of art so much so that he is also credited for the revival of day Kathak Dance form. Now coming back to why the Nawab was exiled and how like a silver lining in the dark cloud this tragedy bore a great fruit. By 1856 much of the Kingdom of Oudh had been already annexed by the British East India Company and when they found they had no use of the buffer state for which they allowed the Nawab to function with limited independence, they promptly forced the Nawab to vacate his throne. He was instead offered a generous pension and sent to exile in Kolkata. He settled in Metiabruz in Kidderpore which was the outskirts of then Kolkata sometime during 1858 a year after the sepoy mutiny also termed as the first war of Indian Independence.


Now of course you cannot take the home out of any person a definitely not Lucknow out of an especially homesick and romantic Nawab. He soon converted his Metiabruz residence into a mini Lucknow that included Isalmic structures, a Zoo, kites along with his passion for Kabootarbaazi or Pigeon Flying. Other than these he had also brought his royal cooks in Kolkata thus introducing this city to the delights of the Lucknow Culinary wealth. Other than the Nawab being exiled in Kolkata something else transpired meanwhile that was instrumental in creating the Kolkata Biriyani. Potato has been introduced into India by the Portuguese and was considered quite exotic since it was an imported commodity. Nawab fascinated by the potato wanted to give it a try and thus ordered Potato to be used in the classic Lucknow Biriyani. It is also said that due to the financial crunch of the Nawab and the number of mouths to feed potato was introduced as a way to bring down the costs while increasing the volume of the food. Whatever be the reason, the introduction of potatoes was the best happy accident that could have happened.
The potato was soaked in the saffron water and fried to some extent as well before being introduced into the Biriyani. Once done the potato started to absorb the flavor of all the exquisite spices that the Biriyani was made up of. The results were fascinating and the Kolkata Biriyani as we know it was born. According to Manzilat Fatima the great great-granddaughter of the Nawab the only difference between Awadhi Biriyani and Kolkata Biriyani is the fact that Kolkata Biriyani had “Aloo” or Potato in it. Bengali cuisine today is incomplete without potatoes. What was once a delicacy soon turned out to be the staple for the Bengali and the Indian Household as well. It won’t be wrong if the Nawab is given partial credit for the grand success of Potato that it enjoys today. So, what’s is your take on the Kolkata Biriyani, and what other types of Biriyani do you like? Do let us know in the comments.

Arunava Bhattacharya: DNI;

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