“I have a habit of saying Bismillah after I place each layer of the biryani in the handi,” says Manzilat Khan to a roomful of food enthusiasts at a South Kolkata restaurant on a pleasant Sunday morning. Manzie, as she is better known, is the great-great grand daughter of Wajid Ali Shah — the tenth and last nawab of Awadh. In 1856, the legendary bon vivant had brought his large entourage of dancers, entertainers and khansamas — with their kitchen secrets — to Metiabruz, near Kolkata. The British had stripped him of his royal privileges, but Awadh’s culinary legacy remained the banished Nawab’s biggest treasure as he tried to recreate his beloved Lucknow in the southern fringes of the city.
Manzie — who draws her lineage to the Nawab’s principal begum Hazrat Mahal — runs a successful leather business and cooks biryani for her family at least thrice a week. Her recipes for biryani, resala and kebabs are as much rooted in the Awadhi tradition as they are a nod and salaam to Bengal’s culinary tradition. Most importantly, they are a fine example of how tradition and recipes evolve as they travel through cultures and time.
The Nawab, when he arrived in Kolkata en route London — a destination he never reached — was a man of diminished means, but acutely conscious of his image. Feeding the entourage on a stipend of Rs 1 lakh per month was a challenge, says heritage cuisine expert Pritha Sen, who explains the curious use of potatoes in the biryani that evolved in the kitchens of Metiabruz.
This was the time when potatoes had just been introduced in India and were cultivated mostly in Dehradun by the British. It was exotic enough to be used in the biryani that needed some volume in the absence of enough meat, says Sen. Though the concept of adding the starchy item to any dish to max its volume caught on with the Bengalis — who are prolific consumers of the potato in every form — potatoes became a staple in Bengali cuisine only much later.
Manzie shares a secret to the perfectly cooked golden brown potatoes — a signature of the ‘Kolkata’ biryani. She pricks it through, tosses it in hot oil for a few seconds and lets it boil in a bit of salt water till it is almost cooked. For colour, she adds a thread or two of saffron.
Shah’s khansamas — who were working on a lean budget, but had the challenge of catering to the refined tastes of their employer — may have also replaced pure ghee in the Biryani with dalda. By the time Manzie’s mother and grandmother were cooking for their respective families, the dalda had been replaced with mustard oil!
“It is much lighter than dalda — which congeals and makes the rice sticky when left at room temperature,” says Manzie to a bunch of shocked onlookers, who are busy scribbling notes. Mustard oil — a staple of Bengali cuisine — is also considered to be a healthier oil. “To get rid of the pungency, I smoke or burn the oil completely till it turns a dusty-grey in colour,” she says. What you get at the end is a light, healthy and inexpensive cooking medium — minus the kick of mustard that would have killed the fragrance of the biryani.
Manzie cooks the biryani korma in mustard oil and adds ghee only when she layers the rice and the korma. She also uses attar and kewra — both favoured by the Mughals.
The end result is stunning. The attar gives the biryani a lovely floral aroma — dominated by rose — while the kewra adds a slightly sharp note. There is no trace of mustard oil, save for the fact that each grain of the rice remains in full bloom — quite unlike the commercial biryani cooked in animal fat, which explains the wax-like layer on your fingers and on the tongue long after you have polished it off.
The history of the resala — which is immensely popular in Bengal — is somewhat ambiguous. Sen says, “From what we know today of the resala, there is the Rampur gharana and the resala cooked in Bengal. The Rampur variant — essentially chicken in a rasa (gravy) — uses green masala.”
“The resala was never really popular in Lucknow,” says Sen. “In Bengal, it simply took off,” she adds. Perhaps, it had something to do with the addition of coconut milk — instead of dessicated coconut used in some Lucknavi recipes — and khus khus, both of which are very dear to the Bengali heart. The resala, however, is not cooked in mustard oil. “It leaves behind a yellow tinge and I like my resala to be completely white,” says Manzie.
The Awadhi kitchen also embraced other culinary favourites. Fish — which was never really apart of their repertoire — was introduced here. The pride of Bengal, hilsa, was boiled, deboned — an onerous task considering the hundreds of fine bones — and rolled into kebabs. Around this time, the khansamas also experimented with a locally produced soft cheese, better known as Bandel — named after a Portuguese settlement near Kolkata — that was introduced and produced by Portuguese traders. Almost like feta or paneer, it was a seasonal product that blended well in the Ghutwan Kebab. But, we shall leave that story for another day. Here are Manzilat Khan’s biryani, qorma and mutton resala recipes.
Serving: 10 people
1kg – Rice
2kg – Mutton (20 pieces)
1.5kg – Potatoes (10 -12 pieces whole or halved, as per preference)
150g – Mustard oil
4 tbsp – Garlic paste
2.5 tsp – Red chilli powder
2 – Cloves
2 – Cardamom
2 – Cinnamon
150g – Curd
1 – Lime juice
1 tsp – Saffron (soaked in warm milk 1/2 Cup with kewra water)
Biryani garam masala powder
For the potatoes
25g – Dalda
Salt as per taste
2 tsp – Red chilli powder
A pinch of colours and/or a few strands of saffron
* Peel potatoes. Wash and pierce them with a fork.
* In a kadhai, take 25g dalda. Heat and add potatoes. Twist and turn for a bit.
* Add salt and water till just a little below the potatoes.
* Add 1/2 tsp chilli powder, a pinch of colour and boil on medium flame till done.
* Keep aside
For the qorma
100g – Dalda
2 – Cardamom
2 – Cinnamon
2 – Cloves
2 – Onions
4 tbsp – Ginger garlic paste
1 tsp – Chilli powder
150g – Curd
* Heat dalda. Add whole garam masalas.
* After 30 seconds, add finely sliced/chopped onions.
* When golden brown, add all the masalas and curd and saute for a while.
* Add mutton and fry.
* Add salt and a little water and pressure cook for 10 minutes after the whistle.
* Keep aside on low flame. For larger quantities, pick out meat pieces and strain the gravy. Take the extract and pour over the layers.
For the rice
* Put up ample water for the rice. Add the bay leaves and a few cloves to the water.
* When the water starts boiling, add rice (washed and soaked for 15-20 minutes).
* Cook the rice till it’s three-fourths done, drain and keep aside, saving 2 cups of starch.
Biryani Garam Masala (make into powder)
10 – Cloves
15 – Green cardamoms
10 – Cinnamon sticks (1 inch pieces)
1 tsp – White pepper
1 tsp – Shahjeera
1/2 tsp – Kababchini
1/4 piece – Nutmeg
1 flower – Javitri
* Grind all into powder in grinder
Final Stage for the Layering
* In a deghchi, settle qorma in the lowest layer.
* Sprinkle 1 tbsp biryani garam masala powder, one lime juice and 4 drops of sweet attar.
* On this, settle the boiled potatoes. Again sprinkle 1 tbsp biryani garam masala powder, four drops of sweet attar and 3 tbsp kewra water.
* Put all the rice and pour 2 cups of starch. Sprinkle saffron soaked in milk evenly on the rice layer.
* Seal the deghchi lid with atta dough.
1/2 kg – Curd
1 cup – Coriander leaves
1 cup – Mint leaves (make into green paste)
4 – Green chillies
1 tsp – Black salt
1 tsp – White salt
1 tbsp – Cumin and pepper powder
* Mix water with curd and mix well with whisker.
* Add green paste.
1kg – Meat (Chaap pieces preferably)
2 – Onions (medium-sized, finely chopped)
100g – Dalda
2 – Cloves
3 – Cardamoms
1 inch piece of cinnamon
2 tbsp – Ginger garlic
250g – Curd
2 tbsp – Coconut paste
2 tbsp – Cashewnut paste
1 tbsp – Poppy seeds (posto)
3 tsp – Flour
3 cups – Milk
2 – Red chillies (whole)
A few lotus seeds (talmakhana)
4 drops – Sweet attar
1/2 tsp – Biryani garam masala
1 tbsp – Kewra water
Method for meat
* Heat ghee and add whole garam masala.
* After 30 seconds, add chopped onions till translucent.
* Add mutton and fry. Pour some water and cook till done.
* In another deghchi, take 2 tbsp of dalda fry.
* Add 2 cups of milk and stir with a whisker so that no lumps are formed.
* Now add pre-whipped curd along with coconut, cashew and poppy paste.
* To this mixture, add cooked meat. Mix the entire mixture gently.
* Add more milk to adjust consistency according to preference of gravy.
* Season with biryani masala, sweet attar and kewra water.
* Leave on sim till dalda appears on surface.