It’s a very simple question: should you put a potato in your biryani?
There are places where this seemingly innocuous question evokes emotions so powerful that you may regret asking it. One such place is social media.
Ask me. I should know
A few days ago, I posted a photo of a biryani with boiled eggs and potatoes mixed with rice and meat on Twitter. This was enough to cause a storm. On one side, there were the Bengalis on Twitter (often the most articulate group on social media), who the Biryani recognized as one of their own. And on the other side was almost everyone else. These included biryani purists from Lucknow and others from Hyderabad who claimed their versions were the only real biryanis.
If you are unfamiliar with the Biryani Wars, here is some background information. Biryani was invented in Delhi. (Don’t believe all the nonsense that it is a Persian dish. There is no rice dish called biryani in Iran.) It traveled from Delhi to Lucknow (Awadh), where it achieved what many people (admittedly mostly human beings from) achieved Lucknow) consider its most sublime form – although in Lucknow cooks prefer to call it a pulao. When the Mughals sent a governor south to set up a court in Hyderabad, the court traveled with him and took on a new form. This was the creation of the Tangier Hyderabadi Biryani.
Until recently, most Indian restaurants served either Awadhi Biryani or Hyderabadi. Over time, however, it became a hybrid biryani (Awadh style but with some Hyderabadi flavors) that ITC created for its Dum Pukht restaurants (where each serving of biryani is served in a single pot, the top of which is sealed with flour is) the reference biryani for many upscale restaurants.
That’s all well and good, but it obscures the fact that there are biryanis all over India that are just as good. I suspect many of them are rice and meat dishes that were created before the Mughals we now call biryani. The biryanis of Kerala are an obvious example.
But because we consider biryani to be a North Indian dish, the chefs strive to find a Nawabi origin for each biryani. In Bengal it is said that when Wajid Ali Shah was exiled there, he asked his cooks to recreate his favorite awadhi biryani. Just as the Hyderabadi Biryani had their roots in Delhi or Awadh, but are completely different and different, the Bengal Biryani now has little to do with the Biryanis of Lucknow (Awadh) or Delhi.
A key difference is the potato
We can be sure that Mughal cooks who made biryani did not use potatoes as the vegetables themselves were only brought to India by Europeans. (It was discovered in South America.) However, when Wajid Ali Shah was exiled to Bengal (1856), the British had planted potatoes in many parts of India even though they were not yet part of the general diet.
There are two versions of how the potato became an integral part of the Calcutta Biryani. The nice and nice version is that Wajid Ali Shah was so excited about a biryani with potatoes that he made it a recipe for a meal. The more cynical version is that his family didn’t have the money to put a lot of meat in biryani. So it opted for the cheaper potato to add to the biryani. (There is some dispute over the stage at which boiled eggs became part of the recipe.)
For over a century, the meat and potato biryani has been the standard biryani in Bengal and parts of neighboring Bihar (where many of the biryani chefs in Calcutta come from). If Wajid Ali Shah originally intended to truly enjoy his hometown Awadh’s biryani, then his legacy does not reflect that. The Bengali biryani is just as similar to an awadhi biryani as an eagle is to a penguin: they may both be birds, but that’s about it.
Until recently, the Bengali biryani was a local delicacy, but now, luckily, regional biryanis are entering the culinary mainstream, challenging the hegemony of the north Indian biryani. This caused immense sadness for the so-called biryani purists who rage against the Bengali biryani. And Bengalis are almost fanatical about their own biryani. Hence the conflict and the fireworks.
The potato is at the center of the objection to the Bengali biryani. It’s not authentic, say the purists. If “authentic” means it wasn’t part of the original recipe when biryani was invented, that’s fair enough. But rare is the recipe that has remained static for centuries, so I don’t consider this a huge objection.
There is another problem. The addition of the potato is not a purely Bengali thing. There are other communities that add potatoes to their biryani. Many Gujarati Muslims (Khojas, Memons, and Bohras) add potatoes to their biryani. (Interestingly, there were Muslims in Gujarat when the Mughals were still living in the trees. The first mosque in India was built in Gujarat in the 7th century.)
It is possible that, like in Kerala, the Muslim rice dishes from Gujarati were first called biryanis when the term gained popularity a thousand years later, but these are certainly not newer inventions. And because many of these Gujarati communities lived on the coast and worked as traders, it was possible that they had better access to new vegetables and ingredients from abroad.
Even Sindhis add potatoes to their biryani. Just as so many northern Indians are raging against Bengali biryani, there was a rift between Punjabi and Sindhi in the Pakistani city of Karachi, in which the Punjabis complained about the Sindhi love of a biryani with potatoes.
So a potato-wrapped biryani is not a novel concept, limited only to Bengali, and popularized by the descendants of an exiled nawab. You can find it all over the subcontinent.
But why hasn’t it penetrated very far into the Hindu heartland?
I asked Kurush Dalal, the culinary sociologist, about it.
He found it interesting that there were “bizarre similarities” on both coasts.
Dalal is right. While people rave and rave about Bengal biryani, they forget that biryani with potatoes can also be found in many biryani restaurants in Mumbai. The reason is simple enough. Many of the great Muslim restaurants in Mumbai have Muslim owners from Gujarati.
Unfortunately, many of them don’t serve their own community food, preferring a North Indian faux menu. However, they give themselves away when you try their biryani, which often contains potatoes, which is not very North Indian.
Dalal suggests that many Gujarati Muslims are smart business people and realized long ago that if you replaced some of the meat with potatoes, you could cut the cost of making a biryani.
One consequence of this is that the people of Mumbai are not so appalled by the idea of a biryani with potatoes (or even boiled eggs) because they have regularly eaten such biryanis and have learned that they are of North Indian origin. (It’s still hard to get authentic Awadhi biryanis in Mumbai.)
The people of Mumbai are also not particularly interested in the court kitchen traditions that surround biryani elsewhere. Even in Calcutta, where biryani restaurants sell inexpensive versions of the dish, Wajid Ali Shah continues to talk about it, claiming that the founders of all restaurants are court chefs. Mumbai’s biryanis are made by members of a trading community, and while they may not match a community’s cuisine, they are completely egalitarian.
It is possible that some of the despising people who claim to be biryani purists have potato biryanis because they feel they are deviating from the traditions of the emperors, nawabs, and nizams.
At a mogul festival, a biryani was just one of the many dishes served. In Calcutta, biryani is the whole meal. And that can be crucial.
Anjan Chatterjee, who makes a Bengali biryani in his very successful restaurant chain Oh Calcutta, emphasizes that a biryani is a pot dish in Bengal. Since it is often all you will eat, the emphasis is on warmth. The potato and egg fill the dish and make the meal more complete.
Most modern day chefs don’t look down on a potato biryani despite the social media snobbery. I asked Asma Khan (who grew up in Calcutta) if she put potatoes in her famous biryani. She said she did but added that it wasn’t that unusual. “I think Sindhis add it too – many Kashmiris living in Pakistan also say they add aloo. So it’s not just Bengali Biryani. “
Atul Kochhar, another famous Indian chef, argues that potatoes actually add to the appeal of the dish. “Meat used to be expensive,” he said, “and potatoes are a great alternative for adding the flavor of rice and spices.”
I tend to agree with Atul. I love both Awadhi and Hyderbadi biryanis, but I think the potato adds something to biryani. Usually there is only meat and rice, but the texture that the potato adds gives the biryani a different dimension.
As Kurush Dalal says, chefs who add biryani potatoes are more concerned with the texture than the taste. He points out that the potato is almost always fried before adding it. Roasting ensures that it holds its shape and maintains its texture throughout the cooking process. It’s the bite the potato adds that the cooks want to keep.
So: potato or no potato?
Honestly, why should we have to choose? Why should anyone Do we really want to become a society in which there is only one kind of biryani? Some kind of dal? Some kind of roti?
The great thing about Biryani is that it’s a name given to a family of dishes from across India that reflect the fame of the region they are from.
People who say a biryani with potatoes isn’t a biryani are stupid and narrow-minded. So are all excited Bengali who say on Twitter that there is only one Biryani: theirs.
This is India. We speak many languages. But we are one. It is the same with our Biryanis and Pulaos. They take many forms.
But they are our own.
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