Authentic Kolkata Biryani- Tracing Roots & Bridging Cultures


The classic Kolkata chicken biryani with its juicy tender meat, mild & fragrant spices & succulent potatoes, is inspired heavily by the Awadhi style.

As I write this, fond memories of Arsalan, Shiraz & Aminia just keep coming back🤍 The city’s love for this stellar dish can be experienced through the countless biryani eateries strewn across its length and breadth.

Source: YouTube

The seeds were planted in the mid 1800s when the 10th Nawab of Awadh (or Oudh) was exiled from Lucknow and his properties were seized by the British. He moved with his entourage to Metiabruz in Calcutta, which soon became a cultural mecca thriving with musicians, courtesans, royal kitchen khansamas (cooks), skilled darzis (tailors), et al.

The Nawab was a man of taste and a well known connoisseur of food. He had his royal kitchen khansamas with him who were some of the best of those times- highly skilled, enterprising and always innovating to indulge and delight the Nawab’s tastebuds.

That’s how Awadhi biryani which is cooked in the dum-pukht style reached Calcutta. In dum-pukht style of cooking, the rice and the meat korma is cooked separately and then layered in the pot on which the lid is sealed tightly with dough so that the steam doesn’t dissipate and flavours remain intact.

This ingenious method results in the exotic aromatic juices from the meat to ooze into the rice and potatoes, creating a subtle yet exquisite flavour in the biryani.

All great so far!

But how did the humble (or not so humble) potato and egg come into the picture?

If you ask me, I would say the potato is my favourite thing about biryani. Only those who have tasted Kolkata biryani would truly understand what I’m saying! Undoubtedly, it is the humble soft potato that connects true blue Calcuttans across the globe and sparks debate (at the drop of a hat) about the best biryani joints in Kolkata.

There’s a lot of literature out there discussing the origin/ history of adding potatoes. On researching, most sources lean towards the theory that with the Nawab’s wealth depleting, the purse strings were tightened but being a gourmet, he always enjoyed having his royal meals. So his khansamas began innovating in the kitchen to find ways to satiate him, hence the inclusion of potatoes (and later on eggs) to stay within budget. Click here to read more.

But there’s another side to this claim which states that potato was actually considered an exotic vegetable. According to the great-great-grandson of the Nawab Shahanshah Mirza, as mentioned in an article published by Hindustan Times, potato cultivation was sparse in those days and hence not readily available, making it a luxury produce.

The khansamas simply experimented one day with potatoes in the biryani which the Nawab seemed to relish and approve of, and that’s how potatoes got introduced in Kolkata biryani 🙂 You can read the complete article here

For the chicken biryani, I blindly followed Manzilat Fatima’s brilliant recipe (she draws her lineage from Awadh’s royal family), noting down every single ingredient and technique that went into making this phenomenal dish, which she shared in a YouTube video by Delhi Food Walks🤍 Only exception being the eggs which I added, as I love eggs 😀

Manzilat Fatima’s famous Kolkata biryani recipe


I have tried her recipe for at least 7-8 times now and every single time the flavours simply knock your socks off! There’s no going back now. Watch the video to get her mind blowing recipe or you can continue to read below where I have broken down her recipe in 4 simple steps (for 3 servings):

Step 1

Peel 4 potatoes and fry them in mustard oil. Sprinkle salt, 1/3 tsp turmeric and a little red chilli powder while frying. Add little water, cover and continue to fry them. Keep aside when almost done.

Now heat some more mustard oil and fry 1 large red onion to make barista. Drain and keep aside on a paper towel.

Step 2

Heat mustard oil in a handi (or a deep bottomed pan). Add 4-5 cloves, 6 green cardamoms, 1 black cardamom and 2 cinnamon sticks. Fry for a while and add the fried barista again. Throw in 2 fat cloves of crushed garlic and fry for a few seconds.

Now add 2 tbsp hung yogurt and mix well. Add little red chilli powder, 2 tbsp biryani masala (I used Shan Pilau Biryani masala, it’s fantastic!) and mix well. Now add 2 inch grated ginger and fry everything for a while. Add 6 chicken thighs (bone-in) and cook on medium heat for 5-7 mins. Lower the flame, cover and keep cooking.

Step 3

Wash and soak 11/2 cup rice for 1 hour. Drain and keep in a colander. Now boil a pot of water and add 4 cloves, 4 cardamoms and 2 bay leaves while boiling.

Once it comes to a rolling boil, add 1 tbsp lemon juice, salt to taste and the drained rice.

Cook until the rice is about 90% done.

Step 4

In the korma handi/ pan, gently place the potatoes and sprinkle a tsp of kewra water. Next, assemble the rice and pour half a cup of milk mixed with 1 tsp biryani masala on top.

Mix 2 tsp kewra water with saffron strands and drizzle over rice. Drizzle some ghee (clarified butter) and place 2 boiled eggs. I had some extra onion barista which I sprinkled on top. Now place an aluminum foil on top of the handi and seal it properly.

Cover with a lid on top and cook on low heat for 30 mins. Keep a standing time of at least 5 mins.

Prawn Momo (Dumpling) with Chili Oil & Prawn Broth: A taste of the hills

For as long as I can remember, the last week of the year always meant holidays- waking up late without the alarm bell ringing, lazing around, reflecting on the year gone by and gorging on good food. Over the years the circumstances may have changed but what remained constant is food being part of all the year end celebrations.

‘Momos’ as they are popularly known in India/ Nepal, are these juicy succulent meat fillings wrapped in a thin moist crescent-shaped wrap resembling a dumpling.

I still remember the first time I had momos/ dumplings, I was probably 11 or 12 and quite intrigued but also repulsed by the idea of chomping down a weird looking dough ball that was steamed and not fried. But one bite and god was I hooked! What the neighbourhood street shack sold was more of an onion momo than chicken, which I later realised as I grew up 😀 Nevertheless, I was totally in love.

Since then I have come a long way and have had my share of lip-smacking dumplings from amazing joints in Calcutta, the hills of Darjeeling, Nepal and Bhutan. Nothing is as comforting as freshly steamed momos dipped in spicy chili oil with a bowl of steaming hot clear soup. Nomnomnom….

The Nepalese ones remain my favourite because of their simplicity and use of fresh ingredients. On monsoon afternoons or on cold winter nights like now in Toronto, when my heart cries out for something piping hot, I can only think of momos.

These are so delicate and bursting with flavour, that you would find it difficult to stop as the juices ooze out with every bite 🙂

Ingredients (15-16 medium sized momos):

For stuffing:

14 large prawns deveined & shell removed, finely chopped (not minced)

3 tbsp finely chopped coriander

3 tbsp finely chopped green onion/ spring onion

2 tbsp finely chopped red onion

2 finely chopped green chilies

1 tbsp finely chopped fresh ginger

2 tbsp soy sauce

1 heaped tbsp butter

Salt & pepper to taste

For wrapper:

2 cups all purpose flour/ maida

1/2 tsp salt

Water to knead soft dough

For Chili Oil:

[The stunning chili oil recipe is by one of my favourite food bloggers Nambie. You can find this and more of her delicious recipes on YouTube under Eat Your Kappa]

3 tsp Chili flakes

3 tsp chilli powder/ paprika

1 tbsp white sesame seeds

1 cup olive oil (or any unflavoured oil)

3 large roughly chopped ginger pieces (about 1 inch each)

1 roughly chopped onion

Few sprigs of coriander leaves

2 roughly chopped spring onions

2 bay leaves

1 tbsp sichuan pepper

2 tbsp vinegar

1 tsp aniseed or fennel

1 large cinnamon

1 staranise

Salt & sugar to taste

For prawn broth:

2 tbsp oil

1/2 roughly chopped onion

2-3 large ginger chunks

1 fat garlic clove minced

1 roughly chopped carrot

1 tsp whole peppercorn

1 bay leaf

Prawn shells (of the 15 prawns)

1 chicken bullion

3 cups water

Salt & pepper to taste

Method:

Step 1

Start with the broth. Heat a deep bottomed pot with oil and add the bay leaf and peppercorns. Throw in the onion, ginger, minced garlic and carrots. Sauté for a while until fragrant. Now add the prawn shells and stir fry again until they release all the juices. Add 3 cups of water and a chicken bullion and let it simmer on low heat, uncovered and come to a boil. Keep removing the scum from time to time to keep the broth clear. Add salt and pepper and continue to simmer. In about 1-1.5 hours, the broth will be ready. Strain and serve in soup bowls, garnished with chopped green onions.

Step 2

Mix the chopped prawn with all the ingredients listed under ‘stuffing’ in a bowl and keep it marinated for at least 30 minutes.

Step 3

Mix the flour with salt and start kneading the dough by pouring water little at a time to ensure a soft dough. Keep it wrapped in a plastic for 15 mins.

Step 4

While we wait for the prawns and the dough ready to be used, let’s make the chili oil. In a bowl, add the chili flakes, chili powder, sesame seeds, salt and sugar and mix well.

Now heat a cup of oil in a wok until smoking hot and throw in roughly chopped veggies, bay leaves, sichuan pepper, fennel seeds, cinnamon and star anise. Let them fry well on medium heat. Once the veggies have browned and the spices cooked, strain the oil. Add the hot oil in the dry ingredients bowl and mix everything well with a spoon. Finally add some vinegar and viola! Your chili oil is ready.

This is such a life changing recipe by Nambie and you can store this oil for a couple of months.

Step 5

Time to make the momos/ dumplings!

Divide the dough into equal 15-16 portions and roll out very thinly. The wraps should be more thicker on the center but thinner on the outside. Take one wrap and place some prawn mix in the center with a spoon. To seal the momos securely, tap the edges of the wrap with some water on your finger. Start folding and pleating the wrap into your desired dumpling shape.

Line the momos in a bamboo steamer basket or on a steel stand in a deep bottom pan and steam for 15 minutes. You can even make them in your instant pot like I did. I placed a steel steamer basket inside the instant pot and used the steam function for 8 minutes to get the perfect dumplings.

Serve them hot with the chili oil and a side of prawn clear broth.

Step 6

Eat and get lost in the winding roads of the misty hills :))

Boozy Holiday Fruit Cake (Eggless) & a Christmas Nostalgia

Boozy holiday rich fruit cake (eggless) with dried cranberries, dates and raisins soaked in red wine for a month!

Christmas in Calcutta is an emotion. While it may ruffle some feathers, I have to admit that Calcutta is probably the most secular city in India which celebrates festivals like Christmas not out of any religious compulsion but because it’s a delightful celebration of life, something that lifts your spirits.

For those of us who grew up in Calcutta, the festival is synonymous with Nahoum’s rich fruit cake. Surprisingly in December the whole city gets busy in Christmas preps, and the Jewish bakeries and neighbourhood confectionaries start selling homemade plum cakes that are made with rum soaked raisins, dates and candied peels. All of a sudden, Ruma kakima’s sleepy bakery in the dusty bylanes of Free School Street is abuzz with activities.

Nahoum’s will remain my most favourite always- their dense and rich fruit cakes are so moist and loaded with dry fruits. This is my ode to their legendary cakes as i reminisce about the bygone Christmas days of my adolescence when I would patiently wait in a long queue outside the store with my mum just to get my share of treats. That was my Santa moment.

The authentic Christmas plum cake/ fruit cake in Calcutta is prepared with dried fruits soaked in rum for a prolonged period and most recipes are handed down through generations. I have used red wine instead and have also used greek yogurt instead of eggs which is honestly unthinkable in the original recipe. But then sometimes it’s okay to deviate from the original and tweak things here and there just for fun, doesn’t take away anything from the classic 🙂

Ingredients:

Chopped dried cranberries, black raisins, sultanas, pitted dates, candied ginger soaked in red wine (or dark rum) for at least 2-3 weeks (the longer the better)

11/2 cup all purpose flour

1/4 tsp each of ground cinnamon, clove and nutmeg

1 tbsp orange zest

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 cup olive oil (or any vegetable oil)

1 cup brown sugar (preferably) or raw cane sugar (no white sugar)

1 cup greek yogurt

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup of chopped mixed nuts like almonds, pistachios and cashews

Method:

In a mixing bowl, add 1/2 cup olive oil and 1 cup brown sugar. Whisk it well for a couple of minutes until well combined.

Now add the yogurt and vanilla extract and whisk again. It will take a couple of minutes to whisk everything to a smooth consistency.

In a separate bowl, mix all the dry ingredients. Start with 11/2 cup of all purpose flour. Toss in the ground spices, orange zest (make sure to avoid grating the bitter white pith), baking soda, baking powder and mix everything well with the whisk.

Now throw in the flour mixture into the wet bowl and fold with a spatula. No whisking from this point anymore and also ensure that you don’t overmix the batter. The batter is supposed to be dense and heavy.

The last step is to add the chopped nuts and soaked dried fruits into the cake batter and fold again with the spatula. Reserve some of the soaked fruits for spooning on top of the cake.

Line a square baking pan with a parchment paper and pour in the batter. Sprinkle the remaining soaked dried fruits on top and bake in a pre heated oven at 160 degree C for around 60 minutes. Let it cool down completely before serving.

*Some tips*

Always pack the cake tightly in an aluminum foil to store it. This preserves its shape and moisture.

The cake tastes better with time. The longer it soaks all the goodness from the rum/ wine, the better it tastes.

‘Feed’ the cake with wine/ rum by poking holes all over it with a toothpick and then keep it tightly packed.

Could it get any boozier??

NOLEN GURER PAYESH (Rice Pudding with Date Palm Jaggery)

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For me, this very name brings back a lot of memories. No festival/ wedding/ function in winters is complete without a dessert made with nolen gur. The sheer variety of desserts that can be made using this lip smacking gur/ jaggery is endless. From payesh to pitheys, ice cream, sandesh, and so much more! Every household has their own version of this dish and today I am going to share with you how my mum cooks it. She is now here with me in KL, and she got some nolen gur packed for me from India. Yay!! S loves anything sweet and I am always looking for ways to satiate his sweet tooth, so what better than homemade payesh. Its gluten free and the best thing? It was cooked by mum and it tasted heavenly! Someone rightly said, Desserts is stressed spelled backwards 😀

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There are certain ‘musts’ in this recipe to make the authentic payesh. The first is Date Palm Jaggery or Nolen Gur/ Notun Gur. In India, this particular jaggery is available only in winters and it is an inherent part of the culinary tradition of Bengal in winters. It has a rich nutty flavour and simply melts in your mouth when you take a bite. The second one is the type of rice to be used, which is Gobindobhog (an aromatic rice). You can substitute it with basmati rice but it won’t be the real deal 🙂

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Ingredients (to serve 4-5 people):

  • 1 Litre full cream milk (full fat or full cream milk is essential for that creamy consistency)
  • 60-65gm gobindobhog/ basmati rice (this ratio is important! For every 1 l milk, approx. 60gm of rice to be used)
  • Nolen gur/ Date Palm Jaggery (no strict measurement for this, as per your taste)

*Note: If you don’t have date palm jaggery, you may substitute it with date syrup available in most groceries or brown sugar*

  • 2 tsp Raisins
  • Few crushed green cardamoms
  • 2-3 bay leaf
  • Almonds for garnishing

Method:

In a deep bottomed pan, heat the milk. Let it come to a boil while stirring continuously, so that no cream is formed. While the milk is boiling, add the crushed cardomoms and the bay leaves and keep stirring with the ladle until the milk thickens. Now add the rice into the pan (the rice should be washed and dried on a flat surface before adding into the milk). Again keep stirring and when the rice is completely cooked, throw in the jaggery or sugar and mix well till completely dissolved in milk. Once the pudding thickens to your desired consistency, add the raisins and switch off the flame after 2-3 minutes. Garnish with dry fruits of your choice. You may serve it hot or chilled, tastes great both ways 🙂

3 important tips to remember for the perfect payesh:

  1. Always use full cream milk for best results.
  2. While cooking, keep stirring the milk continuously so that no cream/ layer forms on top.
  3. Most importantly, keep in mind that the jaggery/ sugar should always be added after the rice is cooked perfectly. Once the sweet goes in, the rice stops getting cooked further.

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Ray classic Mahanagar & Narkel diye aloo posto (fried potatoes with grated coconut & poppy seeds)

Sunday is the golden clasp that binds together the volume of the week   -H.W Longfellow

Since childhood, Sundays have always meant celebration. From waking up late to watching television for an extra hour, lazing around, playing with friends in the park even in scorching heat & most importantly that special Sunday lunch. Bongs are very emotional about this one meal of the week when everyone’s at home, no school, no office, no weekday stress & mommy cooking up a storm in the kitchen 🙂

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mahanagar
Image source: http://www.exoticindiaart.com

It was as special as a five course meal at a fine dining restaurant. But it had to be a true blue bengali meal through & through. From shaak bhaja (stir fried greens) to shukto (bong style mix veg curry, slightly sweet), daal (lentils), maacher jhol (fish curry), kosha mangsho (spicy sauteed mutton), chaatni (a sweet relish made with mango/ dry fruits/ tomato) & doi (yogurt) preferably mishti/ sweet. Yes! All these were a part of our sunday meals.

Even to this day, Sunday lunch is a big deal. If I am home, I try to cook something traditional, simple & comforting. Just how home made meals should be 🙂

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Last Saturday for dinner, the husband & I went to a swanky Japanese bbq restaurant. Though the food was nice but it was a little too bland for my liking 😛 Blame it on my love for all things spicy!

So naturally, we were craving for some simple home made food for lunch. I made the following:

  • Bhaja moong’er dal motorshuti diye (yellow lentils with peas)
  • Narkel aloo posto (fried potatoes with grated coconut & poppy seeds)
  • Begun’er jhal (A spicy eggplant curry)
  • Shaada bhaat (Plain white rice)

Bhaaja Moong'er dal motorshuti diye
Bhaaja Moong’er dal motorshuti diye

Begun'er jhaal
Begun’er jhaal

Narkel diye aloo posto
Narkel diye aloo posto

Shaada bhaat
Shaada bhaat

Yeah no longer a five course meal but tasty & filling nonetheless 🙂

We also follow a tradition of watching a movie at home in the afternoon post lunch, some old classic. ‘Mahanagar’ (a Satyajit Ray masterpiece) it was this time. A contemporary movie about a housewife in Calcutta who despite coming from a traditional family gets a saleswoman job & feels economically emancipated. The movie remarkably explored the social dynamics of the 60’s & is widely regarded as one of Ray’s greatest films.

Recipe: Narkel diye aloo posto

Ingredients:

  • 6-8 medium sized potatoes, diced in cubes
  • 3 tbs oil (I used olive oil)
  • 3 green chillis slit
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tbs ginger paste
  • 1 cup grated coconut
  • 1/2 cup poppy seeds paste
  • 1 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp red chilli powder
  • salt to taste
  • sugar to taste

Method:

For the poppy seeds paste, take 3 tbsp of poppy seeds in a bowl. Add 1 green chilli, some salt and a little warm water and keep aside for about 30 mins. Grind them into a smooth paste.

Now heat oil in a wok, add the slit chillis & cumin seeds into it. Keep stirring for 30 seconds and throw in the ginger paste. Once the raw smell is gone, add the grated coconut & stir well. Turn the heat to medium. It will take about 4-5 minutes for the coconut to brown & get that wonderful aroma.

Now add the diced potatoes & fry well. Sprinkle some salt, sugar, turmeric & red chilli powder & keep stirring until the potatoes are almost done. Add the poppy paste & mix everything together. Cook for 5 more minutes & you are done!

Serve hot with rice/ rotis.