The Taste With Vir: To potato or not to potato with Biryani

It’s a very simple question: should you put a potato in your biryani?

There are places where this seemingly innocuous question will provoke such strong emotions that you may regret having asked it. One such place is social media.

Ask me. I should know.

A few days ago I posted a photograph of a biryani with boiled eggs and potatoes mixed with the rice and meat on Twitter. This was enough to set off a storm. On one side were ranged the Bengalis on Twitter (often the most articulate group on social media) who recognized the biryani as one of their own. And on the other was nearly everybody else. This included biryani purists from Lucknow and others from Hyderabad who claimed that their versions were the only real biryanis.

If you are unfamiliar with the biryani wars, then here’s some of the background. Biryani was invented in Delhi. (Don’t believe all that nonsense about it being a Persian dish. There is no rice dish called biryani in Iran.) It travelled from Delhi to Lucknow (Awadh) where it attained what many people (mainly people from Lucknow, admittedly) consider its most sublime from — though in Lucknow, chefs prefer to call it a pulao. When the Mughals sent a Governor to the South, to set up a court in Hyderabad, the dish travelled with him and took on a new form. This was the creation of the tangier Hyderabadi Biryani.

Till recently, most Indian restaurants served either Awadhi biryani or Hyderabadi. As time has gone on though, a hybrid (Awadh style but with some Hyderabadi flavours) biryani created by ITC for its Dum Pukht restaurants (in which each portion of biryani is served in an individual pot, its top sealed with flour), has become the reference biryani for many upmarket restaurants.

This is well and good but it obscures the fact that there are biryanis all over India which are just as good. Many of them, I suspect, are rice-and-meat dishes that predated the Mughals but which we now call biryani. The biryanis of Kerala are one obvious example.

But because we think of biryani as a North Indian dish, chefs struggle to find nawabi origins for every biryani. In Bengal, they say that when Wajid Ali Shah was exiled there he asked his chefs to recreate his favourite Awadhi biryani. Just as the Hyderabadi biryani may have had its roots in Delhi or Awadh but is quite distinct and different, the Bengal Biryani now has little to do with the biryanis of Lucknow (Awadh) or Delhi.

A key point of difference is the potato

We can be sure that when Mughal cooks made biryani, they did not use potatoes because the vegetable itself was only introduced to India by Europeans. (It was discovered in South America.) But by the time Wajid Ali Shah was exiled to Bengal (1856), the British had planted potatoes in many parts of India even though they had not yet become part of the general diet.

There are two versions of how the potato became an integral part of the Calcutta biryani. The nice-nice version is that Wajid Ali Shah was so delighted by a biryani with potatoes that he made it the Court recipe. The more cynical version is that his family did not have the money to put lots of meat into biryani. So it settled on the cheaper potato as a way of extending 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 become the standard biryani in Bengal and in parts of neighbouring Bihar (where many of the biryani cooks in Calcutta come from). If Wajid Ali Shah’s original intention had truly been to enjoy the biryani of his native Awadh, then his legacy does not reflect that. The Bengal biryani is as much like an Awadhi biryani as an eagle is like a penguin: they may both be birds but that’s about it.

Till recently, the Bengal biryani was a local delicacy but now, fortunately, regional biryanis are entering the culinary mainstream and challenging the hegemony of the North Indian biryani. This has caused immense grief to so-called biryani purists who rage against the Bengal biryani. And Bengals are almost fanatically loyal to their own biryani. Hence the conflict and the fireworks.

At the centre of the objection to the Bengal biryani is the potato. It is not authentic, say the purists. If ‘authentic’ means that it was not 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 think that this is much of an 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. (As a matter of interest 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 seventh century.)

It is possible that, as is the case in Kerala, the Gujarati Muslim rice dishes were not called biryanis till the term gained popularity a thousand years later but they are certainly not recent inventions. And because many of these Gujarati communities lived on the coast and worked as traders, it is possible that they had greater access to new vegetables and ingredients from abroad.

Even Sindhis add potato to their biryani. Just as so many North Indians are now fulminating against Bengali biryani, there has been a Punjabi vs Sindhi divide in the Pakistani city of Karachi where the Punjabis have complained about the Sindhi love of a biryani with potatoes.

So a potato packed biryani is not a novel concept restricted only to Bengal and popularized by the descendants of an exiled nawab. You find it all over the sub-continent.

But why hasn’t it penetrated very far into the Hindu heartland?

I asked Kurush Dalal, the culinary historian, about this.

He said he found it interesting that there were “bizarre similarities on both the coasts”.

Dalal is right. While people rave and rant about Bengal biryani, they forget that biryani with potatoes is also found at many biryani-restaurants in Mumbai. The reason is simple enough. Many of the great Mumbai Muslim restaurants have Gujarati Muslim owners.

Sadly many of them don’t serve the food of their own communities but prefer a faux – North Indian menu. They give themselves away however when you try their biryani which often include potatoes, which is not a very North Indian thing to do.

Dalal suggests that many Gujarati Muslims are shrewd businessmen and recognized long ago that you could slash the costs of making a biryani if you replaced some of the meat with potatoes.

One consequence of this is that Mumbai people are not as horrified by the idea of a biryani with potatoes (or even boiled eggs) because they have regularly eaten such biryanis and have been told that they are North Indian in origin. (It is still hard to get authentic Awadhi biryanis in Mumbai.)

Nor do people in Mumbai have much interest in the Court cuisine traditions that surround biryani elsewhere. Even in Calcutta where biryani places sell inexpensive versions of the dish, they go on and on about Wajid Ali Shah and claim that the founders of all the restaurants were Court cooks. Mumbai’s biryanis are made by members of a trading community and while they may not be true to the cuisine of any one community, they are totally egalitarian.

It is possible that some of the contempt people who claim to be biryani purists have for potato-biryani is because they feel they deviate from the traditions of the Emperors, the Nawabs and the Nizams.

At a Mughal feast, a biryani was just one of the many dishes served. In Calcutta, biryani is the whole meal. And that may be crucial.

Anjan Chatterjee who makes a Bengali biryani at his very successful Oh Calcutta chain of restaurants, emphasises that in Bengal, a biryani is one pot meal. Because it is often all you will eat, the emphasis is on heartiness. The potato and the egg bulk out the dish and make the meal more complete.

Most modern chefs do not look down on a potato biryani, despite all the social media snobbery. I asked Asma Khan (who was brought up in Calcutta) if she put potatoes into her famous biryani. She said she did but added that this was not so unusual. “I believe Sindhis add it too — also many Kashmiris living in Pakistan say they add aloo. So it is 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 potato is an excellent alternative to absorb the flavour of rice and spices.”

I tend to agree with Atul. I love both Awadhi and Hyderbadi biryanis but I think the potato adds an extra something to biryani. Normally, there is just meat and rice but the texture that the potato adds gives the biryani another dimension.

As Kurush Dalal says, cooks who add potatoes to biryani are more concerned with the texture than flavour. He points out that the potato is almost always fried before being added. The frying ensures that it keeps its shape and retains its texture through the cooking process. It is the bite that the potato adds that the chefs want to preserve.

So: potato or no potato?

Well, frankly, why should we have to choose? Why should anybody? Do we really want to become a society where there is just one kind of biryani? One kind of dal? One kind of roti?

The great thing about biryani is that it is a name given to a family of dishes from all over India that reflect the glory of the region they come from.

People who say that a biryani with potatoes is not a biryani are foolish and narrow-minded. So are all the agitated Bengalis who say on Twitter that there’s only one biryani: theirs.

This is India. We speak many languages. But we are one. So it is with our biryanis and pulaos. They take many forms.

But they are our very own.

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