The Story Of Our Beloved Kolkata Biryani

A biryani without potatoes is OK, but it is not true Kolkata biryani.

If you are in Kolkata and ask for a plate of biryani at any of the city’s restaurants serving Awadhi or Mughlai cuisine, you will be invariably served a dish full of flavoursome rice with a piece of meat and a large, boiled potato. Yes, that is the hallmark of the biryani that evolved here and has retained its popularity for more than 150 years.

It was a food connoisseur and not an impoverished royal who encouraged the adding of potato to the sacrosanct Awadhi biryani, explains Shahanshah Mirza, the great-great grandson of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow, every time he is asked the reason behind the addition of this ubiquitous root vegetable.


If you are in Kolkata and ask for a plate of biryani at any of the city’s restaurants serving Awadhi or Mughlai cuisine, you will be invariably served a dish full of flavoursome rice with a piece of meat and a large, boiled potato. Yes, that is the hallmark of the biryani that evolved here and has retained its popularity for more than 150 years.

It was a food connoisseur and not an impoverished royal who encouraged the adding of potato to the sacrosanct Awadhi biryani, explains Shahanshah Mirza, the great-great grandson of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow, every time he is asked the reason behind the addition of this ubiquitous root vegetable.


Nawab Wajid Ali Shah arrived in Kolkata in May 1856 to seek audience with the then Governor General Lord Dalhousie under whose bidding the Nawab’s kingdom (Oudh or Awadh, now Lucknow) was annexed by the English East India Company. He not only failed in his mission but any hope of returning to his kingdom was also dashed with the 1857 rebellion against the colonial powers. The Nawab was initially arrested, freed, offered a pension and allowed to settle down in Metiabruz, a little known neighbourhood of Calcutta (now Kolkata), verging on the picturesque Garden Reach on the Hooghly.

Slowly, the Nawab began to carve out a mini Lucknow at the edge of Kolkata, complete with the Awadhi architectural and cultural ambience. He built mosques, imambara, palaces, and even a zoo. The Nawab was accompanied by a large number of people from his court in Lucknow, including his cooks and kitchen staff. But they had to make do with locally available ingredients. It is believed that during this time, the cook may have introduced the potato, which was then an exotic vegetable. The potato was introduced to India by the Portuguese and, to Bengal by the British, according to the author of Culinary Culture in Colonial India, Utsa Ray.

The Nawab likely relished the taste of the potato cooked to perfection after being marinated in the juice of the meat and other ingredients, which encouraged the cook to continue with the adapted recipe.

Therefore, to all those who say the potato was added to replace the meat because the Nawab’s coffers were depleting and he did not have enough money to feed the large number of people, Mirza does not fail to point out that during the phase the potato was added to the biryani, the Nawab, among other things, used to maintain a large open-air zoo for which he regularly bought animals or birds. “Could he have done it if he was facing a paucity of funds?” asks Mirza.


Manzilat Fatima, the Nawab’s great granddaughter, who wears many hats, including that of a home chef, also corroborates on her website that the exotic potato was a luxury that only the rich could afford and not the common people.

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