The biryani is a royal dish. Like the Taj Mahal, it is a fusion of Persian and Central Asian influence on the Indian subcontinent. It was a staple of the Mughal court and is now a favourite in many parts of India, with each region producing its own unique variant. The biryani I make is from a family recipe going back centuries. It has travelled from the palaces of Lucknow in North India to Calcutta and now London.
The Calcutta biryani is unusual as it contains potatoes and is less spicy than the biryanis you find in the north or Mumbai. The origin of the word “biryani” is the Persian word بریان beryaan which means roasted/grilled. The Persian influence is also evident in the addition of aloo bukhara (dried plum) to the version of biryani. Aloo which usually means potato in hindi/urdu, means something else in this instance. Aloo is a variation of the Farsi word alu (plum) and Bukhara is a reference to the ancient city with which India had a lot of trade along the old silk route.
The potato in the biryani is my favourite bit of the dish! The story of the why potatoes were added in the Calcutta biryani is an interesting one. The cooks of the court of the last Nawab of Awadh (who was exiled to a suburb of Calcutta in 1856) came up with this innovative addition due to financial difficulties! Today the addition of potatoes is what makes this biryani different from the versions in Lucknow and Hyderabad.
The rice, meat and potatoes are all cooked separately (all have to be 3/4 cooked) and then layered in a degh (large pot) and spices added in between the layers. The traditional spices are nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, cardamon, cloves and bay leaves. Saffron infused milk, dried prunes and keora water (rose water) are also added to the put before the lid is sealed with a flour paste and the biryani is cooked. The cooking process is called “dum”. In a modern western kitchen it is difficult to replicate the traditional method of using coal embers and wood to cook this final stage of the biryani. An iron plate is a good substitute. When the biryani is ready to serve and the seal is removed….the aroma from the biryani is absolutely exquisite.