Who put the Potato in the Kolkata Biryani?

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    Kolkata’s famous biryani is not just to die for; every serving contains a delicious piece of history. And the ‘history’ in the dish lies in the potato, the Kolkata version of the biryani being the only one to include the root vegetable in what is essentially a preparation of meat and rice.

    So who put the potato in the Kolkata biryani? While there’s an oft-told tale to explain this, the truth appears quite different.

    Biryani is said to have been brought to Kolkata by Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh, who was deposed by the British in 1856. Wajid Ali Shah travelled to Kolkata, from where he planned to visit England to plead his case before Queen Victoria. The last ruler of Awadh, the Nawab intended to appeal against what he believed was an illegal move by the British East India Company, who had dethroned him to annex his kingdom.

    Wajid Ali Shah never made it to England. First, he took ill, and when the Great Revolt broke out the next year, it wasn’t safe for him to return to his beloved Awadh. It had been sacked by the British. Wajid Ali Shah was, therefore, granted an estate in an area to the west of Kolkata, known as Metiabruz, where he built a mini-Lucknow to mimic the one he was forced to leave behind.

    The heartbroken Nawab had brought with him much of the culture of Lucknow. Along came members of his court, an army of servants and regular folk to populate this new and improvised Awadh. He also built many grand Islamic structures here, to recreate the ambience of his erstwhile capital, and introduced many Awadhi traditions such as its music, kite-flying, fine tailoring and, of course, its famous cuisine.

    The kitchens in Wajid Ali Shah’s Metiabruz estate were soon cooking up the famous Awadhi biryani, a slow-cooked,aromatic rice-and-meat dish that some say was first served during the construction of the Bara Imambara of Lucknow in the late 18th century.

    But the deposed Nawab had fallen on hard times and could not afford the vast amounts of meat that biryani required. To cut costs, the proportion of meat to rice was reduced and meat was replaced with potato – or so the story goes.

    Had Wajid Ali Shah really fallen on hard times? Contemporary documents do not support this claim. The Nawab maintained, among other things, a large menagerie of animals. This zoo housed tigers and leopards, which had to be fed meat on a daily basis. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones writes in her book The Last King in India (2014), that Wajid Ali Shah was spending a whopping 9,000 rupees a month on food for his animals. He was anything but poor!

    So if it wasn’t an impoverished king who put the potato into the Kolkata biryani, then who did?

    The answer, more likely, lies in the journey of the potato in India. It might surprise you to know that the potato, which is so basic to Indian cuisine today, is not native to India.

    Potatoes were introduced to Western India in the early 17th century by the Portuguese. It is still known in Western India by its original Portuguese name – ‘batata'.

    In a paper written for the Lima-based International Potato Centre, an agriculture research institute that aims to achieve food security through research on the potato and other tubers, B N Srivastava details how the potato spread across India. It was probably first introduced in Surat, from where it travelled to Goa. Hence the Goan name for the potato is ‘Batata Surrata’ or ‘potato of Surat’. Within the next 60 years, the potato spread across Western India, from Ajmer to Karnataka, but it would enter Tamil Nadu only in 1882.

    In its early days, the potato was an exotic ingredient. A writer on food history, Anil Paralakar writes that “when the British governor of Bombay received ‘a very acceptable present’ of a dozen pounds of potatoes in the late 18th century, he was so delighted that he organised a high society dinner party to share this ‘rare vegetable’.”

    The earliest reference to potatoes in West Bengal is as recent as 1879, when the British Resident of Darjeeling wanted to establish a botanical garden there after having obtained potato seeds from England. If the potato arrived in West Bengal in 1879, then Nawab Wajid Ali Shah would be dead only 8 years later.

    What chance is there that he or his chefs were responsible for introducing potato into the biryani? And even if they did, it would make more sense to say that they did it to add a rare and exotic ingredient to the dish, rather than to replace expensive protein with cheap starch!

    Kolkata-based food writer Poorna Banerjee says that while Wajid Ali Shah may have introduced biryani to Kolkata, he had nothing to do with the addition of potato to the dish. “Adding potatoes to biryani happened after the 1950s as biryani gained popularity among the masses and ordinary Kolkatans found the meat-heavy dish too expensive.”

    The debate continues to this day but it doesn’t really matter. The Kolkata biryani is relished just as much as its Awadhi and Hyderabadi counterparts. And occupying pride of place is its signature ingredient – the potato.

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