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Why potato was added to Calcutta Biriyani by Wajid Ali Shah’s cooks?

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For all lovers of ‘Calcutta Biriyani,’ one ingredient that has always stirred controversy is the potato or aloo and why it was added to the biriyani. No other biriyani form in India usually uses potato as an intrinsic ingredient. We also know this biriyani form was brought to Kolkata by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who had been deported to Kolkata by the British. He brought with him from Awadh, different kinds of Mughlai dishes, that are still very popular in this city. But the common perception or ‘misconception’ among most people is that the Nawab introduced potato in the biriyani, as he had fallen on hard times and could not afford meat, which is the usual ingredient.

But if we trace the history of the introduction of potato to India, one will easily realise that the perception is wrong. In the early part of the 17th-century the Portuguese introduced potato in India. It was first cultivated in Surat, then Goa and then in other parts of the country. In Bengal it came in the 19th century and was brought by some British traders. Hence, potato was never an indigenous food of this country. In those days, cultivation of potato was not done on a mass scale and hence it was an exotic and expensive vegetable, not like today when potato is less costly than other vegetables.

Wajid Ali Shah was a great connoisseur of food and he gave a free hand to his chef to experiment with different ingredients. One of his chefs added the exotic potato to find how the biriyani would taste with it. Awadhi biriyani is usually cooked in dumphukt style, where the steam is not allowed to go out as the handi is sealed with dough. This allowed the aroma of different spices to get absorbed in the potato that was used by the chef, giving it an exquisite flavour. Wajid Ali Shah loved the taste immensely and ordered use of this exotic vegetable in the biriyani. Locals also started doing the same. Hence it is wrong to assume that the Nawab fell on hard times, after being deported and had little money to buy meat, so he used the potato. In fact, he was the highest paid pensioner in India and used to get 12 lakhs a year, out of which he spent 25 per cent for upkeep of his zoo. So, for a man who was this rich, it is unbelievable that he could not buy meat for his biriyani!