Time may have corrupted the Lucknavi food legacy in Kolkata, but Wajid Ali Shah’s descendants are on a rescue mission
Manzilat Fatima, 47, is describing a Shia community speciality offered in prayer (haazri) on Muharram. “You take a mini paratha, place a kebab on it, add a piece of smoked paneer that you get in New Market here in Kolkata, plus julienned ginger, mint leaves, a slice of cucumber and a roundel of onion,” she says. “We call this a ghutwan kebab, because the meat is first marinated with papaya and then cooked till it assumes an almost paste-like consistency.”
Unusual as the kebab might be, development sector professional and passionate food anthropologist Pritha Sen, 55, glossed over the meat to focus on “the smoked paneer from New Market”. Through painstaking questioning, she figured that the paneer was Bandel cheese, small, salty discs of hard cheese that were introduced to Bengal by Portuguese traders who set up base in the region in the 16th century. And, just like that, she realized that the ghutwan kebab unites two very distinct strands of Kolkata’s food legacy: the Portuguese and the Awadhi.
While Wajid Ali Shah is known to have had many concubines, Khan draws her lineage to his principal Begum, Hazrat Mahal; her father M. Kaukub, 84 and a former professor of Urdu at the Aligarh Muslim University, is the grandson of Birjis Quder, the dethroned monarch’s eldest son.
Wajid Ali Shah died barely a year after being deposed and his faux-Lucknow collapsed, as the British auctioned most of his vast property. The one asset they could do nothing about, however, was his culinary legacy. Though by no means the first Muslim influence on the food of Calcutta—the seminal food history The Calcutta Cookbook dates that back to the early Mughal rule over the Gangetic plains; and the second wave to the fall of the Bengal nawabs, almost a century before Wajid Ali Shah’s advent—it was to prove the most willingly embraced. Perhaps the singular symbol of this is the potato in the Lucknavi biryani, presumed to have been added for bulk, and proudly touted as Kolkata’s signature contribution to the dish it calls its own.
Talking to people, extracting their stories, and placing them in the matrix of her own knowledge and research, Sen realized early in her pursuit of culinary anthropology, was the only way to record undocumented history. “The Tagore women, for instance, have been lionized for their contribution to Bengal food primarily because they all had books to their name. But there are other magnificent legacies that stand to get lost if they aren’t recognized and perpetuated,” says Sen. “A few years ago, I found social media very amenable to my hunt for unsung food stories. That’s where I came across Manzie in 2011: She put up a recipe that I immediately knew came from no ordinary source. Now, I want to take her food to a larger audience, so that they’re able to distinguish between the original Lucknavi, with Bengali nuances, and the commercial Awadhi.”
Incidentally, this is not the first time that Sen is looking to resurrect a cuisine. Last year, at a pop-up lunch, she recreated the Goalando chicken curry, a rustic dish served aboard the steamers that travelled through the rivers of what is now Bangladesh, and named after the train terminus at the confluence of the Padma and the Brahmaputra. Besides talking to old-timers who had travelled the route, she went through gazettes, journals and steamer company records, before arriving at an approximation of the dish that sent litterateurs like Syed Mujtaba Ali into paroxysms of pleasure.
“My last pop-up was aimed at making people aware that there’s much more to Bengali cuisine than paanch phoron (five-spice tempering) and shorshey maach (mustard fish). I think I succeeded to an extent. I wish to do the same with Manzie’s food,” says Sen. “Unless culinary traditions are shared, they die.”
It took some convincing, but Khan—who has so far cooked only for friends and family—is now as enthusiastic as Sen about her family’s taken-for-granted heritage. “The popular perception about Muslim food is that it’s heavy and rich. Our food is just the opposite: It’s delicate and light,” says Khan, a literature and law graduate who now works with her husband in a leather business. “We use spices sparingly and refrain from overuse of fragrances like ittar or kewra. If our food has one hallmark, it is the powder of roasted jeera (cumin), which we add generously to most dishes.”
Sen waxes eloquent about Khan’s rezala (mutton in a yogurt-based sauce). “I’ve had Manzie’s biryani, nihari, bhuna gosht, kebabs, but the rezala was a revelation. At many places, the rezala uses innumerable spices and sweeteners; some even add mishti doi! Manzie’s is sweet because of onions: She knows exactly which kind to use and how much,” she says. “As significant is her family’s adoption of fish and prawns in riverine Bengal, as well as mustard oil as a cooking medium, as Kaukub pointed out. Their machhli kebab actually uses deboned hilsa.”
Also on the plate, but possibly unremarked, will go a slice of history.
MANZILAT FATIMA’S JHATPAT BIRYANI
‘Nawabi khana’ is all very well when someone else is doing the hard work. For those short on time, here’s the biryani hack
4 potatoes (large)
4 tbsp mustard oil
4 cinnamon sticks, 1 inch each
10 green cardamoms
2 medium onions, finely sliced
2 tsp garlic paste
A pinch of turmeric powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp garam masala
2 tbsp curd
1 tsp ‘kewra’ water
3 tbsp ‘ghee’ (clarified butter)
45 saffron strands mixed in
quarter cup milk
Salt to taste
Prick the potatoes all over with a fork and marinate in a little salt and turmeric.
Heat mustard oil in a pressure cooker. Add the cinnamon and half the cardamoms and cloves. When they splutter, add 3/4th of the sliced onions and stirfry till soft and translucent. Now add one teaspoon of garlic paste, a pinch of turmeric, red chilli, coriander and garam masala powders and the curd. Add salt to taste and sauté lightly. Add meat and bhunno it lightly. Add the potatoes. Cook under pressure for 12 minutes; turn the flame low after the first whistle.
Meanwhile, parboil rice in salted water with a bayleaf and the rest of the cardamoms and cloves. Strain and save one cup starch.
In another vessel, place the cooked mutton and potatoes. Add all the rice over it. Sprinkle starch water, ‘kewra’ water and two tablespoons ‘ghee’. Place on ‘dum’ on a ‘tawa’ (griddle) for about 1520 minutes.
Meanwhile, fry the rest of the sliced onions in the remaining ‘ghee’ till golden and crisp. When the biryani is done, pour the saffron milk on top and keep covered.
Garnish with the fried onions before serving.
The pop-up Lazzat-e-Taa’m, priced at Rs.1,500 per person, will be held on 1 March at Ta’aam, ground floor, Priya Cinema building, 95, Rash Behari Avenue, Kolkata. For bookings, call 40440059/60.