Eating Biryani at Arsalan
I like it.
By which I mean, I am quite fond of it. By which I mean, it is probably the major reason I decided to move back to India after 11 years in the US (the others being family, a future, a career and rubbish like that). Conversely, the main reason I’d try to go back to the US is not their recovering economy but Raisinets (you know, those chocolatey raisin things you buy in cinemas). Okay, this is not about my migratory habits. This is about biryani. About which, three other things need to be said.
1. Everyone in India has an opinion about biryani. The American comedian Dave Chappelle, explaining what he thought of “white people”, said that they are people who could talk freely about the most personal, the most delicately embarrassing things but when it came to whom they voted for, they went, “Whoa, that’s personal”. That’s how it is for biryani here. We may not have an opinion on politics, the state of things, some of us may not have a family; we could be imprisoned, handicapped, dead, destitute, but don’t ever dare to challenge an Indian person on where to get the best biryani. The answer always is the place they know intimately, their authentic source, a chef, a mother, an iconic city restaurant, a recipe inherited, taught, stolen and theirs and theirs alone is the good proper one. Everything else is rubbish. And not only should the others be ignored but actively destroyed. It’s led to major inter-city biryani rivalry. Mainly between Lucknow and Hyderabad, the two towns at the forefront of this gastronomic war, but there’s a Calcutta biryani, which is considered an ignored third cousin in this feud, sometimes not even considered present while the battle rages on. Don’t (of course) say that to someone from Calcutta, who (as explained earlier) knows no other kind and will shoot you for bringing up those two other towns.
2. The Calcutta biryani is really a version of the Lucknow one, on tour. In the mid 1800s, Lucknow’s ruler Wajid Ali Shah, banished by the British to Calcutta, was willing to give up all his wealth and possessions if they let him keep his tiny retinue of a 100 royal biryani cooks because “a human being could be stripped of everything but not his access to a decent biryani”. A perfectly sensible point in my opinion. And the British acquiesced.
3. Just like there is an inter-city biryani feud, there is a within-the-city feud as well. Arsalan, for Calcutta’s biryani lovers is the rival of Shiraz, which I can only describe as the George Clooney of biryanis. A critically acclaimed commercial hero. That therefore makes Arsalan, um, Brad Pitt. I have no idea why both Calcutta’s leading biryani houses are named after obscure Iranian towns especially when this kind of biryani is unknown there. It makes me wonder if there’s a restaurant in Tehran called New Delhi specialising in tacos.
I’m not biased at all about Calcutta biryanis so I’ll just say the one at Arsalan, which I ate at last Sunday, is the best biryani ever. Period. Conversation finished (till Shiraz opens). And if my word is not enough, there’s also a potato in it (which no other city has) and the rice and meat get along so well together that you’d think they were celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary on the plate in front of you.
It’s kind of upscale for a biryani house, throwing a challenge to Bandra biryani Godfathers Jeff’s and Lucky with a sort of décor that suggests Coffee Bean and Barbeque Nation are making love but really saying to the old Mumbai biryani mafiosi, “I’m ready to raise the game. Are you?” And in any war, there will be casualties. Don’t wait and go to the winner. Just go here.
“This is like fried rice,” said Bandra resident and novelist Taiyaba Husain, whose comment I’d have taken seriously were she not a Hyderabadi biryani expert and therefore disqualified as a spy for the rivals. Mumbai Boss columnist and neutral party Matt Daniels, the third decisive figure in this Arsalan lunch, said, after much introspection, “There’s something going on here”.
In three words, yes, there is.
Anuvab Pal is a playwright, screenwriter and occasional stand-up comic. His new play, The Bureaucrat opens in Mumbai in April.Tags: Anuvab Pal, Arsalan, Biryani, Restaurants
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