How the potato got into the Kolkata biryani has by far been the most contested stories in all of biryani history until it was verifiably attributed to Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh, who brought his court and his biryani to Kolkata after being banished by the British. The Nawab was a gourmand and the starchy spud is said to have found its way into the pot of fragrant rice and meat, in his kitchens.
A corner keeping family traditions alive
Now, one of Wajid Ali Shah’s direct descendants is cooking up a storm with her Awadhi recipes. Her lineage makes her one of Wajid Ali Shah’s direct descendants, and the keeper of a few family traditions. Tucked away in Kolkata’s Kasba area is Manzilat Fatima’s little terrace restaurant that she runs on a pre-booking basis.
Walk up to the cosy space and you walk into the heady aroma of biryani and kebabs. It’s a carnival of all things regal — colours, flavours, smells. The seating area is wrapped in twinkling fairy lights and gives one a fair view of the storm cooking in the kitchen. “No matter which day of the week you come to Manzilat’s, you’ll always find me busy. And the crowd is only swelling by the day!” smiles the 52-year-old, adding a pinch of salt to the Ghutwan kebab that’s unique to her kitchen.
Lawyer turned pop-up food hoster
It all started as a pop-up in the city five years ago, when the concept of makeshift set-ups selling premium ware, from fashion to food, was still new to the metropolis. “Every one of my friends and family asked me to do something with my legacy and love for food,” she says.
Until then Fatima, who is a lawyer by training, had spent most of her years, strutting through corridors in courts, before joining her husband’s business. But her heart lay elsewhere. Then, five years ago, she started cooking for small house parties on weekends.
All Muslim food is not Mughlai
The Ghutwan she is cooking is similar to Pasanda, except that in Ghutwan the mutton is completely pounded. “The Galauti actually evolved from it, but different spices are used,” she explains, diving into the fine nuances and differences between Mughlai and Awadhi cuisine. “All Muslim food is not Mughlai. When it comes from Lucknow, it’s Awadhi.”
Interestingly, Fatima wears her Bengali heritage proudly and you can see its influences in the food as well—in the liberal use of mustard oil in all dishes—this is Bengal’s local connect with Awadhi food, she says.
A glimpse into royal kitchens
Beyond her lineage, it’s Fatima’s dedication to her craft and its history that makes her attractive to her loyalists. Dressed in deep blue, the lady serves dollops of culinary anecdotes to her guests, as she unravels centuries-old secrets and gives a glimpse into the ancient kitchens of the royals.
For instance, the ‘Majleesi Pasanda’ on her menu was inspired by the “prashad of a paratha and a kebab” that’s distributed after the congregation in the month of Muharram. “That kebab is called Majleesi Pasanda. Being a Shia Muslim, we mourn and feast on Muharram to commemorate the death of Husayn ibn Ali,” the spiritual leader of this sect of Islam.
She often narrates the episode of how the ‘Muharram-wali-Daal’ found its place in her menu as well. “It’s significant to the tenth day of Muharram and is the same daal the Shias have on Eid-ul-Fitr as well, in order to remember the sacrifices of Imam Hussain”.
Quality ingredients for family recipes
The pot of biryani that she has placed on the table smells like divinity. “This is the result of not using ittar,” she tells us. “Ittar is Mughlai, we cook Awadhi food. We don’t add ittar here like most other restaurants selling biryani in Kolkata add,” says Fatima. Since her family history is entwined in the provenance of these recipes, Fatima takes great pride in procuring good quality ingredients and sticking to the family recipe.
The quaint little space is sparkling but unassuming, small, yet cosy and welcoming. It opens up doors to a world of a gastronomic extravaganza that foregrounds an oft-forgotten history. “Wajid Ali Shah’s family didn’t get as much recognition as they should have. He was a great patron of the arts. One of my aims behind doing this is to restart a dialogue on that legacy,” she says.
There are plans to expand, but she has reservations against doing so aggressively. “If I start making this commercially, it won’t retain its originality,” she says. At the moment, however, her bigger plan is to experiment and focus more on developing vegetarian recipes.
“People from every community eat my food, not just Muslims. People associate Awadhi cuisine with non-vegetarian food, but there is so much to offer vegetarians, if I can get them to eat my food too, that would mean success to me,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye.
As her guests begin to amble out with content smiles and full bellies, bowls of halwa return to the kitchen, clean as a whistle. The shahi halwa is a new addition to the menu, Manzilat Fatima tells us as she gears up for yet another day of cooking up a delicious storm in her kitchen, laden with a sprinkling of stories of erstwhile royals and their fragrant kitchens.