I landed at Calcutta this morning. I felt ten years younger. Nothing had changed. Except you had to control your bladder even longer with the crowds and just one loo in the arrival lounge. A dirty, stinky one. And the pre-paid cab scene had become even worse. I reached the end of the queue to find the guys at the counter chatting with each other. After five minutes of persistent questioning one of them looked at us and said that cabs were over. We were allotted cabs a while later. And then the small petty scams began. The old one of a guy who would say he is unemployed and would want to drag your trolley to the taxi stand. And a new scam. The cabs are not located near the taxi stand now. A helpful soul would offer to go an locate your cab. This time I had no option. Cost, a paltry but unnecessary ten Rupees. And we wonder why India lags behind the Far Eastern countries on tourism.
My hassled tourist state finally ended when I had lunch at home. Mom had made matha diye daal (dal with fish head), begun (aubergine) bhaja, fish kaalia, gobindo bhoger chaal (the favoured rice of Bongs) and bori bhaaja.
I finished my work earlier than I thought I would in the evening. I was headed home when I suddenly passed by Arsalan. Arsalan is a Muslim restaurant which became popular in what I call the A K years. When I come to Calcutta I normally head to Nizam or Zeeshan for biriyani even if Shiraz and Aminia might not be accessible. Or Bedwin if I am in the South. but everyone I know starting from my younger brother to people who have moved to Calcutta talk about Arsalan and its biriyani. So I wanted to know what was so special about it. I was supposed to have dinner at home but thought that a little pre dinner wouldn’t hurt.
I walked in. The place was packed. The burgeoning crowds testimony of its popularity. I am embarrassed to say that I gave the non AC section a miss and went up to the cooler climes of the AC section upstairs. Its very hot at Calcutta right now. Anything I wear gets soaked in sweat in two minutes.
I went up and ordered ‘the usual’. Chicken biriyani and chicken chaap. I noticed that the table mat had a smart note on Awadhi and Lukcnowi cusisine. A modern corporate touch which seemed alien to the world of pre-independence days Muslim restaurants in Calcutta. I later asked the gentleman at the counter about the age of the restaurant. ‘Nine years,’ he said and proudly continued, ‘we will finish a decade soon’. That explained everyhting. The Good. The bad. The biriyani.
Phtographs done, I tasted the chaap first. I loved the grainy texture of the masala on the chicken. The picture of the pan below is the vessel in which they make chaaps at such restaurants. The good part was that they gave me chicken legs on request. The changing face of a more service oriented Calcutta?
The chicken in the chaap was tender. The masala interesting but had a strange, near curdled, dairy taste to it which I wouldn’t associate with the chaaps in my memory.
I then tried the biriyani. I was a bit suspicious as I dug in through the rice with a fork and saw a thin film of gravy. The presence of gravy in biriyani is what we Calcuttans berate Mumbai about. I took my first bite.
My usual reaction to a good Calcutta biriyani is to widen my eyes in joy as my eyebrows shoot up. Nothing happened today. My first reaction was, ‘what’s all the fuss about’. Like the chaap the biriyani too didn’t live up to my taste memories. I prefer the one at the humble Hangla of Bandra more thanthis. The biriyani here didn’t have the understated flavour and very mild sweetness of a proper Calcutta biriyani. It lacked fragrance and finesse. And a boiled egg.
I am sorry youngsters but the biriyani at Arsalan is not Calcutta biriyani. And Kakori House at Bandra, Mumbai, does a far better Lucknowi biriyani.
The way I see it, Arsalan biriyani is to Calcutta biriyani what Bryan Adams is to rock music.
Note: AK is ‘After Knife’. I wrote this post sitting at my original study table. Used to be my da;s and then my borther’s.