Circa 1941. India was right in the middle of World War II that began in 1939 and ended in 1944. It is also the year that marked Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s escape from his house arrest the British Government had held him to. On October 1, 1941, clocks in Calcutta were turned forward 0:36:40 hours to establish local standard time which was brought back to coincide with Indian Standard Time later. The same year, Yale University established the first US chair of Sanskrit and Indology and placed a classical Indian language on the world map.

And the same year, a slightly ‘invisible’ history was created in the city of Calcutta. Even within those terribly turbulent times, a small restaurant specialising in Mughlai cuisine in general and Awadhi cuisine in particular like Awadhi Biryani and Mutton Chaap, opened on the Park Circus-Mullick Bazar Crossing. That was 75 years ago.

The first decade of Shiraz “which was one of the very few restaurants in Calcutta specialising in Mughlai cuisine went through stormy phases of Indian history,” says Mr Ishtiaque Ahmed, Partner, Golden Shiraz. Says Mr. Ahmed, “My father and his friend who were very young in 1941, namely Mohammed Arshad Ali and Ali Hussain, arrived in Calcutta all the way from Bihar in 1941.

Their sole dream was to open a restaurant that offered Mughlai cuisine to people of the city. They organized a meeting with Chef Shamshuddin who was a descendant of the Chef of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah who was persuaded to come to Calcutta from Lucknow and join in this unique enterprise. The name “Shiraz” was inspired by the name of the second best biggest city of Iran famous for its exotic food and cuisine. These three partners are no longer around but we are proud that they took this risky decision at a time when historically and politically, the environment was far from ideal to start a restaurant in Mullick Bazar.”

Over the years, the city has opened its doors and windows to many restaurants specialising in Moghlai cuisine but Shiraz has become a part of the city’s history and has spread its wings to extend its business to other parts of the country and beyond. “Our uniqueness lies in sticking to the authenticity of Awadhi cuisine not permitting other influences to change this though it is not as though our Chefs are not innovating new dishes. The Awadhi flavour, taste, texture and colour are specifically our own. Shiraz is synonymous with the city of Calcutta and even now when the city ahs changed its name to Kolkata,:” says the warm and friendly Ishtiaque Ahmed.

The chief Chefs are descendants of the first chef who came from Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s family Chef which adds to the USP of the Shiraz group which is still a partnership. “Our Chefs have constantly worked at embellishing the “Dum Pukht” style of cooking. Over the years Shiraz Golden Restaurant has evolved tremendously,” says Ishtiaque Ahmed. What does “dum pukht” mean? ‘Dum pukht’ literally translates from Persian as ‘slow oven’. It is one of the most refined methods of cooking, used in both India and Pakistan for the last 200 years. The cooking is done over a low flame where the spices and other ingredients are put in a sealed container to allow the meats to tenderise in their own juices. This also means that fewer spices are used than in normal Indian cooking. Fresh spices and herbs are used to enhance the flavour and texture of the meat. The slow cooking process helps the herbs release their maximum flavour. Once cooked and the seal is lifted, the aroma of the tender meat is simply mouth-watering.

History claims that originally, biryani was invented during the Mughal Empire. Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s Queen, Mumtaz Mahal is reportedly thought to have inspired the dish in the 1600’s. In this sense, it is more than 400 years old. It is a culturally rich item of food that has spread right across South Asian countries and now is known all over the world. The story goes that on a visit to the Indian army barracks, she found the soldiers heavily undernourished. She requested the chef to prepare something that combined both meat and rice and provided a balance of rich nutrition and protein. What the chef created was biryani. The name derives from the Persian word bery?(n) which means fried or roasted. Birian means ‘fried before cooking’.

“Though Biryani is preferred by most of our customers as a one-dish meal, our chaaps - mutton and chicken, are equally popular sometimes taken as an accompaniment with biryani and sometimes, with naan and other Indian bread varieties,” says Mr. Ahmed, adding, “We opened our first franchisee in the city at Jadavpur and now eight more outlets have come up. Recently, we expanded our business to Dubai with plans of extending our wings further into other areas because Mughlai cuisine always sustains a high demand in the international market and we are dedicated to maintain the highest standards in terms of quality.”

The biryani (Shiraz offers many varieties like the Pukka Biryani, the Calcutta Biryani, the Kaccha Biryani and the Awadhi Biryani) is served in beautiful white ceramic handis on the table by liveried waiters in their yellow uniforms bordered in brown. A handsome-sized piece of mutton/chicken is placed right on top of the rice and if you have ordered a “special” biryani, there is also a boiled egg on top. The raita that has to be ordered separately and is not along with the biryani or chaap is mind-blowing and helps neutralise the spices in the biryani But Shiraz’s biryanis are not rich and are not literally floating in clarified butter or ghee. It is heavy in taste but light on the digestion if you dose it right because for a take-away ordinary biryani, the quantity is quite generous, enough for a good eater. The special biryani with the egg and a whole boiled potato comes in a large plastic container and can easily feed two except that they will have to fight over which one will savour the egg and which the piece of meat!

Happy eating folks if you are headed that way!