How Sustainable is your Biryani? – Chawm Ganguly in a tête-à-tête with Chef Debasish Kundu

photograph courtesy Debasish Kundu

Ever kept your Biryani in the Fridge only to take it out and find it covered in a yucky layer of pure white obesity? Disgusting? Perhaps, but that’s the vegetable (or worse, animal) fat without which, “experts” opine, Biryani cannot get its trademark taste. You cannot cook up a Biryani without “lard” – the pure, unadulterated fat!

“What utter rubbish” says Chef Debasish Kundu – the spirit behind the hugely successful Only Alibaba Biryanis. “Yes, lard continues to be an ingredient in 9 out of 10 Biryanis in the city. But there are exceptions as well – Only Alibaba Biryanis, for example, are cooked in white oil as opposed to vegetable or animal fat. Don’t take my word for it – just feel your fingers after having a Biryani from Only Alibaba and then compare the sticky oiliness with that of any of our competitors. You will literally feel the difference.”

This conscious move away from lard to embrace white oil has been taken keeping in mind the health hazards that such traditional cooking mediums pose. “It’s not about catering to a select audience of the health conscious or the calorie counters” says Debasish, “it is a part of a bigger palate – of making everything we serve as Sustainable as possible. It is about creating and serving a product that we would be proud to associate ourselves with, food, we can wager our reputation on.”

“Why just the lard” asks Debasish rhetorically, “are we even aware of the cheap colours and the adulterated essences that go into your Biryani? Yes, our Biryanis do not look like a movie in Eastman colour like those served by our competitors – that is because we use only natural, edible herbs and spices and not entice you with synthetic chemicals.”

Okay, so I understand the no-fat bit, but what the hell is a Sustainable Biryani? Explains Debasish, “all ingredients that go into our products are procured locally, ensuring not only their freshness but also that they have as small a Carbon footprint as possible”. Hang on, there’s more as Debasish warms up to his obviously pet topic , “as part of our energy conservation drive, we have had an energy audit done in our Central Kitchen which too ensures that the consumption of electricity per plate of Biryani made is perhaps the lowest in the industry! To ensure an even further edge, we are in the process of putting up a number of solar powered installations within the premises apart from initiating steps to become water neutral.”

The “Central Kitchen” that Debasish is talking about has to be seen to be believed. Built from the scratch with imported machines, it consists of lines that ensure everything – from the scientific culling of chicken to the most minimal human intervention so that hygiene is maintained at levels far above those that are officially prescribed. “It is certainly one of its kind in Kolkata and most definitely the trailblazer in the industry” says Debasish. No mean task, considering the fact that the industry’s kitchens are mostly unorganized, kitchens that give scant attention to matters of health and hygiene. With an achieved capacity of 15,000 plates per day, it is also by far, the biggest.

photograph courtesy Debasish Kundu

“We have already made the transition to health consciousness. With the Central Kitchen firing all hundi’s matters of hygiene are also well within our control. The third step – that of spreading awareness about the Biryani you eat will ensure our coming off age” says Debasish.

I was still a bit skeptical when Debasish literally thrust a plate of Biryani before me. First the aroma hit the solar plexus with a sledge hammer – instantly turning me into a salivating, hungry and ravishing Pavlov’s Dog. The colour, the texture, the taste then took turns, as time seemed to stand still and I gorged. Shamelessly digging, chomping, biting, licking … the Biryani forcing the most basic instincts in me to surface. If gluttony is a Sin, then, by God, I am even willing to be roasted in Hell for a Biryani as divine as the one served by Only Alibaba!

After almost  two decades in The Park (by which time he had graduated all the way up to the position of a Sous-Chef), celebrity Chefdom, status of a selector in the East Indian leg of TLC’s cult programme Master Chef India, recognition as a food stylist and the launch of his Boutique Restaurant Fish Fish – Debasish is now giving final shape to his signature line of Frozen Foods when not rustling up ambrosia or writing his hugely popular columns in the first Bengali glossy on all matters gastronomic Hangla Hneshel.