After climbing four floors we reach Manzilat’s. A little window by the staircase offers a glimpse of the kitchen, where through smoke and the clang of vessels rises the soft strains of The Beatles’ as Manzilat Fatima swings and swishes her ladle. As the unassuming wooden door to the terrace opens, we are enveloped in the aroma of kebabs, rezala (an aromatic gravy that also includes poppy seeds, cashews and yogurt) , and biryani. Started by Manzilat, the great great grand-daughter of Wajid Ali Shah, the last king of Awadh, the six-year-old rooftop restaurant, with its share of history and flavour, is one of Kolkata’s culinary gems. Albeit lesser known when compared to old favourites Peter Cat, Mocambo et al, it needs to be on your ‘where to eat in Kolkata list’.
Wajid Ali has through the ages been credited for introducing the Awadhi biryani to Calcutta. It was his team of cooks who added the beloved aloo (potato) to biryani. The tuber has now become ubiquitous to the biryani in Bengal with most Calcuttans feeling very strongly about it.
“In Lucknow and Awadh, gastronomy was treated as art. There were skilled labour and chefs who used to cook in the kitchens,” says Manzilat, adding that when Wajid Ali Shah settled in Metiabruz in Calcutta in 1856, he was trying to create a mini Lucknow. In Lucknow, his food came from five-six kitchens… from his uncle’s, wife’s, mother’s kitchen etc. Whereas, in Calcutta he had just one kitchen. So, his chefs here innovated to create something new and different for the king.
“Potato was an exotic vegetable those days, one that the common man couldn’t afford. It was even more expensive than meat. His chefs decided to add them to this dish and that’s how aloo came to exist in biryani,” says Manzilat as she sends out plates brimming with yakhni pulao and chicken nawabi chaap.
A former lawyer, Manzilat also helped her husband with his leather business before getting into the food sector. She started out with popups. Eventually people liked her food so much that they wanted them on a regular basis. Then, she started catering small portions from her house. As demand soared, she transformed her husband’s leather workshop terrace into a quaint restaurant festooned with fairy lights, minimalist decor and lush foliage.
Always a good cook, Manzilat says that the food that she makes is very different from the regular Muslim food in Kolkata. “Bengali Muslims include a lot of fish, prawn malai curry, bhajas. I got married into a Bihari family and when I tasted the food here I realised that our food was different. I used food as a medium to do something that connects my family and food to people,” she adds.
Her flavours are typically Awadhi. Her recipes are different, she uses aromatic spices. “I don’t use too much oil, turmeric, coriander powder, red chilli powder. My food doesn’t look loud. It’s mild, flavourful and aromatic. When we go to Lucknow we find the same food.” At Manzilat, the food is a reflection of the flavours she grew up on with recipes from her grandmother and mother. The restaurant operates on a pre-booking and pre-ordering system. “As I am doing niche food, I need to organise and cook according to the orders so that the food is finished the same day. I do not carry anything forward to the next day,” she says. The team, primarily all women, is just five people. Manzilat single-handedly does all the cooking but needs help with the washing, cleaning, prepping etc.
Meanwhile we tuck into the shammi kebab that is so soft that it crumbles when it comes into contact with the fork. The mutton yakhni pulao is good, the biryani is even better, but for us, the rezala, the chaanp and the kebab are the stars. Eveything is so full of flavour but none of it is greasy or overwhelming. And we chase down the meal with a shot of khus ka sherbat served in a thumb-sized crystal glass. Despite it being a Tuesday night, the terrace is packed with diners.
A dinner is underway. “They are celebrating their mother’s 70th birthday,” smiles Manzilat, adding that the 70-year-old did not mind climbing all those steps for her food, and that gives her the joy to carry on.
Manzilat is located at Rubi Enterprise, Plot-1 Phase-3, Kasba Industrial Estate, Kolkata. Pre-ordering is mandatory.