It was only towards the end of the evening that Mr B. Narsing Rao began to talk. His voice was very soft, his French cut beard very white, his expression sombre. We had just eaten the best Hyderabadi food there is to be had — at the Nizam Club, members only — and were lingering over a kulfi that retained the memory of slightly scorched milk. Pillars soared along the vast room, holding up its high ceiling. Well-behaved cutlery clinked with discretion. Outside, in a colonnaded verandah, men in dark sherwanis sat sipping Scotch.
The meat in the biryani had been buttery, the mutton chutney creamy and tangy, the dalcha recalled all the comfort foods one had ever yearned for. It was excellent, Mr Rao agreed, but why was it only available now in an exclusive club? It used to be everywhere. He recalled the biryani at Azizya near Charminar, hot seekh kababs in the old city late at night, the Orient Café where poets and artists met over curry puffs and tea, the India Coffee House. His friend Shankar Melkote, familiar to all who follow Southern cinema, described bakra khori, where a whole goat was stuffed with a whole chicken and hard-boiled eggs and slow-cooked, then served in a ring of biryani.
None of this remains. Now, they agreed, there is only fast food and confusion. Nobody even knows what the real thing is — how would they judge or know what to want?
Confusion was certainly what I felt as my taxi stuttered through a traffic jam that extended from Begumpet Airport to Punjagutta. I was looking for my old house, then, giving up, began searching for anything familiar at all. It had been 24 years and I had expected change. But this?
“When I go back, beta,” an old-timer had warned me, “I want to slit my throat.” The city of amla trees and hillock-sized boulders balanced one on the other was now a smog-greyed shopping mall from end to end. Walls were being torn down and gardens destroyed to make way for more cars, 20 malls were coming up, people were getting to fisticuffs over parking all those cars. It seemed a city on the verge of imploding.
And there was a Shoppers’ Stop where my stone-floored house with its well and guava tree should have been.
Hyderabad was founded by Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah in 1589, a fabled city where pearls were laid out in their thousands to be aired in the morning sun. Where an eccentric Nizam, who could fill entire rooms with the jewels he owned, wore darned, ragged clothes. Where British Sahibs fell in love — despite purdah or because of the excitement of stolen glances — with beautiful nawabi women. Where the rich repaired almost at midday to a breakfast which could be a rich khichri with kababs, or paratha and keema, or nihari, a stew of goat’s tongue and trotters, slow cooked all night, to be eaten with kulchas in the morning.
Few people want such breakfasts any longer. Everyone has to go to work these days, one old Hyderabadi said to me bitterly. They have no time to eat. The morning I went out hunting for breakfast many of the guilty plebs seemed to have stopped off at Chutney’s on their way to work. Chutney’s serves a different kind of food: the vegetarian food of Andhra: dosas (sometimes with a twist, including a steamed one created for the mega-star Chiranjeevi), mango uttapams, sour-sweet sambar, an utterly delectable pongal. Every table was occupied, mostly by voluble young people in their twenties with necklaces of plastic ID cards from software companies. Slender girls showed off collarbones in dresses with straps thinner than vermicelli strands; the men tried without success to keep their eyes on their food. The girls pecked at their dosas and then dispersed chattering into the warm December sun like flocks of foraging bird parties that had abandoned their tree. The men followed.
A planet away from them, Suraiya Suboor cooked lunch in her small kitchen, grinding fresh spices in an ancient, worn grinding stone handed down by her great aunt. She was making keema koftas and a brown rice that filled the house with aromas of mint and cinnamon and fried onion. As she cooked, she talked of charcoal and wood-fired stoves in courtyards open to the sky, of her great grandmother’s cooking which she absorbed as if by osmosis, and of intricate networks of families that married into each other, sharing many things, among them recipes that were kept secret from outsiders.
Suraiya Apa, however, is generous with her secrets. First of all, she says, use ‘achaar ki mirchi’ for cooking, and the very best haldi. These two things make all the difference. Also, if you are cooking Hyderabadi, stock some saffron, almonds, chironji and shah jeera. Be generous with the oil. Cook with utter devotion, she says, don’t answer the phone or load the washing machine while something’s on the fire. Don’t be in a hurry. Don’t chat, meals should be eaten in silence. And they should be eaten with fingers, not fork.
We talked through lunch all the same, Suraiya Apa describing elaborate wedding feasts and childhood picnics where meat was cooked on heated slabs of stone. She offered to make me tea after lunch (“You can have either burquewaali, which is half tea and half cream; Suleimani, which is just decoction; or khada chamcha, which has so much sugar you can stand a spoon in it.”). She rattled off recipe after recipe: three kinds of mirchi ka salan, including a simple version the less affluent might cook; mahe khaliya, murrel cooked in a rich sauce; khubani ka meetha; kacchi akhni ki biryani, with marinated mutton and saffron; and dabal ka meetha, best made with bread from Rose Bakery. But these were special dishes. For a daily lunch, she said, a family ate perhaps khatti dal, palak gosht, a tomato chutney and plain rice or phulkas. Even the poor would try and throw in a few pieces of meat into what they were cooking: meat is Hyderbabadi food and vegetables are usually combined with mutton by those who can afford it. At most meals, the onion, lemon and green chilli were the only vegetables I saw. There can’t be too many goats alive in those parts.
I knew I would cook none of these things, and so asked her, as I had asked others: where would a visitor find the best Hyderabadi biryani? There was no disagreement: Shadab, they said, go to Shadab, near Medina, close to Charminar.
To reach the entrance to Shadab, my friends and I had to walk past a urinal with vapours so high we felt like wafting genies, then cross a black-watered drain by a bridge made of conjoined plastic cartons. Once we had negotiated this wobbly footbridge, we were before a buzzing two-storey restaurant. The downstairs, open to the street, had only men; upstairs was the ‘family room’. Still faint from the urinal, we sat at a six-seater table, facing an aquarium populated by overlarge fish, a grandfather clock, bunched satin curtains and garrulous families. Nirbhay and Paramita, my 20-something ‘research assistants’, ordered the works: kababs, nihari of tongue and trotters, biryani, sheermals.
The food arrived in minutes and erased all memory of the street outside. I had balked at the thought of trotters and tongue, but the nihari’s fragrance made me forget my misgivings; the sheermals were spongy and every grain of the biryani’s rice was soaked in flavour. When we had at last finished eating in the reverential silence prescribed by Suraiya Apa, our waiter came over to chat. The entire staff for this ‘family’ area upstairs, all 250 of them, were from Orissa, he said. Cooks included. The biryani that was Hyderabad’s pride was no longer being cooked by Hyderabadis: not at Shadab. The general manager of a five-star hotel agreed: much of the city’s culinary labour force is Oriya.
Near Shadab there were shops selling fruits, ammunition, and jootis, in an ancient stone arcade filled with smells and shadows. Before it was an open space scattered with plastic chairs and sticky tables where, below the smoke-filled night sky, ice cream was being handchurned at Famous. Cakes of it were slapped on to aluminum counters, then sliced and served, all barehanded. We had ice creams with fig, muskmelon, mango and chikoo (none priced more than Rs 8) and watched the night deepen at Moazam Jahi Market. The broken clock in the arcade’s tower had stopped at an indeterminate time. Famous has been around for over fifty years and has to stay open till two in the morning to be able to serve all its customers — local shopboys, grease-grimed truckers, young blades street-gazing, middle-class matrons out on a night of adventure.
How is Hyderabad’s food different from Lucknow’s? Many of the same things seem to be cooked in these two cities. Chalapathi Rao, executive chef at Kakatiya’s Dakshin, who had just fed me a fabulous meal ending with a delicate kheer made of buttery tender coconut, mulled over the question. He thought the emphasis in Lucknawi food was on aromas, the use of ittars and saffron for fragrance; in Hyderabad the emphasis is on the masalas. The results are very different.
Hyderabad’s food is the sublime product of a centuries-old churning of people and civilisations. Cooks from Iran introduced their methods — as evidence, small Irani cafes still stand at many street corners. From places like Telengana, Rayalaseema, and the coast came the use of tamarind (including its leaves and flowers), gongura, coconut, groundnut — ingredients neither the Iranians nor the Lucknawis ever used. The Parsis, Anglo-Indians, Marwaris and other communities contributed too, creating a rich, subtle cuisine for a world of opulence and leisure when nawabi brides were gifted painstakingly made badam-ki-jaali in their trousseaus and men rose at midday to three course breakfasts in their city of pillars and minarets.
My jealous friends in Delhi had demanded a taste of this food. I thought with dismay of carting back tiffin dabbas dripping gravies, but things, as Mr Rao had observed, have changed. They are not cooking on wood fires any longer — that kind of authentic food can only be had at wealthy wedding feasts — but Hyderabad House and Y2K will both vacuum-pack local specialities for secure travel to other places. In Secunderabad, Paradise Café, spread out over three glass and chrome floors, serves kormas and biryanis non-stop, at affordable prices, to about 1,800 people at a time. At its takeaway section, the staff wear McDonalds-style yellow and red costumes complete with baseball caps, and toss foil packs of biryani across quicker than you can order them.
“It’s not the best,” said Nirbhay, who has sampled every kind of Hyderabadi food. “But it’s not too bad.” He’s 22 years old, still, he knows authentic from ersatz, having savoured his way through an abbatoir or two. Mr Rao has reason to hope.
Hyderabadi food was traditionally cooked on wood and charcoal fires, often with charcoal embers placed on the lid. Special dishes like patthar ka gosht, where mutton was cooked on heated slabs of stone, and tatti ka gosht where the meat was grilled, are hard to find, as is thikri ki dal — lentils seasoned with a piece of heated earthenware. To taste such things as tamatar ka kat (boiled egg halves in a wonderfully spicy tomato gravy) and chigur ka salan (made with young tamarind leaves) you’ll have to get yourself invited to someone’s home for a meal. Failing which, try to get invited to a wedding where the feast will begin with luqmi (fried semolina pastry stuffed with a tiny bit of keema) and kabab, go on to paratha and korma, and then dum ka murg, bagharey baingan, biryani, sheermals, tamatar ka kat and, if you’re lucky, a raan mussallam. This will be followed by either dabal ka meetha, a rich variation of bread pudding minus the egg, or khubani ka meetha, made with dried apricots and cream. Haleem, a delicious khichri of mutton and wheat, is available in plenty during Ramzaan. Chakna, a fiery stew of offal, is available near booze shops, for obvious reasons.
Where to eat
- Classic Hyderabadi: The best Hyderabadi food money can buy is to be had at Nizam Club, but again, you need to find someone who will take you there as a guest. Failing this, Hotel Shadab (21-1-143, Madina Building, High Court Road; 24561648, 24565949) is a good bet and a huge, delicious meal for six will only cost about Rs 700. It has some new dishes, such as Simi Fried Prawns and Vegetable Bullets and even Chinese and Mughlai, but stick to the biryani (Rs 120) and zubaan or paya nahari (Rs 50) and a platter of mixed kababs (Rs 120). Some of the kababs were a little dry but on the whole they were very good. The sheermal was fantastically soft and delicious. Service is speedy and pleasant. Similar places are Rainbow in Abids and Niagara in Hyderguda (24539539). Biryani can also be had clean and cheap at Paradise Café (Paradise Circle, Secunderabad; 66313722). Service is lightning-quick and there is also a takeaway. Servings are large. Their curries and biryanis with extra mutton are good value. Biryani for five people is Rs 250 or so. Vacuum-packed takeways can be had from Hyderabad House in Begumpet (55311786) and Y2K in Punjagutta (66662117).
- Andhra: Chutney’s Hub (Shilpa Arcade, Road No. 3, Banjara Hills) is good for vegetarian food. A meal for two costs Rs 300. If you feel like a splurge try Dakshin at the Kakatiya Sheraton, which offers a sampling of food from all over the South.
- Sweets: Famous Ice Cream, at Moazam Jahi Market (65972958), sells ice creams for Rs 6-8 each. Agra Wala, in the old city and also in Abids (5-4-18, J.N. Road; 24742857, 66560505) is renowned for its rabri and malai ki puri. The other famous mithai place is G. Pulla Reddy (6-3-879/B Green Lands, Begumpet; 23411441, 23201833). Hyderabad is also famous for its many bakeries which make their own special biscuits; the best known are Almond House in Banjara Hills (66628084) and Karachi Bakery in Moazam Jahi Market (24732786). Badaam-ki-jaali, a rich and pretty marzipan-like dessert made of ground almonds and sugar, can be ordered from Mrs Nafees Hussani or Mrs Nasreen (Aziz Bagh, Noor Khan Bazaar; 24561869, 24521449, 9985249098).