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The Hyderabad Eatathon: It’s not just about biryani

By Anoothi Vishal

An old immersion myth tells the story of Narada asking to be shown “maya”, that illusory, creative force driving life, according to Hindu philosophy. It’s not an easy concept to understand — much less to accept. But the sage gets a “test drive” one day when he takes a dip in the Ganga, goes under, and, well, begins an alternate life… In that other reality, he finds himself a king; living out an entire lifespan as such before all his offspring are killed in a war, plunging him into deep sorrow. In such a state, he immerses himself once more into the soothing folds of another river…. When he emerges, he is Narada again, still standing in the swirling Ganga. It’s been only three minutes since the immersion — a lifetime in that alternate reality.

In Hyderabad, it is easy to get mystical. And to lose yourself in this fascinating melting pot, whatever else your realities are. Sitting at The Park, the edgy new hotel in this old city, which blends tradition and modernity so adroitly, I watch the march of the monsoon —moving in sheets across the spectacular Husain Sagar lake. As such, the only immersion on my mind is a literal one — a dip in the inviting infinity pool at the hotel. But the city will have its way. It lies eager, all-enveloping… Unlike many other places in the world, Hyderabad really is an easy city to get to know—intimately— even in the short span you may spend here.

There is an openness to the Hyderabadi’s easy grace, an Islamic sense of generosity (even excess) intrinsic to the way of life here (regardless of class or religion), and a seductive lilt to the Dakhanni Urdu that speaks of an older culture of acceptance, where everyone — Mughal, Telugu, Maratha, Tamil, Persian, Christian, Zorastrian— blended in. Today, nowhere is Hyderabad’s composite past more evident than in the food you find so abundantly all over the city: The robust kacchi biryani, fiery pulusu, silky haleem, sizzling hot stone-grilled kebabs, podi-laced street idlis, and Milkmaid-made sickly sweet Irani chai… everything recalls this culture of inclusiveness —never mind today’s divisive politics.

It is at Charminar, overwhelmed as much by shiny, lacquered bangles and strings of fake pearls as by the thick, jostling crowds, itar- and kebab-scented women, eager shop boys, men through with their evening namaz and others, that I finally give in. I am ready to be immersed. You can’t fight food in this city— sizzling hot, spicy, and often sour. From humble bundis selling crisp keema samosas and landmark joints famous for hand-churned “pail” ice-cream, to three-floored restaurants selling biryani, to Telangana-style “canteens” and restaurants exhilarating in their hot curries, podis and dry, fried “roasts”, there are all manners of establishments catering to the Hyderabadi’s impossible-to-satiate hunger. And the best way to feel this city is to plunge headlong into all these wonderful flavours. For despite the fame of the kachchi biryani— piquant, full of spices and masala, rice and raw goat meat cooked together in a sealed pot so that each grain is coated with flavour— there is so much more to Hyderabad than just the biryani… At Southern Spice, a restaurant-within-a bungalow in one the newer, smarter Hyderabad localities, there is enough chilli to set you on fire. “Canteen” eateries and takeaways selling hearty curries in generous portions are popular with the locals. But despite being poshed up, our lunch destination is authentic enough —at least if you take into account the spice levels!

Andhra food is hot — you find out how much exactly only when you begin to eat off a thali, breaking the large mound of white, fluffy rice with your fingers, mixing in the podis and vegetables first, then the thick dals, and finally the curried pulusu (tamarind flavoured curries, fresh water fish or country chicken is popular too), semi-curried iguru and the lip-smacking, dry mamsam (mutton) fry. Like a Bengali meal, there is a specific order in which you tackle the dishes. Naturally, there’s freshly set yoghurt to cool off. But there is a method to all this chilli madness. The Telangana region is dry and chillies, which induce sweating, are thus cooling agents, says chef Srinath, executive chef at The Park Vishakhapatnam, with an enviable repertoire of regional Andhra recipes. In Hyderabad, the chef has introduced some of his fare at the hotel; strictly authentic, chilli levels untouched even in the commercial setup. The quail that we try for lunch the next day, a local delicacy, could easily have come from more homely environs. Hyderabadi food, of course, is synonymous with the Mughal-influenced, Muslim style of cooking that married many local preferences to give us one of the most delicious, “secular” cuisines of India. Country ingredients like tamarind (and young tamarind leaves, chugur, during summer), curry leaves, tomatoes and coconut are used, reinventing the regal cooking of the Mughals, infusing the cuisine with native vigour.

“It’s a cuisine”, says Anjum Jung, closely associated with The Park’s F&B efforts to present authentic home-style meals within hotels, “which is not smothered in too many masalas but where individual flavours stand out.” As a Bangalorean married to a Hyderabadi, Anjum talks from a unique outsider-insider perspective. Learning elusive Hyderabadi recipes was difficult for her because in the city few would willingly part with their culinary treasures. Yet, she persevered and managed to unearth gems such as narangi (orange) keema; doodh ka pulao, cooked in milk, kofte biryani, and even warqi samosas, many layered, a dying art form even within homes because they are so painstaking to make. All these are non-commercialised recipes that Anjum has now contributed to The Park’s repertoire. An interesting facet to many of these is the way in which local and Mughal cooking come together. Many times, it is possible to trace the evolution of a Hyderabadi dish by looking at its more rustic, local counterpart. Anjum talks of kulthi ka kutt, made from horsegram, which is similar to the Andhra uluvacharu. And there are other parallels too: Dalcha (lentils cooked with meat), which has a distinct Deccan sibling in the thick dals cooked with vegetables of local Hindu communities and even pathar ke kebab (where flat pieces of lamb are beaten, coated in spice and grilled on a hot, local hard stone), that can be seen as a take on the various tawa frys of Andhra, reflect the composite culture of a city that, after all, was founded by a Muslim prince for his Hindu beloved. But like all cuisines with depth, there are strict kitchen norms too.

At the Park, I also meet Begum Mumtaz Khan, from a well known Hyderabadi family, who has been cooking (and conducting cooking classes) for the last 40 years. She tells me of finer distinctions — why a qaliya (home-style meat curry) may have the tempering of curry leaves but not a finer, special-occasion qorma. There are tempting descriptions of monsoonal khichdi breakfasts, where the simple lentils and rice preparation is accompanied by spicy keema, mince, sesame and peanut chutney and fried papads. And, finally, there are generous offers of having one over “at home” where the begum can turn out elusive delicacies like a Sufiani (white coloured, using khoya or thickened milk) biryani or a kachchra, literally, waste, biryani (!) that uses all parts of the animal, except the trotters.

The best biryani in Hyderabad is, of course, a question that will continue to perplex you till eternity. The biryani test, traditionally, has been to throw a handful of it on the floor and check if each grain of rice separates. If it does, only then has the biryani cooked to perfection. Trying to scrape off the last bite from our plates, we dare not try this anywhere. A Sunday lunch at the three-storeyed Paradise in Secunderabad is unmissable, not necessarily for the quality of what’s served, but for the sheer spectacle: airport-lounge style waiting halls where names are announced on microphones before people can find a place in the crowded dining halls. There is also the members-only Nizam’s club, more intimate and sophisticated, and then there are street stalls perfect after a late night out, supposedly sprinkling their secret Ajinomoto “masala” into the biryani. Whatever be your favourite, another contention, not wrong, is that the best biryani is served only at those massive Hyderabadi weddings and enjoyed “basi”, stale, the next day. Food and conversation can go on till eternity in the city. But the mandatory “old times” story is of lavish wedding feats when bridegrooms were “tricked” with piping hot lukmis that would be poked open only to have a small (live) quail fly out. These are gastronomic gymnastics that modern-day chefs dare not attempt.

Also in the old days, frequenting a chai khana, a tea shop, was considered to be a terrible breach of etiquette. But things have changed. At Shadab, a working-class restaurant near the Charminar, there is now a separate first-floor seating for the “family crowd”. Downstairs, the men demolish huge quantities of keema and the distinct Hyderabadi leavened bread, pao-like, and sip on tiny cups of Irani chai. Over the same brew, a young college-goer, satisfied with her day’s hunt for sequins and lace in the labyrinth of narrow lanes makes plans to go out to Fusion 9, an experimental restaurant by a former Oberoi chef, which is quite the chic evening destination for the young. Clearly, Hyderabad is also a city in transition. Haleem-“crawling” (popular around Ramzan) and nighclub crawls are not mutually exclusive. So when chef Mandaar Sukhantar, the presiding deity at The Park, Hyderabad, recommends a khubani ka crème brulee, a take on the traditional apricot dessert, I hastily dig in. It’s the old and the new in the same bite, a perfect finale to this day, this life, in Hyderabad.

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