Hyderabad’s melting pot

Ayesha Mualla | Updated on December 27, 2019

From four corners: The city of the iconic Charminar is today as famous for its dum biryani as a range of West Asian, Afghan, Turkish and Iranian delicacies   -  THE HINDU/NAGARA GOPAL

A recent Unesco distinction raises a toast to a city that prides itself for its history of culinary riches

A visit to the Hyderabad neighbourhood of Toli Chowk and Lakdi ka Pul will satiate any global foodie. Here, the city’s famous dum biryani vies for attention with West Asian, Afghan, Turkish and Iranian delicacies — shawarma, kabsa, fesenjan, chopan kababs, baklava, iskander and beythi kababs — all washed down with doogh/laban (a yoghurt drink).

Globalisation and migration make identities porous, as commodities and cooking styles, too, move from one place to another. As food production, preferences and tastes metamorphose, communities constantly recreate their identity. In Hyderabad, this comes into play as labour migrates to the Gulf, and African and Arab communities arrive for education and medical services.

But the city’s profile as a veritable melting pot is centuries-old. Take, for instance, a locality called Barkas in southern Hyderabad. It is famous for its harees (broken wheat with meat), mandi (meat and rice cooked in a wood-fire pit), and aseed (wheat flour dessert with ghee). Over time, harees evolved into haleem, cooked with additional spices and a variety of lentils. Many of the residents here belong to the Hadhrami community, locally known as Chaush, whose forebears arrived here from Hadhramaut in Yemen during the rule of the Marathas and the Asaf Jahis (1724-1948). Hyderabad-based historian and heritage conservationist Sajjad Shahid notes that haleem was popularised by a noble in the Nizam’s court, Sultan Saif Nawaz Jung, who served it during the royal feasts he hosted. Similarly, in the modern era, the city’s famous Karachi Bakery is seeped in the stories of separation harboured by its founders, a Sindhi family that fled Pakistan during Partition.

My cup of tea The popular Irani cafés are an intrinsic part of Hyderabad’s public spaces mohammed yousuf   -  mohammed yousuf


On November 1, Hyderabad was included in the Unesco Creative Cities Network (UCCN) for Gastronomy, in a toast to the city’s rich culinary past and present. The local food cultures were enriched by influences from East Africa, West Asia, Persia and Southeast Asia. Some of these culinary practices are found in the contemporary regions of Marathwada, Rayalaseema, Telangana and coastal Andhra.

Arab-origin hareera (soup), dulmas (stuffed vegetables), murtabak (meat pie) are all part of the Hyderabadi kitchen, as are sour foods such as chaar (Andhra-style tempered tamarind rasam), khati daal (daal with raw mango or tamarind) and chugur gosht (mutton with tender tamarind leaf).

On the other hand, the memories and aromas associated with Hyderabad and the Deccan can be found across the border in Karachi, in the Gulf and across North America, especially in Chicago — or Chicago Sharif, as the large Deccani diaspora fondly calls it, in a nod to cities such as Gulbarga Sharif (in Karnataka) with their wealth of sacred tombs and strong Indo-Muslim cultures.

Fast food: Haleem, a Ramzan speciality, also enjoys a Geographical Index (GI) status   -  G RAMAKRISHNA


Loss, memory and assertion

Hyderabad’s distinct culinary history has been an important site for memory-making and cultural assertion, bound with a narrative of loss, after the annexation of the erstwhile principality of the Nizams by the Union of India in 1948. Paul Connerton, in his book How a Society Remembers, writes that loss becomes the ‘collective biography’ of the inhabitants of a culture. Cultures are remembered, recollected and performed. In Hyderabad, one of the ways of fuelling this rediscovery is through family histories and recipe books. Particularly significant are books such as Jewels of Nizam: Recipes from the Khansama of Hyderabad by Geeta Devi; Princely Legacy Hyderabadi Cuisine by Pratibha Karan; Saffron and Pearls: A Memoir of Family, Friendship & Heirloom Hyderabadi Recipes by Doreen Hassan; and Essential Andhra Cookbook by Bilkis Lateef.

In more recent times, you have ‘chowki dinners’ hosted by home chefs that feature elaborately curated meals harking back to Hyderabad’s edible histories and storytelling traditions. These have been documented by city-based photographer and writer Nishat Fatima. The rediscovered treats includemachhi ka khaliya (tamarind and sesame fish curry), shikampur (onion-stuffed mutton patty), diwani handi (mixed vegetables and tutak (baked mince and semolina starters). There’s also a generation of Hyderabadis making YouTube videos and hosting websites and blogs — HyderabadWala, Deccani’s Kitchen, Hyderabadi Mom In Dubai, Asma Network and Jehangir Pasha, to name some.

Dessertification: Khubani ka meetha, stewed apricot pudding   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES


Business of food nostalgia

The land of the Kohinoor diamond and pearls is today unrecognisable as a buzzing Silicon Valley with a burgeoning IT business. So you have global markets and local economies building new alliances to accommodate the changing social structures and the demand for an evolving appetite. A nationwide survey by the Office of Registrar General and Census Commissioner in 2014 showed that Telangana has a significant number of non-vegetarians, with 98.8 per cent of men and 98.6 per cent of women enjoying meat, fowl and fish. The culture of eating out has led to an easing of caste and other restrictions in food choices.

Wedding caterers and restaurants are diversifying beyond the usual Hyderabadi biryani, bagarey baingan and chicken 65 to include delicacies such as marag (spiced broth with lamb), dalcha (chana dal, bottle gourd cooked in broth) and khabuli or qabuli chana palao, kheema (minced meat), talawa gosht (fried beef/buff), pathar ka gosht (tender meat cooked on hot stone), taati kabab (tender steaks grilled on a thin mesh), and the haleem, which also enjoys a Geographical Index (GI) status. Hyderabad’s famous Kalyani biryani, by the way, is a euphemism for beef or buff.

The local unani and ayurvedic medicine stores, called dawaasaaz, also serve as a source of aromatic herbs and spices for cooking, such as the potli ka masala. The ‘potli’ refers to the muslin pouch containing the spices that is dropped into the nahari broth, which is left to slow-cook overnight. The pouch contains 20 different herbs and spices, including betel roots, sandalwood powder and dried rose petals. Warm nahari for breakfast goes best with the special sheermal bread baked across the city, right from Nampally to Purani Haveli. The city also savours chaakna (spicy tripe stew, slow-cooked with spices), prepared both in homes and niche restaurants in the Old City.

The city of Nizams also offers an endless list of meethey or desserts. The most popular is khubanika meetha, cooked with the badami variety of apricots from Kashmir and Afghanistan. It is served with fresh cream and the almonds yielded by the apricot seed. Then there’s the 150-year-old confectioner Hameedi’s Jauzi (nutmeg) halwa, double ka meetha (shahi tukda), andey ka lauz (baked egg dessert flavoured with saffron), sheer khorma (lightly roasted vermicelli with milk, and almonds and other toppings — an Eid special), kheer puri, and the Gil-e-Firdaus (literally mud of heaven — bottle gourd with milk and khoya) at the newly-opened confectioner Meethey Miyan. There are also several home-based businesses supplying the almost forgotten hab ke lauz (a white butter-and-almond sugar sweet), badam ki jali (mosaic patterned) and the wedding special ashrafi, akin to almond marzipan. The century-old Moazam Jahi market, at the crossroads of new and old Hyderabad, is still popular for its seasonal fruit ice-creams prepared with custard apples, musk melons and so on.

Irani cafés and chai khannas (tea house) are central to the Hyderabadi public sphere, as a popular hangout spot. The tea at these outlets — popularised by Persian immigrants and traders in the 19th century — is a special blend of Hyvita or Lasa and Lamsa tea, a mix of Nilgiri tea leaves and chocolate-flavoured Assam tea dust. Accompanying it all are the Osmania biscuits (a perfect blend of salt and sweet) or the deep-fried lukhmi (soft pastry stuffed with minced meat). The tea decoction is brewed using the dum technique, wherein the tea cooks in its own steam. This is served with mava-like thickened milk. The choice ranges from Irani dum chai to Khada Chamach (heaps of sugar), Burqey Wali (dollop of fresh cream creating a veil or burqa) and Ghahwa (salted Omani kahwa).

The Hyderabadi chai connoisseurs collectively extol three virtues — labrez (filled to the brim), labsoz (hot enough to scald the lip), and laband (lingering sweetness on the lips).

The food cultures of Hyderabad have welcomed and heightened flavours new and old. The Unesco honour is just the proverbial cherry on the cake.

Ayesha Mualla is a research scholar at Delhi School of Economics

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Published on December 26, 2019
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