Once upon a Ramzan in Hyderabad

Zac O' Yeah | Updated on April 14, 2020 Published on April 14, 2020

Plate by plate: Laham mandi, a Saudi-style biryani at Mataam al-Arabi

In the midst of a lockdown, a foodie fuels his appetite for morsels of Hyderabad

Ramzan is around the corner, but as I write this there’s a lockdown and I can make no plans for a food sojourn. Rations are running low, so I boil macaroni with ketchup while dreaming myself back to the time — just a year ago — when I got off the train at the Hyderabad Deccan station during the holy month. Topmost on my list of tourist attractions was the ghee-soaked meat-wheat porridge haleem. Apparently, 3,500 goats were cooked in the city daily and some, I hoped, were destined for my tummy.

Grand taste: Hyderabadi mutton biryani at the old Grand Hotel


The season was unusually hot. An unprecedented heat wave in April 2019 had killed off thousands of chickens. Was it the usual greenhouse effect or had the world turned into a tandoor? My guess is as good as yours, but one thing’s for sure — soon we may need to just put chicken and pot of rice outdoors and it'll turn into fresh hot biryani.

Although my survival chances seemed bleak, I told myself I was not a chicken and slithered down Nampally Station Road to a lodge where the staff proclaimed that city temperatures averaged 50°C and sold me an overpriced mosquito-infested AC room. The AC burped icily until electricity collapsed. Through the night my perspiration got distilled on my skin until I could take it no more. I had a bucket rinse and headed out into the dawn.

Out of your mind: Bheja fry at Hotel Nayaab


Things got better the moment I spotted the 1980s’ Irani canteen Hotel Nayaab (Nayapul Road), which was open early and fully non-veg. From a courteous waiter I ordered the cholesterol-lover’s favourite bheja fry, a bowl of velvety brain pulp seasoned with a highly agreeable blend of spices — the ideal breakfast for thinking humans. Mopping it up with soft naan, I was like a zombie tasting IQ for the first time. I had my meal with plenty of Irani chai, the damage was under two hundred bucks and I decided to return for the ₹150 a plate of haleem as soon as I got peckish.

The Charminar circle down the road has been pedestrianised to make it easier for tourists to appreciate the monument, but most of it was covered in scaffolding that day. Indeed, old Hyderabad was gracefully ramshackle with crumbling heritage buildings and bricks tumbling down on the pavements from once grand arcades.

Merchants advertised Pakistani garments and, when I later dined, I sampled “Pakistani curry” at Hotel Shadab (near Madina Circle). It’s one of the fancier ’90s joints, its AC-hall crowded with women in burqas surrounded by shopping bags and tucking into chicken biryani. In case you ever wondered what Pakistani food’s like, I can tell you, according to Shadab, it’s vividly phlegm-green. Their mutton Pakistani is a mixture of salt, caramel colour, possibly nuclear waste, too, and microscopic pieces of mutton (₹260). Then, again, the philosophy behind this column is that I sample dodgy stuff so you can avoid it.

Exotic be thy name: The strangely greenish Pakistani curry at Hotel Shadab   -  IMAGES: ZAC O’YEAH


But everything else I ate in town was worthy of a culinary pilgrimage, which is why Unesco included Hyderabad on its list of gastronomic metros. One out of 10 Hyderabadis earns his bread and butter from the city’s 1.5 lakh eateries (if you include pushcarts). The remaining 90 per cent love eating — every day in the local papers I came across alarmist reports devoted to the mounting obesity cataclysm and helpful fat-burning hacks.

The oldest heritage snack stop on my tour, Munshi Naan, dated back to 1851 and was a 15-minute walk from the Charminar in a street known as Purani Haveli, after the erstwhile mansion of a nizam.

Munshi Naan is basically a street corner tandoor that bakes char koni naan, a squarish thick bread, rich and oily, soft on the inside but with a crisp outer layer (₹14). The business is run by fifth-generation descendants of the original munshi, the nizam’s accountant who set it up.

Indeed, much of Hyderabad’s cookbook is linked to the erstwhile nizams (who ruled the town until a year after Indian independence) and related to the Mughal cuisine of Delhi as well as Persian cooking — but with a southern accent in the form of ingredients such as coconut, tamarind and Andhra’s celebrated red chillies.

Its iconic dish is Hyderabadi biryani and everybody has their preferred version, debating differences between, say, Shah Ghouse Café’s branches or the Paradise chain. However, I fell for the friendly ’30s Grand Hotel (Bank Street). It isn’t particularly grand and has no rooms or branches. But their spacious dining hall with its high ceiling appealed to me, as did the splendid mutton biryani at the humane rate of ₹120.

But soon I learned that another unique biryani variety has taken the city by storm: The customary dish of the Yemenite community, mandi, brought by soldiers who migrated to Hyderabad centuries ago to work as the nizam’s bodyguards. Their former suburb of military barracks is known as Barkas and its Arab-descended population is estimated to number one lakh. But their eating habits were never talked about until foodies noticed how sweet their haleem, known as harees, was — apparently sugar is stirred into it!

Also, thanks to the fact that many Indians have worked in the UAE or done the Haj (and returned missing those flavours), the Saudi-style laham mandi became a rage.

Even though ‘authentic mandi’ is advertised all over town, it’s rumoured that eateries spice it up with masalas to make it taste like normal Hyderabadi biryani. So, I took an autorickshaw to Barkas (₹250 from centre of town, though on the way back I paid only ₹150).

After passing the Taj Falaknuma Palace, I got off a few kilometres south in the suburb that looked rough with tiny pucca houses and small industries. Maybe it was meant to resemble a village in Yemen. People were friendly and, across from a burial ground, the tombstone engraver greeted me in Arabic as I asked for directions to the restaurants.

He pointed me down Mandi Road, named after its famous culinary offering. I stopped at one out of the 30 or so eateries, the relatively newish Mataam al-Arabi, which supposedly kickstarted the Arab food trend in the early 2010s and sits in, from all appearances, a recently built complex, symptomatic of how once-humble eateries are upgrading, thanks to their fame.

It was decorated with cannons outside to establish the owner’s warrior ancestry, but the dining hall was almost unfurnished save for carpets on the floors.

After kicking off my shoes, I sat on the carpet at a very low table and studied the colourful menu, which was a masterpiece of simplicity and tempting non-veg food. It had rates to suit all pockets, from full goat (₹10,000 to be shared by 25 diners) and batair mandi (made with quail, ₹200) to mutton soup (₹20). I focused on the laham mandi (₹400) that I came for. As I waited, I was worried that I’d get enough to feed a joint family.

But the waiter sensibly refrained from stacking the silver platter — about as wide as the length of my forearm -— with more than what one human could digest. Also, I was charged half the menu rate.

The elongated rice grains were beautifully separated in a masterclass of social distancing, scented with saffron, fried onion and cashews, while a crusty mutton chunk sat on top, breaking apart on mere touch — it was stunningly succulent.

Regarding the cooking method, it seems that lightly spiced rice is garnished with dry fruits and then topped by a wire mesh, upon which the mutton pieces rest; it’s slow-cooked in a sealed vessel until the meat juices permeate the rice. As a contrast to its subtlety, it came with a chilli-enhanced fresh tomato chutney of the kind one gets in Arab countries.

Another nice touch was the desserts selection that included Bahrain-style halwa, Hyderabadi khubani ka meetha made of apricots, and baklava sourced from a genuine Turkish pastry chef. It was oh-so-delicious with its nuttiness, honey and piquant spices wrapped up in crisp-baked and buttery filo dough.

As I sit at home, lockdown-fasting like a camel that’s crossed half a desert but with another half to go before the next oasis, I promise myself that the first thing I’ll eat when restaurants open is biryani.

Then repeat the order.

Again, and again.



Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist;


Published on April 14, 2020

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