Growing up in Delhi, I have always found it fascinating that my typically Punjabi father not only spent his formative years in Hyderabad, but that his north Indianness was confined just to his mannerisms. At the dinner table, he became a Hyderabadi through and through—the unimaginably high tolerance for spice the preference of rice over roti, using fingers to savour the former and the inclusion of molaga podi (gunpowder) in his daily diet.
His fondest memories of the city—the only one that has been kind to him, he says—include his ancestral home in Himayatnagar and the Himayat mango. He would love to go back some day, but until then, he has Hyderabadi food as consolation.
A food so diverse, however, is much beyond just a "consolation". You have three broad experiences within its fold - Hyderabadi, which I will be referring to as Nizami (as it was the Nizams of Hyderabad who really popularised it) Andhra - the food native to Rayalaseema, coastal Andhra and Telangana—known for its unique spices and the bakeries serving the delicious pairing of Irani chai and Osmania biscuits.
With such a vast world to explore, I set out for not the first, and definitely not the last, time in Hyderabad, a city that boasts a culinary tradition that stays with people long after they leave.
Geography always plays a key role in cuisine. In the Andhra region, chillies grow fairly well. It is, however, the high level of sourness found in the region's dishes that sets them apart. Also, given how well irrigated the region is because of its location along the Krishna-Godavari basin, paddy is plentiful. But one must acknowledge regional differences too, such as spice levels (the highest in Rayalaseema). Finally, as Jonty Rajagopalan, founder of Detours India, told me, "Andhra food celebrates vegetables in their chutney-fied form." In fact, podis (lentil powder) and pachadis (vegetable accompaniments) are considered dishes on their own. Leaves such as gongura, which has a unique sour taste, are also used in plenty of Andhra dishes.
There is no better introduction to the cuisine than at Kakatiya Deluxe Mess (91-9885066252) at Hyderabad's Ameerpet. Set up in 1992 by Ratna Shekhar (who has turned it into a successful family-run business) and symbolic of the fast-moving mess culture - sit, order a thali, refill, all in under 20 minutes - it used to be a regular basement eatery before a recent renovation gave it a contemporary look. From 1pm onwards, it is packed. The thali, which is different every day, is quite the bang for the buck (120). On the Friday I went, it included tomato pappu (or dal, tangy and sweet to perfection), fried okra and cucumber gravy. Then I ordered the prawn curry, which was incredibly fresh, and the double omelette, as one of Shekhar's family members suggested. An odd suggestion, but it turned out to be one of the most sumptuous (though spiciest) omelettes I had ever eaten.
This was, however, not my first taste of Andhra food. Years ago, I visited The Spicy Venue (+91 72070 95522) in Hyderabad's posh Jubilee Hills with my cousins, and it became our go-to place. When I mentioned this to the owner, Tummala Srinivas Sampath, during my latest visit, he smiled and said, "This place is quite the neighbourhood eatery." The décor is plain but you feel part of a homey environment, with enough child-friendly options to even keep my youngest nephew, a one-year-old, happy. I was here for the MLA potlam biryani (minced-meat and prawn Andhra-style biryani rolled in an omelette). It was a celestial experience from the very first bite. Another signature here is the Apricot Delight, a retake on the famous Hyderabadi qubani ka meetha, a fitting conclusion.
After my trysts with what I would call authentic Andhra and restaurant-style Andhra food, it was time to check out a place that pushes the envelope. Ulavacharu (ulavacharu.in) is known for its 18 types of pulaos and 14 kinds of starters, and its founder and managing director, N Vinay Kumar Reddy, considers each one a speciality. His Gachibowli branch (the first is in Jubilee Hills) has a d'ecor borrowed from south Indian temples and old palaces, with original elements such as doors and parts of chariots.
The attention to detail, however, was best reflected in the food, with each dish tasting unique. Ulavacharu itself means horse gram soup - an Andhra staple. The bamboo chicken served here is cooked in a hollow bamboo stick, and has a subtle yet appealing woody flavour. I tasted five types of pulao, including the raju gari kodi, with steamed chicken and sticky rice, their hottest seller and quite suitable for those who do not prefer dry pulaos and the guthivankaya, a very simple and easy-on-the-tongue dish. The fact that it's the owner's mother's recipe gives the dish a nice touch.
My final stop was not a restaurant, but a bandi. These stalls are central to Hyderabad's street food, and I picked Ram ki Bandi (91-9963968082) - and for good reason. Ram Kumar Shinde's is a rags-to-riches story where a young MBA takes charge of his father's stall and makes it a roaring success. Now also a restaurant owner, I met him at his lone Mozam Jahi Market Circle stall - at 3am. While the rest of Hyderabad slept, this intersection buzzed with college students and BPO employees as two carts churned out over 15 dosas every few minutes, with Ram at its centre. Mouth-watering items such as "pizza dosa", "schezwan cream dosa" and "cheese idli" were the crowd favourites. Occasionally, Ram would slip by a statement such as, "Sir, upma zabardast hai. Aur ingredients pe no compromise" (The upma is amazing. And we do not compromise on the ingredients), and immediately returning to his complicated mathematics, so as not to miss a single order.
Hyderabad's bakery culture goes back at least to the time of Mir Osman Ali Khan, the last Nizam of independent Hyderabad, who wanted a biscuit that was both sweet and salty. Thus, Osmania biscuits were invented. These soft, buttery treats are best enjoyed dipped in Irani chai, a milky tea primarily served in Irani cafés. Three bakeries - Nimrah, Niloufer and the 1953-established Karachi that is well known around India - represent this aspect of the city's culinary scene.
I visited Nimrah Café and Bakery, I must confess, only because of its location adjacent to Charminar. However, my interest in the monument, no matter how beautiful, was completely overshadowed by the hospitality shown by Abood Bin Aslam, a member of the family that runs the café.
Started in 1993 by his father, the place has become phenomenally popular. It prepares more than 80 bakery items and, every morning, fresh batches of over 25 varieties of biscuits. The rates are in single and low double digits, and with Aslam exhorting you to "try" them all, you end up feeling terribly guilty. For him, however, interacting with visitors is a passion. I also tried the dilkhush here, a soft bun filled with dates, nuts, tutti-frutti, coconut and cake - all for 12. With the Irani chai (I also tried its pauna variant, which is more milky) as a cherry on top, Nimrah far exceeded my expectations.
Later in the day, I found myself at Café Niloufer (cafeniloufer.com) in Lakdi ka Pul. While it is difficult for anyone to top Aslam bhai's congeniality, this iconic bakery has an inspiring story - that of its owner A Babu Rao, who began his journey here as a cleaner in 1976. In a transition period that culminated in 1993 when he finally acquired the café, Babu Rao's is a tale of hard work and dedication. Just across the old café, there is his newly opened two-floor Café Niloufer and Bakery - a posh and mammoth offshoot of the original, which personifies his legacy. He understands his brand as much as the customer. He told me, "Let me know if you find a single packaged product on the shelves that is more than a day old. You won't. After all, that's exactly what my regulars notice first - every single time."
Hyderabad, like Delhi, was exposed to the Islamic world in the medieval times. It was with the Bahmani Sultanate (of Irani ancestry) and then the Turco-Persian Qutb Shahi dynasty that Muslim food came to be seen in the area. Once the Nizams began to rule, their dishes gained popularity. Yet it's never just the cultural aspects that help a cuisine develop - biryani, for instance, has benefited from the abundance of rice. What we have today is a meat-, wheat- and rice-rich cuisine that gives other Indian cuisines a run for their money.
As a starting point, how about travelling back in time A dinghy shop with a green façade, Khadeem Munshi Naan (91-9866421117) looks exactly as it did 70 years ago. First established in 1851 at a location forgotten with time, it all started when Mohammed Hussain, who worked as a munshi (accountant) in the Nizam's office decided to start a naan business. Two centuries later, his descendant, Khaja Abdul Hameed, continues the tradition, selling the bread at 14 a piece. Located near the iconic Purani Haveli or the erstwhile palace of the rulers, I found that these tandoor-made naans, especially the signature chaar-koni (four-sided) one, stayed as soft the next morning as they were when fresh.
From here, it made sense to visit Charminar and get a taste of Old Hyderabad. A heavy monsoon shower accompanied our visit. Seeking shelter underneath one of the monument's gateways, we found ourselves by a tiny food stall called Royal Fish. The fried fish here, with a squeeze of lemon, are wonderful rainy-day snacks. The place is open 21 hours a day (4.30pm to 1pm) and located right opposite the popular kebab place, Hotel Shahran.
Yet, despite their iconic status, not everyone gets what is due. Bade Miyan Kebab's (91-9849286169) fourth-generation owner, Syed Shaji, may just be from the lineage that invented the pathar ka gosht. His shop, tucked in a corner on the wrong side of the Upper Tank Bund Road, happens to be the original, so stay clear of the other Bade Miyans. After all, even the Salar Jung family once ordered from here. The gosht is a mutton kebab cooked slowly on a stone slab, which results in a soft and succulent texture. Who knew that even stones could create magic.
It is a peak period, however, for Maqdoom bhai and his paya shop (91-9346960971) in Mangalhat. The second we walked in we knew it was the right place as men stood outside enveloped in clouds of steam, stirring a stew in a giant vessel. The place was brimming with life. Smiling, cheerful locals feasted on paya (goat foot), jabra (jaws) and zabaan (tongue) or enjoyed the nihari (stew) in which these cuts are served. The nihari has a special place in Nizami food and Hyderabadi's claim to have invented it. I found paya to be gelatinous with a mild flavour, helped greatly by the stew (which consists of tez patta, gulab jal and garam masalas).
And then it was time for the connoisseur. I speak of Mahboob Alam Khan, a prominent food historian who has revived many old recipes, and whose nephew, Qutub Alam Khan, fondly calls him chicha (uncle). The youth has also, as of 2016, opened a restaurant at Masab Tank inspired by MA Khan, named - you guessed it - Chicha's (facebook.com/chichashyderabad). We found a chic, contemporary vibe here, and a colourful décor that went well with the food. In the evening, things get more exciting. On a Friday, Chicha's becomes one of the few places where you get good haleem (a thick wheat- or barely-based mutton stew) all year round, not just during Ramzan. Qutub and one of his partners, Fauzan Khan, were keen for us to try some rare dishes - the sweet shaadi ka red chicken (a tomato-based roast, an iconic Hyderabadi wedding dish) and the spicy talawa gosht (fried mutton). But the dish that I may even fly back to Hyderabad for is the mulla do pyaaza (talawa gosht placed on top of a roghni roti, made from a dough mixed in milk and saffron).
Chicha's launched us on a bit of a "lesser-known Hyderabadi food" drive, which essentially led us to the Barkas neighbourhood. This area has a unique dual character - the British once had their barracks here, hence the name, and a community of Yemenis also settled here long back. Nine years ago, Ahmed Bashedi and his brothers opened Mataam Al Arabi (91-9391153081), which could have been a restaurant in the UAE - vibrant Turkish-esque carpeting, gold-and-blue décor elements all over, a fancy gold chandelier and an enticing decorative panel. And, finally, the carpeted sitting area, where four people surrounded a huge plate and ate the mandi, a Yemeni concoction of meat, rice and mild spices, best enjoyed with a zahawig (tomato chutney). Originally made in a clay oven (taboon) which has its foundations underground, Mataam Al Arabi claims to manage an accurate version without it. I found this to be a lighter dish than a biryani, and what beats tomato chutney, really?
Perhaps mirchi ka saalan (curried chilli peppers), if you are visiting Hotel Shadab at Ghansi Bazaar. It was a bit difficult for me to get in touch with the owners, a bunch of young brothers, but it was absolutely rewarding once I did. I had heard that this well-known Hyderabadi restaurant, with its old-school façade and interiors, served the best biryani in the city. To see for myself, I visited their biryani-making centre in the morning, where huge handis were being prepared. First, the raw meat is mixed with all ingredients (such as the spices, masalas, saffron water, fried onions, etc.), and then half-cooked rice is placed on top. What results is a delicious mélange of flavours.
In the evening, I explored Shadab for a bit. While the ground-floor section reflects old architecture, where mostly men enjoy Irani chai and cigarettes, the first floor is a family space. Here, I met the older brother, Mohammed Omer Adil, who told me how he, when he was 16, had to assume responsibility of the restaurant after his father's death. He balanced school with work, and against all odds, took the place to greater heights. When I finally tasted the biryani, I understood what a labour of love it had been. It was the finest I had ever tasted understood what a labour of love it had been. It was the finest I had ever tasted.
...And Some More
Jewel of Nizam - The Minar boasts a fine-dining experience where you can enjoy a meal atop a 100-foot-tall minar golkondaresorts.com
Hotel Shahran is your go-to place if you wish to savour your seekh kebabs with a view of the Charminar +91-9949925597
Taj Krishna's Nizami restaurant Firdaus boasts some fine haleem and nalli gosht in an opulent setting tajhotels.com +91 040-66293306
Rayalaseema Ruchulu has spent a decade bringing home-style Andhra food to the masses rayalaseemaruchulu.com +91 86886 86886
Shah Ghouse is also acclaimed for its biryani and haleem, it has three outlets in the city +91 97001 50828
Many swear by Café Bahar's Osmania biscuits +91 040 2323 7605
Chutney's is an Andhra breakfast favourite. Do try their Guntur idli and family dosa 91-9390234234
The brand that took haleem to the masses, Pista House also offers a pretty good biryani pistahouse.in +91 93965 00786
Hotel Nayaab loyalists will argue that this restaurant's paya is even better than Maqdoom bhai's 91-9885838308/ 040 2457 7656