I am off to Hyderabad, home of grand cuisine, alternative centre of north Indian food to Lucknow, birthplace of
famous biryani and a city celebrated in gastronomic legend.
Truth be told, I know very little about Hyderabad. I was here in the ’70s, a trip I remember because it coincided with the death of Elvis Presley. And then I was back here at the end of the 1980s. If you want to recognize how brilliantly perspicacious I am as a political commentator, then you can use this story. I was in Hyderabad to meet NT Rama Rao. The day after I arrived, I was told that the great man was too busy to see me. However, I could meet his son-in-law.
Naturally I refused. I had come to meet the organ grinder. I was not going to be satisfied with the monkey, some son-in-law who would clearly amount to nothing.
Some man called Chandrababu Naidu…
This time I am back in Hyderabad without a political or rock and roll agenda. I am accompanied by my Discovery Travel and Living crew and we are shooting for our episode on biryani.
We all know the legends by now. Though the Mughal court based in Delhi invented most of the great dishes of modern north Indian cuisine, these were preserved by the satraps after the decline of the Mughal Empire following Aurangzeb.
Thus, Lucknow is a better example of Mughal court cuisine than Delhi. And the same is true of Hyderabad, where the Nizam-ul-Mulk, the Mughal Governor of the Deccan, finally declared himself independent and came eventually to be known as His Exalted Highness, The Nizam of Hyderabad.
Part of the research for our biryani episode has led us to Hyderabad. We all know that the kuchcha biryani of Hyderabad is justly famous. Many people argue that it is the only true biryani. The biryanis of Lucknow, they say, are no more than pulaos: combinations of cooked rice and cooked meat. The Hyderabadi biryani, on the other hand, uses raw rice and raw meat cooked together. Thus, it is a complete dish, unlike the Awadhi pretender. Soon after I get to Hyderabad, I am delighted to find that nearly every dhaba and restaurant has a sign outside reading: “Biryani served here”. Or some variation thereof.
Ah, I say to myself, I am finally going to get the biryani that Hyderabad is famous for. On the first evening, I ask for a biryani at Kebabs and Kurries, the Indian restaurant at the ITC Kakatiya, where I am staying. Sure, says the chef, he will be happy to serve me a Dum Pukht biryani.
I point out to him that a Dum Pukht biryani, no matter how delicious and inventive, is an ITC creation, a marriage of the Lucknow and Hyderabadi traditions. Could he please do a genuine Hyderabadi biryani for me? Sorry sir, he says. All we do is Dum Pukht biryani.
The biryani, when it arrives, is fine as are the local dishes: patthar ka ghosht and tala hua mutton. But I could have had the same biryani at the Maurya. The next day we begin our biryani search in earnest. We go first to a local Hyderabadi restaurant so famous that I will not embarrass it by revealing its name.
I tell the manager that we are here to eat genuine Hyderabadi food. What can he serve us? The manager looks dubiously at us and I have the terrible sense that he is not really from the hotel trade at all and that this is just a job he is doing while his visa for Saudi Arabia comes through.
Would you like something spicy, he asks. I respond that I don’t really care what the level of spicing is as long as it is something so authentic that I can only get it in Hyderabad. What about burbura chicken, he asks. I am sorry. What exactly is that? You will love it, he says. Twenty minutes later, the biryani arrives. It is rubbish, the sort of ready-made biryani you get at any takeaway place in Bombay or Delhi.
Disappointed, I send for the manager again. What about the genuine Hyderabadi dish I was promised?
It’s on its way, he smiles. And indeed it is. When it does arrive, I recognize it immediately. It is chicken Manchurian with a garnish of garam masala and coriander.
I call the manager again. Is this really Hyderabadi? It is one of our most popular dishes, here in Hyderabad, he says indignantly. I give up and try Azizia, another biryani place that has come heavily recommended. My heart sinks when I notice that the restaurant has a full Chinese menu.
But at least it does not bother to disguise chicken Manchurian with a false name, I say to myself. My Gujarati sensibilities are damaged, however, when they ask me if I would like a half-tongue. And what is that, I ask. It’s half of the tongue of the goat, they say. If you would like the whole tongue, it’s only a little bit more expensive. It goes wonderfully well with our trotter gravy.
Thank you, I say, can I just have the biryani? Within minutes, they have placed a huge bowl of mutton biryani in front of me. It’s not particularly hot but by God, it is tasty! Even the mutton is so tender that it falls apart as you pick at it. A portion that could feed three people costs less than a 100 rupees.
I take my crew, invade the kitchen and find the cooks. Thrilled at the prospect of being on TV, they happily show me how they make it. I am massively relieved. This is a genuine Hyderabadi biryani made with raw meat and raw rice. What’s more, because they can never re-heat it, they keep making new batches of biryani every two hours or so.
A final stop is an all-day and all-night dhaba near a mosque. They don’t waste time on goat. Everything is made with beef. I approve entirely and ask to try all the beef dishes.
The tala hua mutton made with beef (never mind the name) is not much better than the goat version that I’ve had all over Hyderabad. And a beef seekh kebab is nicely fatty without being significantly better than the goat version.
The biryani, when it does arrive, is rather like a pulao, bland and tasting of nothing. The owner notices the TV cameras and comes over. Would I like more beef? I say that it would be nice to have any beef at all. He smiles and a short while later returns with several boneless pieces of beef that have clearly been recently cooked. I smile and try and look polite. What do I think of the biryani, he asks. Well, I say, politeness be damned, it’s a little bland.
Ah, he responds, that’s because they gave you the biryani from the top. I will get you the real biryani from the bottom. Minutes later he is back with a spicy biryani that bears no resemblance to the one I was served. You see, he says, we get all kinds of people here and we give most of them the rice from the top of the pot. The ones we like, however, get the biryani from the bottom which has all the masala.
I protest weakly that this seems rather unfair. He nods in agreement and seems vastly amused.I try his final biryani. It’s okay but frankly I doubt if it uses raw meat. Certainly, it is not a patch on the Azizia biryani.
The following day, I am invited to lunch with an old Hyderabadi family. A genuine biryani is made on a open fire according to an old family recipe. It is brilliant, full of subtle flavours and cooked according to the old kuchcha biryani recipe. I ask my hosts why this biryani bears no resemblance to anything I have eaten on the streets of Hyderabad.
They smile apologetically. The restaurant biryani, they explain, is a poor man’s food made by cooks who know how to cut corners. Their biryani, on the other hand, is a celebration food, full of expensive ingredients, and cooked for hours.
So, there goes another myth.
I had gone to Hyderabad imagining that anybody could eat great biryani on the street. But the truth is that the local biryani is not very different from the stuff you get in the streets of Bombay or Delhi. To eat the real thing, you have to have rich friends with a noble lineage.
What a shame! And here I was, looking for a democratic dish!