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Friday, Jan 17, 2020
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Hyderabad diary

There are many reasons for going to the City of Nizams, but only one of them is really important: to eat!

brunch Updated: May 26, 2018 21:57 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Dosakai mamsam is a flavourful dish
Dosakai mamsam is a flavourful dish

The last time I was in Hyderabad, it was to stay at the Falaknuma Palace hotel and eat food cooked by Srijith Gopinath, one of the world’s great modern Indian chefs on one of the most unusual dining tables ever created.

This time around, I checked out the brand new ITC Kohenur (I know: it sounds like a hotel in search of spell-check but this is apparently a more phonetically correct rendering of the word than the British spelling: Kohinoor) on the grounds that this was a food trip and that the Kohenur is Hyderabad’s foodie hotel. It was a different kind of luxury from Falaknuma; this was a state of the art, modern, sleek hotel with the largest, smartest rooms in Hyderabad.

I have written about my authentically Hyderabadi meals in The Taste, my other column in so I’ll give the cuisine of the Nizams a miss here and focus on some of the other things I ate.

There was a time in the 1980s and early 1990s when I was convinced that Andhra food would be the next big thing. Till then, I had always thought of Hyderabad in terms of the Nizami cuisine and had been taken by surprise to discover that there was a complex spice-filled cuisine that was every bit as delicious (if not, even better) than the rich gravies of the nawabi cuisine.

Others shared my view. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s as such Andhra chains as Amaravathi, RR and Nagarjuna opened braches all over South India, their food became a rage. I didn’t go to Hyderabad all that much but each time I went to Bangalore and Madras (as it then was), I would give the local cuisine a miss and head for an Andhra restaurant.

I was wrong, of course. Andhra cuisine never did become the next big thing. The boom in Andhra places slowly faded away and two years ago when I went to Hyderabad and tried RR, I was disappointed by how ordinary the food had become.

Instead, North India remained largely immune to the charms of South Indian food. In Mumbai, it was Malvani or ‘coastal’ food that took off (to the extent that Crab in Butter-Pepper-Garlic Sauce can be regarded as a coastal dish) and at Indian restaurants abroad, it was Kerala that became the most favoured source of dishes.

Venchina mamsam by chef Sundar is part of the Andhra cuisine
Venchina mamsam by chef Sundar is part of the Andhra cuisine

But I remain an Andhra food fan. Only, the more I learn about it, the less I seem to know. This time, at the Kohenur, Vijay Nagpal, who is ITC’s top chef, said he would show me the difference between the food of Andhra and the food of Telangana. I was aware that the two states had recently separated and that each claimed to have a culture of its own but I hadn’t worked out how the cuisines were different.

Why is the cuisine of Andhra/Telangana still not as well known as it should be? Given a choice, I would prefer it to the Nizami cuisine of Hyderabad which is world famous

At the end of what were effectively two meals – served simultaneously – by two chefs, I have to admit I still wasn’t clear what the differences were. Vijay got chef Sankara from Telangana to make the local Mutton Sukha and curd rice and compared it to Andhra Sukha and the Andhra curd rice. I had to choose which I preferred.

But here’s the thing: I liked all of it!

The standout dishes for me were a lamb and yellow curry and a spicy dosa-type pancake from Andhra. From the Telangana menu, I liked the curry of Potel Lamb with achari spices and a wonderful keema pulao.

Why is the cuisine of Andhra/Telangana still not as well known as it should be?

Given a choice, I would prefer it to the Nizami cuisine of Hyderabad which is world famous.

Vijay Nagpal’s fried chicken made using a home-style Kerala masala is easily the best
Vijay Nagpal’s fried chicken made using a home-style Kerala masala is easily the best

It is hard to get a table at Shadab, an extremely popular local restaurant. But the Kohenur, like all ITC hotels, is big on what the chain calls Local Love, a pet project of the hotel company’s boss Nakul Anand. Anand has designated Food Sherpas at all ITC hotels who specialise in locating the best restaurants in each city for hotel guests. Because they are well connected, these Sherpas can get you a table pretty much anywhere.

One of the most interesting dishes at Shadab is Pakistan Curry
One of the most interesting dishes at Shadab is Pakistan Curry

The Sherpa found me six top restaurants, one of which was Shadab. The famous biryani there was as good as advertised though the kababs were disappointing. The most interesting dish on the menu for me, however, was something called Pakistan Curry.

What was it? I asked.

Mutton, they said shortly.

So I decided to order it to investigate. It turned out to be tender meat in a thick green gravy. I thought I tasted palak and began to wonder if this was just saag gosht where the saag had been pulverised.

I asked how it was made.

We can’t give you the recipe, they said sternly.

Did I look like I was going to run off with the recipe and open a rival restaurant opposite them? I asked.

They were unmoved.

Finally, they provided a little information. Yes, it did have spinach. But it also had pudina and ‘Marwari methi’.

What is Marwari Methi? I asked.

They wouldn’t say.

If you know how the dish is made, do tweet to me!

The brand new ITC Kohenur is Hyderabad’s foodie hotel
The brand new ITC Kohenur is Hyderabad’s foodie hotel

In the foodie imagination, Hyderabad and haleem go together. But actually, they don’t make haleem in Hyderabad all the year round. They make it only for Ramzan.

Nearly everywhere I went, I was told things like “Come in four days’ or “We will start next week”. This became such a big deal that finally people started tweeting to me: “Cafe 555 has started haleem”. Or “stay for another three days till haleem begins.”

Finally, I took the cheat’s way out. Kulsum Begum, the great Hyderabadi chef, was at the Kohenur to set up the new Dum Pukht. We persuaded her to make her famous haleem for me. And of course it was divine.

In Hyderabad, as in many other cities, food is often an indicator of wealth. I was told that in noble households, the balance of meat to rice in a biryani is five parts meat to one part rice. And a rich man’s haleem often has large quantities of animal fat which form a lake around the meat. But Kulsum’s haleem was delicious and light – making this possibly the only time the words ‘haleem’ and ‘light’ have been used in the same sentence.

While I understand the desire to pack lots of meat into everything, the biryani becomes more of a meat dish rather than a rice dish. Personally, I think this is a perversion of a glorious biryani tradition, which is about rice.

Biryani at Shadab, Hyderabad’s super popular local restaurant
Biryani at Shadab, Hyderabad’s super popular local restaurant

But they are big on meat in Hyderabad. My friend Mohit Balachandran (Chowder Singh on social media) messaged me to say “everyone outside Hyderabad talks about biryani. But the new scene in Hyderabad is Mandi.”

The way Mohit explained it, mandi is an Arab dish where the rice is cooked in an earthen pit while the meat is kept on a wire mesh on top of the vessel. As the meat cooks over many hours, its juices drip into the rice and flavour it.

This sounded good and though Hyderabad’s famous Shah Ghouse offered mandi too, I sent off for it to the places recommended by Mohit in the Barkas area. When it did arrive, I wasn’t overly impressed by the rice but the meat was, as Mohit had promised, truly spectacular: big chunks of juicy slow-cooked goat.

This has nothing to do with Hyderabad but it was there that I finally reached a resolution in my search for the perfect Indian Fried Chicken. We have chicken pakoras at Delhi’s Punjabi restaurants but Indian chefs seem unwilling to create an Indian Fried Chicken (a sort of Kentucky Fried Chicken with our masalas) even though I am convinced that it will be a huge hit.

Last year, I noticed that Indian restaurants in London were creating their own versions: Kricket had a Keralan Fried Chicken and Flavour Bastard had its own Tandoori Fried Chicken.

Surely we could do better in India?

I put the challenge to Vijay Nagpal who experimented with various versions (including a riff on the Kricket chicken) before going back to basics and using a home-style Kerala masala.

He served it at lunch at the coffee shop of the Kohenur and it was easily the best, crispiest, tangiest, tenderest fried chicken I have ever eaten.

Vijay’s recipes are his secret. But if he doesn’t put this chicken on a menu soon I will launch a social media campaign demanding that he produce the chicken on a plate right away!

So is Hyderabad the foodie capital of South India? I am beginning to think it might be. Where else in India do you have two outstanding cuisines – Andhra and Hyderabadi – jostling for space? And if you treat Andhra food and Telangana cuisine as distinct (which I guess we must) then there are three cuisines.

There are many reasons for going to Hyderabad.But only one of them is really important: to eat!

From HT Brunch, May 27, 2018

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