It is said that Nizam-ul-Mulk, first Governor and then independent ruler of Hyderabad, visited a pir shortly after breaking free from the Mughal court. The holy man, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aurangabadi, offered his guest a plate of kulchas, of which Nizam-ul-Mulk ate seven. The pir then prophesised that the new ruler of Hyderabad would have a dynasty that lasted seven generations, and ever since, the Nizams’ official flag carried an image of a kulcha.
Arguably the most famous component of Hyderabadi food – and a prime example of the city’s free mix of influences – is the biryani. The city’s kacchi biryani comes in up to forty varieties and is often hailed as the ultimate experience in the genre. Hyderabad’s haleem is also famous. An integral part of the Iftar meal – which breaks the fast during Ramzan – haleem is a thick gravy of pounded meat, lentils and wheat, cooked for hours on low heat.
Hyderabadi cuisine is distinguished by its use of spices, which can range from sandalwood powder to dried rose petals, and are often infused into a particular dish through a muslin cloth. Other dishes are flavoured with more sour tastes, derived from local Telengana cuisine. Tamarind, lemon, raw mango, starfruit and other souring ingredients are not only turned into pickles, but also used in preparations like baghare baingan and achar gosht.
Indeed, Telangana cuisine in the city is eminently worth exploring. Its spicy-sour repertoire includes the fiery pachi pulusu (a rasam flavoured with tamarind, chilli and onions), telangana kodi vedupu (chicken cooked with tomatoes and onions) and gongura masam (mutton or lamb cooked in Gongura leaves), accompanied with rice and jonna (or jowar: millet) rotis. The sour gongura leaves, in fact, are the most well-known facet of Telengana cuisine, and are most commonly found pickled.
The meal is rounded off with the rich khubani ka meetha (mashed dried apricots and cream), the more modern double ka meetha (a kind of bread pudding), sheer khorma (a vermicelli pudding) or, on really special occasions, nimish – a divine preparation of milk foam gathered into clay cups. However Hyderabadi sweet dishes have much in common with their north Indian counterparts and it is not unusual to find savouries like kulfi and faluda in abundance.
A century ago, such a spread would have ended with a redoubtable elder seated by his ‘hubblebubble’, or being lulled to sleep by a professional storyteller; today, it may or may not evoke such remembrances, but, nevertheless, it still gives immense satisfaction.
‘Some are delicate in taste, some intoxicatingly aromatic, some are flavoured with saffron, some with cream and milk and some others with rose water or screw pine flower water’ (Pratibha Karan). Indeed, ‘food critics argue that Hyderabad’s is the only true biryani. The biryanis of Lucknow, they say, are no more than pulaos, combinations of rice and meat cooked separately. In the Hyderabadi biryani on the other hand, raw rice and raw meat are cooked together. A counterargument is that biryani derives from the Farsi for ‘fried’, so in fact the pakki biryani in which the meat is fried separately from the rice may be more ‘authentic’. At any rate, so popular are Hyderabadi biryanis that most well-established restaurants in the city are prepared to vacuum-pack the dish which is taken by expatriate Mulkis to various parts of the country and the globe. However, if one goes by Pratibha Karan’s collection of Hyderabadi recipes, A Princely Legacy, the best biryanis are cooked in private kitchens, not restaurants. A test for a wellcooked biryani? Throw a small amount of rice on the floor – if the grains fall separately, the biryani is well-made.
For more on the city, pick up Goodearth Publications: Hyderabad City Guide ISBN 9789380262031
(Available at all leading outlets and online stores)