It may seem odd to many that all I may pen about Hyderabadi cuisine is its biryani. Nevertheless my biryani quest was provoked by the unsatisfied and incomplete taste of the authentic Hyderabadi biryani that I have savoured all over town back home in Malaysia, across Indonesia and Singapore. That precise zest that I yearned for and undoubtedly recognized from past experiences in India was lacking. Flavours that should explode in every bite were always absent.
However, hope was in the horizon when I planned a trip to Hyderabad, I immediately made seeking out the authentic biryani top of the priority list during my stay in the realm of the Nizams. Devising a plan to fulfil my quest for the ultimate biryani proved tricky considering that Hyderabad was experiencing turmoil and strikes or bandh’s as they are called in India caused by political disagreements on the division of the Telangana region within the state of Andhra Pradesh.
The Telangana region lies on the Deccan plateau to the west of the Eastern Ghats range and includes the north-western interior districts of Warangal, Adilabad, Khammam, Mahabubnagar, Nalgonda, Rangareddy, Karimnagar, Nizamabad, Medak and the state capital, Hyderabad. The dispute for a separate state ignites ferocious bandh’s causing the state to bear a huge revenue loss due to suspension of state-run transportation, vandalism and the torching of state-run transport vehicles and buildings. No one goes to work or school, businesses are shut, and tourism spots within the strike focused areas are closed too!
Boy oh boy! What a time to holiday in Hyderabad were my exact thoughts. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find my expedition barely disrupted by the many riots and bandh’s fuelled by egocentric and narcissistic politicians. This is because the ‘Old City’ of Hyderabad where my love of the authentic Hyderabadi biryani came alive, for some weird reason although situated in Telangana is never affected by these bandh’s.
The rogues who vandalize, torch or beat up owners of stores who try to keep their shops open do not have the authority nor the guts to create havoc within the beautiful mesmerizing city of the olds was what our driver told us. Well truth or otherwise, them being open was to my benefit!
As history serves, Hyderabad which was built by the Qutb Shahi dynasty of Turkic-Persian decent was originally situated on the south side of the Musi River. Today, that very city has spread widely in all directions; north, east and west. The area south of the Musi River, the original Hyderabad, is what is referred to as the Old City.
There are many claims to the origin of the Hyderabadi biryani. Some claim it to be of Arabic or West Asian origin, others claim it to be of Mughal or Persian origin. However if you look back to the history of the Deccan you will find that Muslim Persian invaders who brought in the wealth of architecture, jewellery, literature, dance, music and cuisine conquered the Deccan much longer than the Mughals.
Starting with the invasion of the Bahmani dynasty of Tajik-Persian decent followed by the Qutb Shahi dynasty, followed by the Mughal Invaders and back to the Persian control of the Nizams from the Asaf Jahi dynasty, it is mostly argued that the history of biryani stretches back to Persia, pre-Mughal era before coming into north India through Afghanistan with similar concepts like the Persian pulao or the Iranian biryani called Ishafan for some instances.
The word biryani is derived from the Persian word ‘birian’ which means ‘fried before cooking’ which is how the dish is prepared. Raw rice is first fried with its spices and condiments before it is cooked in layers of meat and more spices in an earthen pot called the Handi.
It is stated that in the ninth century it became associated with the Mughal Empire and soon became a traditional royal dish which was also served to royalty during the reign of the Nizams. No doubt, the Mughals played a vital role in modifying, spreading and entrenching biryani in different parts of the country.
Over time, the blending of ancient Telangana of the Kakatiya dynasty, Persian and Mughal influences has brought about the perfection of the Hyderabadi biryani. What ever its origins, it is a firm part and most popular dish of the Hyderabadi cuisine.
My fascination of the Hyderabadi biryani isn’t a strange one. It has become so popular all over India that other famous dishes of Hyderabad like the Haleem, Dum Ka Qimah, and Shammi Kebabs to name a few, have taken a back seat. You can expect swift answers when asking a tour guide for biryani recommendations compared to if you were to ask them for famous Haleem recommendations.
A clear Muslim influence in Hyderabadi food is the evident use of mutton or lamb. Food in Hyderabad are mostly non-vegetarian with an emphasis on meat more than on seafood which makes sense considering Hyderabad to be a landlocked region.
While roaming the streets of the old city, I found mutton biryani to be a favourite. There are requests for chicken biryani but it is often rare to find a local even boasting about it.
My driver, Osman had a few hearty laughs over my biryani hunt throughout the twelve days I spent there. Some would say having biryani everyday is overdoing it or overwhelming. But what I encountered was a spread of varying flavours and textures in each restaurant I ventured into. I could not even say at any one moment that today’s biryani was similar to the previous one. They were all unique and superbly exotic in their own way.
On my first day out in the four hundred year old city, my driver took me to a restaurant that was beautifully decorated and patronized by many foreigners. When I first looked at the menu, I found the dishes to be a tad pricy. What am I talking about? I hardly even looked at other dishes; I would just flip to the back for the biryani section.
My first mutton biryani of the trip was nothing to rave about, it was of course different from what I have had in the past but it just lacked that oomph! Paid a hefty bill too. Once back in the car, I asked Osman whether he could take me to a biryani restaurant that everyday folk would visit for a nice luncheon or dinner stint out with the family. I told him how I found nothing special about the biryani I just had and that the famous Hyderabadi biryani boastings which I often heard was suddenly dwindling into just a fake rumour.
On the next day, Osman decided to take me to an outlet called Paradise for a biryani lunch again. Paradise is a two level restaurant situated right in front of an extremely busy crossroad of the Mahatma Gandhi Road. The bottom level is not air-conditioned and the second level is, with no difference in the quality of food served.
Fifteen minutes passed and my second mutton biryani of the trip was placed right in front of me. The aroma filled my nostrils and I just smiled as the neurons in my brains realized that this fragrance was special, completely different from that of yesterday. It was amazingly lovely! The basmati rice of white, mustard and rust colours exploded with savoury flavours I can hardly express in words.
The mutton pieces that were marinated in yoghurt and condiments broke ever so softly on my plate and mouth. The kind of tenderness and softness you could imagine your favourite old granny who has lost all her teeth and too old to have dentures, enjoy! Don’t get me wrong, the mutton wasn’t mush but extremely delicate to just the right texture that it melted in my mouth similar to M&Ms.
Typically with biryani in Hyderabad, a yoghurt chutney with onions, a green chilli curry called Mirchi Ka Salan or roasted eggplants called Bagare Baingan are served to accompany this royal dish. Some people will tell you they can’t do without them.
But I relished my biryani without these accompanying dishes as I found them spoiling the authentic taste of the rice that has captured and retained the flavours of meat and spices. One portion of mutton biryani is rather big and can be shared by two people unless of course you have come with a big appetite and have no interest in the sharing idea. Hah! I just could not stop grinning in satisfaction.
Paradise is averagely decorated, nothing close to that of the previous joint we went too but still bright and very pleasing to the eye. The biryani at Paradise is priced around Rs250, which I would say is at least three times less in cost compared to the type of places most foreigners go to, but still a bit steep if compared to the places we discovered over the next few days.
Now with my cravings fed it was off to some sight-seeing. During my stay, I put up at the Marriott, a beautiful hotel with excellent service and helpful staff. I also dined in several other well-known restaurants located in hotels. However, it is advisable no matter how reputable your hotel is, may it be a four, five or even a six star for that matter, expecting their biryani’s to taste anything like those of the restaurants I have been going goo goo ga ga over is an impossible feat.
Trust me… I know! Lesson learned. No matter how world-class their restaurants seem or claim to be, they somehow lack that authentic old city scrumptious zestful oomph mainly because they commercially cater to the majority of guests that dine in their restaurants.
I must mention that the restaurants that I ventured into over the next couple of days have nothing unique or breath-taking about their décor.
They are simple everyday restaurants with the basic floral or artsy wallpaper with standard looking tables and chairs and maybe one or two aquariums around. For those Malaysian’s reading this article, I would categorise these restaurants to the likes slightly above the ‘mamak’ standard with air-conditioning.
But their food more than make up for what ever physical attributes that are missing in the dinning area. I have always believed that when in search for the authentic flavours of a country, you cannot always expect to dine in a fancy, out of this world, famous joint all the time. It’s in the restaurants by the streets and bazaars that you find the real deal and amazing culture.
The only important factor is that you have to make sure that the restaurant you are going to is family oriented, fairly clean and drink water that is bottled and its seal only opened in front of you.
Now, day three begins with Osman informing me of a long list of local restaurants that serve the type of biryani I seek. Talk about resourcefulness! And my biryani escapades henceforth took me to Bahar, Barwachi, Mandar, Hyderabad House, Southern Spice, Adab, Garden and of course some were just too good, I had to revisit them again!
All of these restaurants except for Southern Spice, price their mutton biryanis to an average cost of Rs150-RS190 for a portion that can easily be shared by two people. There is also the option of ordering a double meat biryani which might set you back an additional Rs50. A normal portion would consist of six generous pieces of meat and a double meat portion would add an extra six more. Hence those who aren’t much of a rice eater can always opt for the latter.
These restaurants each possess their very own intriguing delicious palatableness. The biryani’s from Bahar, Garden and Barwarchi are hot and spicy, a Telugu influence.
The aromatic sting of the chilli and twang of the cumin and pepper are features that distinguish its reasons for long lines of loyal patrons who don’t mind standing for some thirty to forty-five minutes before getting a table. Hyderabad House and Southern Spice are two ends of a spectrum. One is extremely reasonable with a simple get up and the other overly priced. But then again, they each bear their own overhead costs considering that Southern Spice located at Banjara Hills is intricately decorated to provide a rustic appeal with the lights turned low creating a cosy ambiance.
Not to mention its located right next to a boutique that manages to lure you with tantric like spells which you hear in your head whispering… come to me Rose…. Come to me… Mandar and Adab were by far the best and have the ability to infuse a saporous jolt of various flavours from the combination of their own secret portion of herbs and spices. Herbs and spices are the glory of Indian food and India has them in abundance.
What makes Hyderabadi spice usage stand out is their use of sandalwood powder, sesame seeds and rose petals. You can bet your bottom dollar that none of the chefs showed an itsy bitsy tiny weenie gesture that he was going to reveal his magical mix of secret ingredients that made these biryani’s so magnificently succulent, rich and ambrosial!
Food for the gods, I say! In Hyderabad, good food is a passion and obsession to most local folk. So you see, I fit in quite well with these people, they never thought I was a nut.
It was quite interesting to see how Hyderabadi’s prize the meat of a male goat as it is considered much more tender and luscious than meat of a female goat. Some of these chefs that I met stated that they would insist on only the male goat and make sure that the butcher doesn’t dupe them by sending their subordinates to select and personally collect the meat.
Service in all these restaurants are pretty good. Nothing too exceptional, but just about an acceptable standard. They got my orders right so I can’t really complain.
In recent times, with the growth of their Hi-Tech city, there has been an explosion in the number of restaurants in Hyderabad, fuelled by the demand from young professionals with lots of dough to spend. Quality and variety of food, however, has not kept pace. There are a disproportionately large number of restaurants especially outside old Hyderabad that aspire to be called ‘fine-dining’ restaurants, but the dishes they serve and service rendered are usually indifferent.
Venturing out for heavenly cuisine would be best in the old city where it’s quite blatantly seen that food there is viewed as a celebration and prepared with much fuss and elegance. I have such love for Hyderabad, its people, its culture, its architecture and obviously its cuisine and my tryst for Hyderabad has not ended.
There is so much more of its cuisine that I want to take a whirl at. Another trip maybe? With the concentration on everything else but biryanis. I am sure I can control my biryani urges the next time round! Or maybe I should refrain from such declarations… Coming together over good food is a lovely time spent with friends and loved ones.
And for those who share my craze, I suggest Hyderabad a must in your next vacation plans. As they say… good food ends with good talk and fond memories! If you are one of those who has an eye for history, I shall tell all in my next exposition about this very city’s legacy of rulers, kingdoms, majesty and the love story related to the founding of the beautiful city of Hyderabad.
Restaurant addresses listed in order of biryani excellence:
- Mandar: No.9-4-77/F/10 Yousuf Tekdi Complex, Toli Chowki Road, Hyd.
- Bahar: Old MLA Quarters, Basheerbagh, Hyderguda (near the police commissioner’s office)
- Bawarchi: No.66 Azambad Industrial Area, RTC Crossroads, Hyd.
- Adab: Old City, Nampally, Hyd.
- Garden: Sarojini Devi Road, Hyd.
- Paradise: Mahatma Gandhi Road, Secunderabad, Hyd.
- Hyderabad House: 16-11-19/9, Opposite TV Tower, Saleem Nagar, Hyd. One of their many branches.
- Southern Spice: 8-2-350/3/2, No.3, Hyd. Opposite Mufakamza College of Eng. Banjara Hills.
Majority of these restaurants will not be found in any of the Hyderabad city guide books. Any local driver should know these spots and easily take you there.