They say there is a first time for everything.
I had never struck up a conversation with a stranger in a flight before. My SOP being to just curl up in the seat…till it’s time to get off. This time was different. Perhaps it had something to with the fact that everyone in the flight to Hyderabad seemed to be in such good spirits…beaming away despite the late hour.
So a conversation which started with the Samsung Galaxy Tab turned into one on the merits of the biryani of Cafe Bahar versus Paradise - “Ask for masala at Bahar …that’s how locals eat it…it is cooked in layers of rice, meat and yakhni in a sealed pot. It’s called kachhi gosht biryani. You will get this at Bahar. It was invented for soldiers as the cooks would march with goats, rice and loads of masala and make biryani for the troops while on campaigns. The biryani at Paradise is for outsiders. They cut down on the masala”.
Turned out that Gaurav was a food aficionado. He proudly told me that his wife, a Muslim, made great biryani at home. So when Gaurav told me that I should go to Southern Spice over Angeethi and Rayalseema for Andhra I listened. For over the one and a half hour flight he had convinced me that he knew his food.
I headed out from my hotel in search for Southern Spice the next day. A place which had also been recommended by other locals. Nitish, the local at the concierge desk at my hotel,agreed too. Southern Spice is older than Rayalseema he said. He told me that the branch at Banjara Hills was the original one.
I was back at Hyderabad after a decade. A lot had changed. I was no longer a trainee, new to the corporate world, enthralled by room service. I am now a proclaimed ‘grunge eater’. Hyderabad had changed. The new airport makes you reach for your passport. Could this be India? The long drive to the city sailing over flyovers. This was post Chandrababu Naidu’s Cyberabad Hyderabad. In fact the only thing which was the same after all these years is auto-rickshaw guys who just refuse to ply by meter. Living in Mumbai spoils you for public transport in the South of India. But the weather at Hyderabad made up for it. It was pleasantly cool and such a respite after the skewers of Mumbai.
We finally located Southern Spice. The grand old manager at the entrance told me that I would have to share a table and assured me that Southern Spice did have the best Andhra food in town.
I was led to a table. Three waiters came and asked me if I was alone. I soldiered on smiling…refusing to be cowed by the judgmental posse of waiters.
A while later they got someone else to share my table. A gentleman who reminded me of how much Andhraites can eat. Chicken, rotis, prawns, rice…the moderately sized gent finished the bushels with aplomb.
I managed to navigate away from the North Indian thali in the menu with its promise of cream of tomato soup and tandoori roti and found the vegetarian Andhra thali which was recommended to me by all. The steward guiding me patiently. In addition I chose the country chicken - “it will have bones sir” – natu kodi iguru (chicken in a thick gravy).
The smiling waiter came with my thali and buttermilk. I knew a bit of the drill from Nagarjuna at Bangalore. For the rest he answered my questions and directed me.
Fluffy, soft, slightly cold puris with coconut cream korma.
Rice in turns with bits of everything as he guided me. First with the fragrant hypnotic ghee and coconut powder and some other powder and a hot mango pickle. Then rice with another pickle.
Rice with a thick Andhra daal. Two dry vegetable dishes of cabbage and beans. Sambar next, nowhere as sweet as the bilge they serve you at Shiv Sagar at Bandra. The sambar here rather thick and full of vegetables, And then curd with rice and rasam with rice was the recommendation. After a bit of rice at the final stage I spooned out the curd and drank the rasam out of the bowl.
Yes, one more thing hadn’t changed in ten years. The buckets of rice they served with meals at Andhra Pradesh
I have never got the point of rasam before this and wondered why South Indians get week knee’d about it.
Well, I will always remember Southern Spice as the place where I actually liked the rasam. Hot, steaming, clear, tangy with a resilient punch of pepper. The sort of thing you sipped on satisfied after a great meal. Content as you munched on more papad.
And the chicken. The natu kodu iguru.
Yes it was full of bones and was yet the most juicy, succulent bits of chicken that I have had in this century. The chicken was made in a green chilli paste and seasoned with curry leaves. The thali was not hot as people said Andhra food would be. Yet the chicken made you cry. Made you sweat.
And you ate on. Ate on well after you were full. Smiling through the tears of joy and the sweat of honest labour. You were stuffed and you still took out more out of the bowl to eat. The puri you were supposed to eat the chicken with got over but you still took out more chicken from the huge bowl and had it with rice. When your body surrendered and said no more…and yet kept eating hypnotised…held in a spell by culinary wizardry.
You ate with your hands and licked your fingers as your tongue was seared by the fiery heat of the chillies. And yet you ate on. Transported to a very happy place. Understanding what masochism was all about, The handcuffs, the whips … the passion and frenzy of the country chicken rocking your world in a way it never had been before.
After the last morsel of chicken was finished. The last bit of the blazing gravy licked off, you could look up and say, “I have lived”.
My meal at Southern Spice and the earlier ones at Bangalore showed me how ersatz the quality of South Indian food at Mumbai is.
I still hadn’t tasted Chicken 65 though. The darling of Andhra eateries. The waiter told me it was Chinese. I didn’t want that.
On the way out I complemented the grand old manager on the lovely meal. And then asked him what Chicken 65 was.
“It is chicken marinated in curd and deep fried”
“Oh, your waiter told me it is Chinese”.
“Oh yes, it is Chinese.”