A lot changed in my life when I moved to Mumbai a decade and a half back.
I was living alone for the first time. Away from home. With strangers in a PG. A new city. Had just about begun work life.
Yet, the thing which shook me up the most was the biryani at Mumbai!
It was nothing like the biryani at Kolkata. The rice grains were longer, oven softer, soggier. There was a mix of masala in the rice, bordering on being curried. There was no uniformity. The biryani at various restaurants were dressed in different colours. The meat to rice ratio was a lot more balanced here compared to the rice dominant Calcutta bryanis. The biryani at Mumbai seemed louder and more base in comparison to the rather demure silken biryanis of Kolkata. Biryanis were more expensive at Mumbai.
I was told that the biryani at Mumbai was ‘Hyderabadi’. Distinct from that of Kolkata which apparently was Lucknowi or Awadhi. With some potatoes thrown in. Then I heard the theory that the biryani of Kolkata is actually a ‘pulao’. Well if the menu card at Nizam at Kolkata called it biryani then that was good enough to me. To me the Nizam menu was as good as the Red Book was for many other Kolkatans.
With time one learnt to cope with the biryanis in one’s adopted city. Lucky biryani while specifying less masala. The Lucknowi biryani of Kakori House. The kachhi biryani of Olympia. The pulao of Parsi weddings. The Bohri biryani of Jeff’s. These were some acceptable biryanis at Mumbai to my Bengali palate. But my heart lay in the fragrant biryanis of Kolkata which were more a celebration of flavours than the masala-laden multi coloured dishes here.
Then a visit to Hyderabad came up recently. Almost a decade after I was last there.
An opportunity to decode the legend of the biryani of Hyderabad. I put up my plans on facebook and twitter and soon suggestions came pouring in. First from the non-Hyderabadis who all went ‘Paradise’. A place I had eaten at a decade back. Well, packed and ‘eaten’ from at my hotel room actually. Was under-whelmed then. Is that the best that Hyderabad had to offer?
And then the murmurs began. The Hyderabadis spoke up. On twitter, facebook, emails through friends, blog post links…in-flight chats…Shadab, they all said, in the Old City. Cafe Bahar. And a few mentions of Green Park, Bawarchi and Dine Hill.
Plans began to form in my head. I circled Cafe Bahar of Bashirganj at Hyderabad. The place where Gaurav said they served biryani the way locals liked it. Not like Paradise which apparently had sold out. I wanted to go to Shadab in the old city in search of history. Hopefully between the two I would find the Azhars and the Laxmans of the biryanis of Hyderabad. And, to be fair, I thought I should try out Paradise too. Even if it was meant for civilians.
Cafe Bahar: A strong second
My first biryani stop was at Cafe Bahar with office folks. I couldn’t get them enthused enough to sit in the bustling non AC section despite the cool weather so we headed up. A Mumbai based colleague, who had lived at Hyderabad before, was there. I introduced him to Cafe Bahar. With us there was a fellow Bengali based here and an Andhraite.
Cafe Bahar was packed at lunch and we had to wait a bit. The atmosphere inside was redolent of the same easy-going, content with life, warmth which I had begun to associate with Hyderabad. Our steward, Bijoy was a Bengali from Kolkata who had come to Hyderabad for a job interview and fell in its spell. Today he split his time between his jobs at a software place and at the restaurant. He was happy to see two Bengalis at the table.
Our biryanis arrived. Topped with boiled eggs similar to Kolkata. An overwhelming amount of rice which would leave everyone except the rice loving hearty eaters of Hyderabad nonplussed. I clicked away as my Bengali colleague said “I have never seen someone take photographs of food”. My colleague from Mumbai, who had eaten with me before, gave him a resigned look.
I dug in.
First impressions….crisp, firm, elegant rice. The flavours of the meat and spices subtle bringing out the rice in its full glory. The masala tickled your palate. A touch of tanginess that flirted with your senses. The spices of the yakhni anything but hot, oily or overbearing. Popping out like bursts of sunlight through the rice. Not drenching or flooding the dish. This was more like a jugalbandi of two musical instruments complementing each other than the rocket-fuel infused headbanger’s ball of places like Jaffer Bhai or Noorani at Mumbai.
The meat to rice ratio was similar to Kolkata with 80:20 in favour of the rice unlike 60:40 at Mumbai.
The taste reminiscent of the biryani of Lucky at Mumbai.
And then it all fell into place. Cafe Bahar, like most other famous biryani places of Hyderabad, was an ‘Irani’ place. Muslim not Zoroastrian. And that’s what Lucky was too. So you had two restaurants from two different cities of India united by its Persian heritage. Distinguished only by the boiled egg in the biryani at Bahar and the potatoes in that of Lucky. Though, Mohsin, the owner of Lucky did say that his biryani was not 'Irani'. "Just normal dum biryani he said".
Yes, there were strains of Hyderabad in the classic biryanis of Mumbai. The good ones.
As a Bengali from Kolkata the biryani at Bahar did not pull at any emotional heartstrings. This was not the biryani we had grown up on. But as a detached observer one did conclude that the biryani of Cafe Bahar followed in the best traditions of the artistry and elegance of the courts of Hyderabad.
The local at our table said that Cafe Bahar biryani was different from ‘Andhra biryani’, which according to him was more like a ‘pulao’. Plus, as we found out, the biryani at Hyderabad were served with a meat and chilli sauce, march ka salon, and light yoghurt sauce, dahi chutney.
There was more to Cafe Bahar than biryani as I saw in the the bheja fry (goat’s brain fry) that I ordered. The brain was nice and tight, a consistency I liked, unlike the more amorphous squishy ones at Mumbai. A firmness which gave way to creamy goodness as you took a bite. This was tossed in a very interesting sliced onion and green chilli base. Definitely one of the best restaurant renditions of this legendary dish that I had ever come across.
I needn’t depend just any more on my own wok when I wanted bheja fry. I just had to come to Hyderabad.
We left well fed, satiated. I skipped the iconic Irani chai as I am not really a tea person. And I wanted to savour the memories of the first Hyderabadi biryani of the trip. Though we did have a few spoons of the syrupy muraqba-like qubani ka meetha.
Here are some of the pictures of the biscuits at Cafe Bahar.
Paradise lost….wouldn’t even call it third
The next night was that of Paradise. I wasn’t planning to go to Paradise first as,by then, the locals had really run it down. The vibe that I got was that of an over-hyped place, not meant for the sons of the soil, living on its past glory. Then I thought that for the sake of honest research I should stop there once. Let me figure out myself how bad it was … or wasn’t.
We headed to Paradise after work. After a whiskey and a rather tough and salty inedible chicken 65 stop at Crystal. A hard core bar in the best traditions of the sort of places Biswanath Ghosh seemed to spend most of his book, ‘Chai Chai’, at.
It was close to 11.30 pm as we hurried in an auto towards Paradise. The gates were shut but my local colleagues managed to get us into the ground floor section through the backdoor. Folks were still eating. Despite the late hour the waiters were going about their job with smiling faces with the hospitality that was so quintessentially Hyderabadi.
We took the chicken over mutton biryani basis the recommendation of our waiter. Our Bengali colleague shook his head in disappointment when he heard that our local colleague from the Telengana region and I had ordered 2 biryanis for the the three of us. He was right. It was too much. One plate was enough.
What didn’t help was the sheer mediocrity of the dish. No boiled eggs here unlike at Bahar. The rice was dry. No masala. This seemed like a good thing for Calcutta biryani fans right?
Wrong. The rice was devoid of any taste.
The piece of chicken gigantic and had as little signs of flavour in it as life on the moon. A fried piece of meat which seemed to have been put in separately as it was definitely not in harmony with the rice.
Paradise is the oldest of the three restaurants I went to. Established in 1953. I am sure it had seen its glory days. Today even four lines in this post seem to be too much to waste on this dish which left no thumb print in ones taste memory.
My recommendation if you are looking for biryani at Hyderabad and can’t go to the old city is to just head to Cafe Bahar at Bashirbagh.
Shadab, old city…the winner of my biryani stakes by a whisker
My quest for biryani started the next morning with a stop at the Golconda Fort. I huffed and puffed my way up the steps of this abandoned fort. Shiraz my (Over priced as I found out later) guide told me that we had climbed 375 steps and were 480 feet up. Steps which were earlier meant for horses to climb.
Yes, I had worked off my breakfast at The Park of medu vada, Gruyere, waffles and coffee during the climb. Shiraz might have charged me more than he should habe but he did bring to life the desolate walls around me and opened my eyes to the centuries of harmony between Muslims and Hindus at Hyderabad.
“Everyone loves peacefully, busy with their work…these leaders (politicians) are the ones who spoil everything’.
A logic you couldn’t fault with.
Next stop was Charmin and the old city. I walked through the laq market where Ashok, the car guy, told me to bargain furiously for its famous bangles. All I wanted were photographs though as I ambled happily through the streets. I brandished my point and shoot as I captured people, shops, fruits, spices, the Charminar, the Mecca Masjid and of course bangles through its lenses. Somewhere down the line I heard one shopkeeper refer to me to another as ‘he is from Discovery (!)’.
I stopped only once for a Bhel Puri in front of Charminar. This was unplanned but as I clicked his cart Ramesh exhorted me to try his bhel puri. “Don’t pay me if you don’t like it”.
Touched by his humble pride I agreed to reduce some precious biryani space. The plan was to have a polite bite or two and then pay him.
Till I took my first bite.
It was so different from anything I had ever had. Be it the bhel puri of Mumbai or even the hallowed jhal muri of Kolkata. This simple yet ethereal light citrusy delight held me in its spell as I finished Ramesh’s bhel. He smiled on seeing my enjoyment.
A bon vivant moment as I believe it is called.
I finally headed through the hustle and bustle, the energy, the vibrancy and the colours of the streets towards Shadab, Shadab, like Cafe Bahar, was newer than Paradise. I was told that it came into its own only after the restaurant at the Medina Building opposite it shut down.
I was alone and after a short wait got a table. I soon had to share it with a gentleman called Umar from Chennai. As we spoke I soon found out that in his opinion the best biryani at India was to be found at Chennai! So much for Lucknow and Kolkata. We both chided our friendly waiters when they got us the huge plates of food.
“This is too much for one person. Why don’t you serve less even if you don’t reduce the price? This will go wasted” we both said.
Yet at the end my plate was empty. For Shadab was my winner of the Hyderabadi biryani stakes. No boiled eggs but that apart it was everything that the biryani of Cafe Bahar was.
What tipped the scales in Shadab’s favour was firstly the mutton. Slightly more succulent and moist than that of Bahar. With the odd marrow bone that one could suck ones way through to er, paradise. The masala again subtle, a foil and not a wet blanket. What distinguished the Shadab biryani was the inherent heat of crushed chillies which was missing at Bahar. A perfect tribute to the chilli loving people of Andhra Pradesh, the state Hyderabad is a capital of.
I ended the meal with the satisfaction of having tasted what is arguably Hyderabad’s biryani. Headed down after politely declining the smiling waiter’s request to try out the ‘special Irani’ tea.
On the way out I got to enter the prep kitchen thanks to the kind gentleman in a white beard managing the kitchen. This was the kitchen where the rotis were made, the tea of the Irani chai was brewed and then boiled with tea and sugar. This is where the biryanis, which were cooked upstairs, were assembled and plated when orders came in. The gentleman later introduced me to one of the customers who often taunted them and said that the biryani of Paradise was better than that of Shadab. I was paraded as proud proof that the biryani of Shadab was better than that of Paradise much to the silent mirth of this gent.
And so my Hyderabad trip came to an end as I stopped to pick fruit biscuits at Karachi Bakery and then stopped for a last pesaratu at Chutneys. The memory of the fiery country chicken, natu kodi iguru, at Southern Spice emblazoned across my heart, the memory of the poetic guntur idlis of Chutneys fondly stored in my memory The knowledge of having tasted its best biryani at Shadab in the old city, the best biryani to be had at modern Hyderabad at Cafe Bahar and having debunked the myth of Cafe Paradise and its biryani made me feel that this had been a fruitful trip.
I had eaten with the locals. Like a local. Where the locals ate. The easygoing, food loving people of the city of Hyderabad made you feel at home with their big hearted hospitality. The weather was pleasant, the heritage architecture operatic, the modern airport awe inspiring …the food soul uplifiting…the smiles all around you as wide as they get.
Hyderabad doesn’t have the culinary media gloss that surrounds a Mumbai or a Delhi, it doesn’t have the Bengali gastronomical passion that pushes Kolkata ahead when it comes to food lore, nor is it the Incredible India of Rajasthan, Kerala and Goa which are paraded in front of the word.
Hyderabad is probably one of the most under-rated food cities around. You know that Hyderabad is out there somewhere but not much beyond that.. chances are that people of Hyderabad and their sheer love for good food are yet to have touched you if you have not been to the city yourself.
I was fortunate enough to have opened my eyes to the wonders of Hyderabad in this trip.
Though if I was to travel to a city for biryani it would still be Kolkata.
Press: Here’s a recent sound byte at Hindustan Times Mumbai
And here’s the link to a write up by Rehab at http://www.socialsamosas.com/ on our recent conversations.
I am leaving you behind with some photos of Charminar and its laq market. Makes you want to go there don't they?