Hyderabad has long been famous for its versions of rich pilafs and slow-cooked stews of meat. While much of the credit goes to a medley of Muslim kitchens of varied provenance, from Iran to Delhi, a source closer home is often unacknowledged. The city, after all, lies at the heart of Telangana, which has lent its distinct flavour to Hyderabadi khana. The searing chillies, the tart tamarind, the piquant mustard seeds are unmistakable in many original recipes—such as dalcha, a spicy soup of lamb and lentils, tomato kut, a purée laced with garlic, or mirchi ka salan, a pickle of green chillies and peanuts.
In 1956, the fertile coastal plains watered by the Krishna and Godavari rivers were merged with the parched plateau regions of Telangana and Rayalaseema. And Hyderabad, the erstwhile home of the lavish Asaf Jahi court, became the capital of a largely Telugu-speaking state. Ambitious, enterprising or merely curious, families arrived from the coastal districts and from drought-prone Rayalaseema. These “settlers”, as they are now known, have been accused of wresting the region’s resources and, most of all, its identity. Smarting from decades of ridicule, Telangana’s supporters say Hyderabad belongs to them. As political parties quarrel over the city’s fate, Telangana’s obscure yet delicious recipes may be a great guide to its recent thorny past.
In the memorable A Taste of India, Madhur Jaffrey wrote: “India hides its real food in millions of private homes, both rich and poor.” So the best way to go in search of it is to visit household chefs, humble cooks and those women who are willing to part with their cooking secrets.
Meaty meals: Telangana recipes show a distinct preference for non-vegetarian food. Photograph by Aditya Mopur/Mint.
The lumpy, green bitter gourd is a popular vegetable in south India. In some parts of Andhra Pradesh, it’s cooked with jaggery to sweeten the flavour. In other parts, it’s deep-fried with groundnuts to dispel its strong taste. Adabala Lakshmi says a common Telangana way is to boil slices of the gourd with tamarind and turmeric before frying it brown. “It’s oily but that’s why it’s so tasty,” she says.
Lakshmi arrived in Hyderabad 40 years ago to work for a Telangana family. She learnt her trade from older cooks—pounding doughs of sorghum into slim, round breads, simmering chicken, dum-style, over hot coals, and crafting delicately layered sweets stuffed with sesame and jaggery. “I learnt how to cook adavi pandi koora (wild boar curry). It’s still my speciality,” she says proudly.
Telangana hasn’t been immune to six centuries of Muslim rule. The result is a meld of flavours—flaky breads, fiery powders and aromatic, pungent curries with a generous dose of meaty fare. Raita, which usually accompanies biryani, is similar to the spicy yogurt chutneys of Telangana—snake gourd (parwal) or bottle gourd (louki) drenched in a tangy dip of yogurt and tempered with cumin, green chillies and mustard seeds. Dalcha itself is a Telangana variation of sambhar—a tadka of dal that also has ginger-garlic paste.
In Telangana Hindu families, the slender bits of mutton in the soup are replaced by chunkier pieces with their cartilage intact, which gives them a crunchy bite. “I grew up eating venison, wild boar and quail,” says Shekhar Reddy, a venture capitalist. He spent much of his childhood in a hilly village in Nalgonda, less than 150km from Hyderabad. “Hunting was a way of life because growing enough food was always hard in these parts.”
Arid Telangana never supported intensive agriculture. Yields improved, especially in Nalgonda, only after the colossal Nagarjunasagar Dam was built. Rather than rice, breads baked from sorghum or pearl millets have been the staple. And game meat was a big part of meals. “My grandfather and his friends would go out to hunt and return with a wild boar in the back of the jeep,” remembers Reddy. “The butcher would get to work immediately so the meat could be divided among my grandfather and his friends. And one-third would be distributed among people in the village.”
Lamb too was a precious commodity. Strips of the meat would, for instance, be dried in the sun to preserve them. Sometimes these strips would be crushed to a podi (powder) and served with hot rice and ghee. Reddy, who enjoys cooking, says one of his favourite family recipes is madisina karam or burnt gunpowder—roasted red chillies, rice and coriander are pounded by hand with other condiments into a gritty mixture, which is served with ghee-soaked rice. “But it’s very potent,” he warns.
When families from other parts of Andhra Pradesh came to Hyderabad, they brought with them their varied ways of cooking. From the prosperous villages skirting the coast, steaming plates of rice served with jaggery-flavoured gravies, spicy, red crab curry, minced shark meat cooked dry or horse-gram seeds boiled to a thick brown sauce called ulava chaaru. From the dry tracts of Rayalaseema, stews of mango, meat or vegetables soaked in tamarind and red chillies, millet-rich meals served with hot chicken curry or nutty chutneys to go with dosas and idlis. Telangana offered to the table its unusual partiality to non-vegetarian fare, including the irreverently named head meat curry or talakaya mamsam. Across these regions, castes remained the same and, in Hyderabad, many families intermarried. Recipes were swapped, cooking processes were tweaked and flavours intensified.
“When I got married, I was surprised that dosas and idlis were not common breakfast food,” says Ikebana expert Rekha Reddy, whose husband is from Telangana—she herself is from Chittoor in Rayalaseema. “Khichdi with keema or chapatti and puri with chicken curry are usually eaten for breakfast. It’s only natural, since they grow millets and grains rather than rice or wheat.”
Avakaya, the famed mango pickle from Andhra Pradesh, is also uncommon in Telangana homes. Instead, they are known for their pickles of lamb and fish, yet another way of preserving food, according to Rekha. Yellow cucumber, often pickled, is also cooked with lamb. She even recollects a recipe for chicken curry that calls for a generous dose of rum!
One of the few things that Telangana has in common with other parts of the state is the soothing, mildly sour pachi pulusu or, literally, raw soup—cool tamarind water perked up with cumin, coriander, mustard and chillies as a delicious salve in the hot summer months. But the slightest of tweaks, such as a sprinkling of sesame seeds or a pinch of jaggery, gives it a refreshingly different flavour in Telangana homes.
For marinating the mutton
1kg seena mutton (pieces of meat with cartilage)
2 medium-sized onions, sliced
2 tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp caraway seeds (shahi zeera)
1 tsp ginger-garlic paste
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
1 tsp oil
For the ‘dal’
1 cup toor dal
4-5 dry red chillies, each sliced into four pieces
1 tamarind (preferably big, the size of a lemon)
3-4 drumsticks, cut and peeled
A handful of bottle gourd pieces
2-3 sprigs of curry leaves
1 medium-sized bunch of green coriander
1 tsp each of cumin, turmeric and mustard for tempering
Salt to taste
Marinate the seena mutton with salt, chilli powder, ginger-garlic paste and turmeric. Keep aside.
Heat oil in a pressure cooker and add caraway seeds and onions. When the onions change colour, add the meat. Fry for 10-15 minutes and pressure-cook for two-three whistles. Keep aside.
Now pressure-cook the dal till it becomes soft. Add tamarind juice.
Heat oil in a pan and add cumin, mustard, dry chillies, drumsticks and bottle gourd. Fry for 10 minutes. Add tomato, turmeric, tamarind-flavoured dal, curry leaves and coriander. Cook for 15 minutes. Add the marinated and cooked meat. Simmer for 5-10 minutes. Serve hot with rice.
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