Several years ago, I had the fortune of being invited to the ancestral home of ad film-maker Zafar Hai in Hyderabad. I hadn’t been in India long and I remember being impressed by everything. The detailing was perfect, from the silver slippers in the bathroom to the intricacy of the table and the rich, painstakingly prepared food. Zafar’s mother never went into the kitchen herself but clearly knew how to cook and lay a superb meal. All the dishes came out together, the biryani or the safed pulao, coming out last. You were advised what to have with what—the lukhmi first, then kebabs and sheermal or kulcha, the vegetables and “kut” meats and lastly the biryani. There was a raita and two desserts at the end. This elaborate menu and laying out everything together is also done at a traditional dastarkhan dinner and a wedding. The crockery was bone china and the serving dishes were silver. It made me realize that Hyderabadi food was both complex and difficult to replicate without a serious amount of help.
In terms of “gourmet” ingredients, it was sublime—rose petals, saffron, fragrant cardamoms. Also interesting were the tart and pungent flavourings of the south—mustard seeds, cassia buds (kebab cheeni), cinnamon, curry leaves, hot chillies, peanuts, tamarind and coconut milk. A sauce of roasted and ground sesame seeds which, in West Asia, could be mild tahini, is mixed with fiery green chillies and tart tamarind paste to become til ki chutney. Dried beans and lamb, which are often stewed together in Persian cookery, are perked up with tamarind, cumin seeds, red chillies and curry leaves to become the delectable dalcha. The biryanis are distinct with aromatic potlis (spices in muslin pouches) and lamb (the most widely used meat) added raw, so that it cooks along with the rice. Desserts, as expected, are heavy, sweet and creamy.
The royal family and the landed gentry of Hyderabad were great gourmets and patronized fine cuisine and elaborate menus (whether breakfast, a hunt, banquets or dastarkhan dinners). These traditions live on in some families, the only problem being the number of staff required to prepare the recipes, since tradition demands that many have to be done by hand without mixers and grinders. Much about Hyderabadi royal food has been documented in books about the Nizam. Because genuine dishes are painstaking to prepare, they are rarely found in restaurants. Mumtaz Khan invited me to her home many years ago and this is her recipe for Shikhampur Kebab, which I make often. It is both accurate and the result is a melt-in-the-mouth piece of ecstasy every time.
Shikampur Kebabs—Minced Mutton Kebabs
Makes 12-14 kebabs
1 egg white
200g chutney for stuffing
½ cup oil
½ kg boneless mutton
2 onions, sliced
¼ tsp ginger and ¼ tsp garlic, ground together into a paste
1 tsp red chilli powder
½ tsp turmeric powder
A handful of fresh coriander, chopped finely
salt to taste
2 tbsp Bengal gram dal
Group 2 (to be finely ground)
2 tsp chironji
1 tbsp white poppy seed
2 tbsp ground almond or cashew nut
5 green cardamom, skin removed
100g fresh hung curd
½ onion, chopped
2 green chillies, finely chopped
2 tbsp coriander
Mix all the above ingredients together in a bowl. This chutney should be of a very thick consistency.
Mix together all the items of Group 1 in a pan, cover and cook on a medium flame for 25 minutes, or pressure cook for 10 minutes. Remove the lid and stir occasionally until all the water dries up. Continue to stir until the meat turns a little brown in colour. Remove from the fire and add to the ground masalas of Group 2. Grind this mixture to a fine paste (this can be prepared in advance and kept aside or in the fridge till required). Add the beaten egg white to the meat mixture. Take a little of mixture in the palm of the hand (slightly smaller than the size of a ping pong ball). Flatten the mixture and put a little chutney (approx. 1 tsp) into the centre of the meat mixture. Cover the chutney stuffing with the meat on all sides, form into a round shape and flatten. Refrigerate for an hour to firm up. Shallow fry on both sides until dark brown. Drain oil and serve hot.
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