Hyderabad has always had a special place in its heart for food since the days of Mir Qamaruddin Khan, the first of a dynasty that elevated cuisine from mere enjoyment to an art form. Let’s travel into the past to find out what makes Hyderabadi cuisine so distinctly unique.
There’s no consensus as to how the Osmania biscuit came to be. Some say that they were regular biscuits at Vicaji Hotel in Abids until the 7th Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan, decided he liked them so much that he had them delivered to the palace daily. Others say they were invented by dieticians at Osmania Hospital to supplement patient nutrition – until the attendants realised how good they were and started leaking samples to local bakeries. Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain – Osmania biscuits are a Hyderabadi icon, one that most people in the city have sampled at some point.
When it comes to the cuisine of Telangana, there are two distinct varieties. The first is influenced heavily by the ethnic Telugu people native to the region and relies heavily on local ingredients. It’s what has been consumed in the region for centuries, even before the arrival of the Mughal conquerors and their descendants. Because of the state’s history, influences from the Andhra and Rayalaseema regions gradually became part of Hyderabad’s food landscape, a characteristic of Telangana cuisine that remains intact even after bifurcation.
The second type of cuisine predominant across Telangana is traditional Hyderabadi fare, which is more or less the result of cultural and agricultural confluence – Turkish and Persian influences blended with royal preferences and local flavours. This is the rich, spiced, meat-heavy cuisine that was brought to the Deccan from the courts of Delhi and Lucknow before being significantly altered. Once the domain of ministers and royals, it’s now available at almost every restaurant in Hyderabad and across the rest of the state. The cuisine is named, of course, after the erstwhile princely state, not the city we all know and love. In fact, food played a considerably large role in the very founding of the Asaf Jahi dynasty, and to fully appreciate the Nizams’ love for cuisine, you must first go back to the 18th century.
When the Mughals were at their peak, they had an empire too vast for one man to manage, so they divided them into provinces, and the largest of these was the Deccan. Following the death of Aurangzeb, the empire began to falter. The court of the emperor, once the majestic pillar of imperial power, fell to base influences and descended into debauchery. Veteran ministers and politicians were disillusioned, shocked by how low the Mughal court had fallen. Mir Qamaruddin Khan was one of the men who despised those who had poisoned and corrupted the establishment.
Because of his best efforts to reform the situation, he earned several enemies who convinced Muhammad Shah that keeping him around was more trouble than it was worth. The disgusted noble resigned as prime minister and left to take charge of the Deccan, but before doing so, he visited his spiritual mentor, the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. The mystic asked his student to join him for lunch, a simple meal of kulcha, telling him to have as many as he liked. Mir Qamaruddin ate seven pieces, and Hazrat Nizamuddin then prophesised that he and his descendants would rule the Deccan for seven generations.
Upon arriving in the Deccan, Mir Qamaruddin found his rightful place occupied by a Mughal ‘loyalist’ who was making token payments to Delhi while embezzling much of the province’s revenues and resources for himself and his sycophants. After defeating Mubariz Khan and assuming his place as viceroy, Mir Qamaruddin pledged his loyalty to the emperor by sending his predecessor’s severed head to Delhi as a signal that he would kill anyone who stood against him. The emperor returned the favour by granting him the title of Asaf Jah, the highest such honour available to a subject of the Mughal throne, essentially giving Mir Qamaruddin de facto independence. The saint’s words had begun to come to fruition.
To see just how significant those seven kulcha were to the house of Asaf Jah, you need only look at the dynasty’s flag and coat of arms. On both, you’ll find a circle that represents the bread, while the yellow background signifies the cloth on which Hazrat Nizamuddin offered it to Mir Qamaruddin. While the Nizams may have been their own ruling house, they were nonetheless descendants of imperialists from Central Asia. As such, they were fond of rich, gourmet dishes. That trait is directly responsible for the evolution of Hyderabadi cuisine, noted around the world for its richness of flavour, fragrant aromas, and lush blend of tartness, sweetness and spice.
The influences of the Telangana region on Mughlai food are the driving factor behind the key differences between Hyderabadi and Awadhi cuisine, both of which come from Mughal-derivative states. While the food cultures of the Deccan and Lucknow share similarities – dominating presence of meat, level of importance given to aroma and presentation, reverence for spice and preparation methods – they are also distinctly different. The cuisine of the north is markedly sweeter due to the use of dried and fresh fruit, cardamom, saffron and cream. Hyderabadi fare is heavily reliant on ingredients intrinsic to Telangana – tamarind, tomato and gongura for tartness (a defining characteristic of the cuisine), peanut and cashew for richness and texture, rice (cultivated predominantly in coastal Andhra, but present across Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), and vegetables such as brinjal and cauliflower.
The food we know today as Hyderabadi cuisine is a simplified version of what was once enjoyed by the Nizams, their ministers and their respective guests as edible art. A traditional meal would consist of several meat dishes – goat or lamb, beef, chicken, and game such as partridge or venison – served as a variety of dishes – mouth-watering kebabs, succulent roast, and rich curries. These were accompanied by freshly baked kulcha or naan, fragrant biryani and several varieties of dal. Some of the more famous Hyderabadi dishes include murgh mussalam, partridge pasinde, ambada gosht, nahari, bagara baigan and qubani ka meetha. Most of these dishes are still widely available at restaurants or cooked in thousands of Hyderabadi homes, while a few have all but died out, remaining alive only in cookbooks and among the descendants of that resplendent era’s ruling class.
Of course, given the nature of today’s world, Hyderabadi cuisine is no longer the only thing you get in the city. In fact, you can find pretty much any type of global fare ranging from Japanese and Thai to Italian and Mexican – much of it has been tweaked to suit the Indian palate, but there are establishments that remain true to the culinary traditions of the country of origin, and they’re not hard to pinpoint thanks to websites like Zomato. In fact, one of the most popular and fastest-growing food segments in Hyderabad is pan-Asian cuisine. Hyderabad has always had an affinity for the heavily modified Chinese food that’s available throughout the country, but Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese cuisines are taking the city by storm due to certain similarities with what Hyderabad is accustomed to – fragrant aromas, generous use of spice, and a certain tart or tangy flavour in most dishes.
The modern avatar of Hyderabadi cuisine, as seen by outsiders, is restricted to biryani, haleem and kebabs. Those in and from the city and its surroundings, however, know that while the decadence and extravagance of the royal era may not be around anymore, there is still so much more to Hyderabadi cuisine than the ubiquitous and evergreen staples. Snacks such as chota samosa, luqmi and Osmania biscuits; gravy dishes like bagara baigan and dalcha; vegetarian delicacies like khatti dal and tamate ke kat – these foods are very much alive and kicking. The culinary traditions and landscape of Hyderabad, while no longer dominated by the royals and restricted to their courts, has been safeguarded through the centuries. Given the zeal and adoration with which they are treasured, there is virtually no chance of them being lost. – Ashwin