Hyderabadi Haleem finds Place of Pride with Australian Authoress

Charmaine o'brienCharmaine O’Brien is no stranger to India and her in-depth knowledge about Indian cuisine is as authentic as the Hyderabadi haleem or the Mumbaiya chaat. We are proud to present a rare and tangy interaction with this lady of Indian flavours who recently launched her book The Penguin Food Guide to India in Mumbai.

1. Tell us a little about your association with India?

I have been traveling to India for nearly twenty years and I have lived in Delhi. The first time I came to India I thought that Indian food was what was served in Indian restaurants in the west.

It was a revelation to me to discover otherwise. I was already interested in food and food history before I visited India and I realized how much ‘history’ was in Indian food and I wanted to unravel that as a way of gaining a better understanding of Indian culture. I have also made a lot of friends along the way and India is a second home to me now. I get ‘homesick’ for India!

I have written two other books on Indian food history and culture, Flavours of Delhi: a food lovers guide and Recipes from an Urban Village: a cookbook from Hazrat Nizamuddin basti.

The Penguin Food Guide to India is my latest book. This book covers the food of every state of India. Each chapter begins with short history of the development of the identified regional and sub-regional cuisines, describes its unique foods, cookery styles and dishes and features recommendations for good places to eat local food.

2. What inspired you to write on Indian cuisine? What about Indian food excites you the most?

I wanted to write this book (The Penguin Food Guide to India) the first time I came to India, on discovering that India has such a diverse cuisine, I wanted to tell others about it. But I realized that was a book project so I came up with the idea for Flavours of Delhi: a food lovers guide as a more approachable first book on India.

Thereafter the project to collect the recipes from Nizamuddin basti and create a book Recipes from an Urban Village: a cookbook from Hazrat Nizamuddin basti was offered to me. After a book on the food of my home town of Melbourne, did I feel ready to begin this much larger book.

I hope to achieve many things with The Penguin Food Guide to India and breaking the misconceptions about Indian food that are commonly held by non-Indians. I also wanted to draw attention to India’s regional food culture as I believe it is far more diverse than that of France or Italy yet it has not received the same sort of attention that has been given to the local food cultures of those two countries. In doing so I wanted to encourage people to embark on gastro-touristic adventures on India.

Another aim was to inspire people to learn more about Indian history and culture through the popular medium of food. Most people love to eat so food if you hitch a bit of education to it people will ‘swallow’ it a little more easily. It is largely non-Indians who have misconceptions about Indian food. However, from my many years of experience travelling around India and meeting and talking with Indians, I discovered that while many of them know that the food of their culture differs across regions they are often not very well-informed about what those differences actually are.

So apart from the Introduction where I have bust some Indian food myths and explain some basic ingredients (which is information that most Indian readers would already know) the book is just as useful, relevant and interesting for Indians who want to understand more about their country’s regional cuisines and try these when traveling as it is for foreign visitors.

3. What were your experiences with Hyderabadi food?

I will give you an excerpt about this from the book:-

The official flag of Hyderabad state included a symbolic representation of a kulcha, a round leavened wheat bread. (Kulchas can be square but the one on the flag was round.) It was there because, legend has it, the first Nizam consumed seven kulchas in the presence of a Muslim holy man who then prophesied that the Asaf Jahi dynasty would last for seven generations! (which it did). Whether this story is true or not, it is fitting that the flag has bread on it—the Nizams certainly made Hyderabad famous for its food!

The Asaf Jahi food of Hyderabad is a hybrid of Indo-Muslim/Mughlai cooking with Telangana and Middle Eastern influences. The Nizams encouraged aristocrats of Persian, Afghan and Turkish descent to come to their courts. In fact, it was common practice for the Nizams to choose brides from the noble families of these countries. This meant that they kept taking new influences into the Indo-Muslim/Mughlai-style food around which their distinct cuisine was shaped.

Modern Hyderabad still has a significant Muslim population, and Urdu is spoken along with Telugu, but the Asaf Jahi style of food you will find these days is a little less exalted than that of the Nizams.

As is typical of Indo-Muslim cuisine, the traditional food of Hyderabad is heavily focused on meat preparations, with a supporting cast of breads, rice dishes and sweets. All the classic dishes of the Indo-Muslim repertoire are prepared: biryani, qorma, dopiaza (meat cooked with onions), keema (spiced mince), kofte (meatballs), nihari (stew of sheep’s trotters), pasande (thin slices of mutton), raan mussallam (spiced leg of mutton or lamb), shab deg (meat cooked with turnips), seekh and shammi kebab and haleem (slow-cooked meat and wheat porridge). The difference is that these gain a distinct regional flavour by the addition of tamarind, raw mango, lemon, coconut, lots of fresh mint and coriander leaves, a greater number of red chillies and spices like mustard seeds and nagakesara.

Modern Hyderabad’s most famous dish is undoubtedly kacchi biryani. It is distinguished in its preparation as it has layers of uncooked meat (hence the name: kacchi means ‘raw’) and half-cooked rice, which cook together, whereas a regular biryani is typically prepared by layering cooked meat with rice. Meat for kacchi biryani is marinated in a mixture of curd, green and red chillies, ginger, garlic, onion paste, fresh mint, coriander and spices before it goes into the cooking pot with the parboiled rice. Another Hyderabad speciality to look out for is dalcha (meat cooked with chana dal, tamarind, mint, garlic and spices). The spices predominantly used in Hyderabad cooking are those of the ‘royal’ spice box: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom.

Indo-Muslim sweets such as halwa, jalebi, falooda, kulfi, shahi tukra and zarda (sweet rice) are part of Hyderabadi cuisine. A unique Hyderabadi sweet is khubani ka meetha, a purée of dried apricots and cream into which the ground, roasted apricot kernels are blended, giving the dish a particular texture and taste. Anjeer ka roll, a type of fig preserve encased in ice cream, is believed to have been introduced by a Turkish princess who married into the Asaf Jahi family a century ago—a time when ice cream would have been an expensive novelty worthy of place on the royal table. You can buy a version at any Hyderabadi ice-cream parlour—a pleasant treat but no longer a status symbol.


Modern Hyderabad has gained the alternative moniker of ‘Cyberabad’ due to its significant role in India’s information technology industry. This is a terrific economic boon for Hyderabadis, but it seems to have increased the pace of life and modernization (read office blocks, flyovers, fast-food joints) in equal measure. Given Hyderabad’s reputation as a ‘food’ city, its inhabitants are passionate about this topic. There is a multitude of places in which to eat Hyderabadi food and many impassioned opinions on which are the ‘best’. I’ve done my best to choose a good selection but this is a city that you could easily spend a week or more eating in.

You can still get a feeling, and taste, of a more unique Hyderabad in the old city. If you visit Charminar in the evening, just behind the arched monument is the bustling Lad Bazaar, which has been a place of commerce since the city was founded. Here you will find food stalls where you can sample street food such as meat kebabs served with kulcha or thin roomali roti, tamarind chutney and sliced onions.

Firdaus offers another taste of old Hyderabad, in more salubrious surroundings than Lad Bazaar. The charming dining room interprets the refined, but quirky, style of the Nizams. You can lounge on a bolster on the garden-facing window seats while enjoying a meal of classic Hyderabadi dishes. Try the slow-cooked dum murghi biryani, the slow-cooked meat–wheat porridge called haleem (more below) or sweet–sour khatti dal. If you order the delicate wheat-flour rotis called phulki, these will be cooked by your table on a portable stove to ensure that you eat them at their best—straight off the fire. Firdaus has a large menu and vegetarians are well catered for with dishes like guthi vankay (baby eggplant stuffed with spiced peanuts and cooked in a tomato sauce; like baghare baingan). Food at Firdaus is tasty and portions fairly generous so it might be a challenge to leave room for dessert but try and squeeze in a portion of khubani ka meetha or another Hyderabadi classic, double ka meetha (shahi tukra), a ‘royal’ version of bread pudding made of bread slices fried in ghee, dipped in sugar syrup, layered in a dish, drenched with cream, garnished with nuts and baked . . .followed by a walk in the garden!

Taj Krishna, Road 1, Banjara Hills(040) 6629330612.30–3 p.m.; 7.30 p.m.–midnight (7 days)

Hyderabad House specializes in serving the dish the city has long been famed for but its hectic vibe, and focus on ‘quick service’, probably better represents modern Hyderabad—and I expect any Nizam would be shocked to eat from a plastic plate. Nonetheless, this is one of the most popular places for Hyderabadi biryani. Try the kacchi biryani in which the meat has been marinated twice—first with cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, mint and coriander, and then with curd, cardamom, fried onions, cream, saffron, ghee and a little milk. Once the marinating process has done its work, the meat is interwoven in three layers with parboiled rice, sprinkled with saffron- infused milk, and the pot sealed and placed over the fire to cook.

Plot #100, Road 3, Banjara Hills (040) 23554747 Noon–11 p.m. (7 days) www.hyderabadhouse.com

Paradise Food Court has become an institution for biryani. It reportedly serves up thousands of portions of this dish every day by offering several options: a parcel (takeout) service, a stand-up and eat quickly eatery downstairs and a seated restaurant above, where you can sit out in a courtyard and enjoy a plate of chicken biryani and seekh kebabs while watching over Hyderabad’s streetscape.

Paradise is actually located in the twin/new city of Secunderabad, but it’s so popular that any taxi driver will know where to take you. In fact, the area surrounding this joint is colloquially known as ‘paradise’!

38 Sarojini Devi, M.G. Road, Secunderabad (040) 6631 3721Noon–11 p.m. (7 days) www.paradisefoodcourt.com

Paradise gets varied ratings from Hyderabadis as to the authenticity of its biryani, possibly because the place has become something of a tourist draw card—although it’s not just visitors who are getting through all those serves of biryani! On the other hand, the unpretentious and inexpensive Café Bahar is very much an insider’s pick. It’s busy with locals, and the odd outsider in the know. Try the tangy fish biryani or a plate of haleem and linger over a cup or two of sweet Irani chai.

Basheerbagh, Near Police Commissioner’s office (040) 2323760511 a.m.–midnight (7 days)

Hyderabadi biryani is the city’s most famous dish but Hyderabadi haleem quietly gained a Geographical Indicator (GI) in 2012. This means that the name ‘Hyderabadi haleem’ cannot be used outside the city, and that the product has been made in the traditional manner. Haleem is a potage of whole wheat and meat (mutton or chicken) flavoured with onions, garlic and spices such as cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, shahi jeera (see Uttarakhand chapter), nagakesara and chillies. It is eaten by Muslims throughout India during festivals such as Ramadan and Muharram. To justify its GI status, Hyderabadi haleem must have been cooked over a low wood fire for up to twelve hours in a large cauldron covered with a layer of mud (to protect the pot from the flames and keep the heat even), during which time it must be periodically stirred and mashed with a wooden paddle until it gains a smooth consistency. Haleem is served garnished with a generous drizzle of melted ghee, a sprinkle of crisp deep-fried onions, a few cashew nuts and a good squeeze of lemon. During the month of Ramadan, thousands of temporary outlets selling Hyderabadi haleem pop up across the city, only to disappear after Eid.

Firdaus and Café Bahar both serve haleem as a permanent menu fixture, in case you visit Hyderabad in one of the eleven months that are not Ramadan. The proprietor of Pista House, Mohammed Abdul Majeed, was instrumental in gaining GI status for Hyderabadi haleem and his restaurant was the first to use it for its product—which it sends around the world in tetrapacks. Pista House is also in the Charminar precinct so you can experience traditional atmosphere when you visit here as well as authenticated haleem. All these places prepare their haleem using mutton (goat or lamb in the case of Firdaus). Those who do not eat beef, and end up eating elsewhere in Hyderabad, should check with the proprietor as to which type of meat has been used since beef or buffalo meat is sometimes used in festive dishes such as haleem.

Shahalibanda Road, Charminar (M) 939650078611 a.m.–10.30 p.m. (7 days)

Once you have had your fill of Hyderabadi specialities, you might like to try some Telangana dishes in the major city of this region, though the commercial options for trying them are limited. Narayana’s Curry House Telangana Special in the Secunderabad area comes recommended for kodi vepudu (chicken meat and liver sautéed with spinach) and chepala pulusu (dried fish in tamarind sauce).

Lane opposite Universal Store, Ramnagar Road (M) 81066366658 a.m.–11.30 p.m. (7 days)

If you are not travelling to coastal AP, sample the fare of that region at the ‘homely’—the restaurant is housed in a house—Southern Spice restaurant. Try dishes such as royyalu iguru (prawns cooked in a creamy, spiced sauce of coconut milk and tomato) or bommidayalu, made from the dried fish commonly known as Bombay duck cooked in a tamarind sauce (the flavour of this tangy fruit mellows the pungent ‘duck’). Raagi sangati (see below) pairs well with these gravy-based dishes. Also try mutton cooked with gongura/tamarind leaves. The ‘leeches with cream’ listed on the dessert menu is a not a dish of bloodsucking creatures, merely a quirk of spelling for lychees. It’s probably best to stick with the khubani ka meetha, though, if you want a sweet treat that is more authentic to the region.

Near Nagarjuna Circle, Road 3, Banjara Hills (040) 66103434Noon–3.30 p.m.; 7–10.30 p.m. (7 days)

4. What is your view on the Indian Restaurants industry? Is it world class in terms of service provided and catering to the needs of Indian customers?

I have eaten in a great variety of restaurants all around India and it would be hard for me to make a general statement about standards across all these as these vary. You usually get what you pay for is respect to service; that is if you pay a high price you usually get good service and if you are eating in low price places the service is usually perfunctory, but there are certainly exceptions to this. I have eaten in restaurants in which the service, atmosphere and food is impeccable and equal to any international standards, but most importantly that offer a unique experience of Indian cuisine.

In contrast to this I have eaten at many basic dhabas/eating joints where the food is fantastic but the standards of service and amenity would not be accepted in western countries-this is largely related to hygiene levels. I think that there has been a major improvement in the quality of and availability non-Indian food options in India over the past 5 or so years.

In saying that I think there is a fair bit of ‘junk/fast food’ that has made its way in those offerings. I can’t believe that anybody could choose pizza or a ‘burger’ over chaat but I understand the curiosity about new foods and the search for new flavours and I think Indian restaurateurs are working to provide new food experiences for their customers. The Indian restaurant industry excels in providing ‘take-out’ options to customers. I have had a local brand of chocolate sundae delivered to my door: that would never happen in Australia!

5. Does the Indian bakery industry excite you?

I have not explored Indian bakery very much as I have been very focused on researching regional food and baking is not a traditional part of Indian food culture, with some exceptions.

Goa has a strong tradition of bread and cake bakery and then that extends to places like Mangalore which is known for cakes and biscuits, and there are other examples. I do notice there are a growing number of stores selling baked goods in cities such as Delhi and Mumbai. I note that Indian bakers and confectioners have made sure that their customers have been able to experience the international fashion for cupcakes, macaroons and all things chocolate. Overall I would say that there has been a significant improvement in the quality and variety of baked goods such as cakes and biscuits available of recent times. I have a suggestion along these lines …there is a very successful confectioner operating in Melbourne called Brunetti. This store offers the most incredible array of cakes, biscuits, pastries and drinks. I believe that if someone opened a store along these lines in one of the major Indian metros it would be wonderfully successful as Indian are very enthusiastic about European style baked goods (which is partly because there is not a tradition of these and they are very open to new foods these days). A friend of mine has set up something similar to this in Chennai and it is doing very well.

6. What kind of future projects are you considering with India?

It would be great to be involved in consulting in developing regional food offerings or perhaps the development of other food businesses. In respect to writing I have an idea about writing a book about the impact of trade on the development of Indian cuisine. A particular project I would like to get is to edit an encyclopedia of Indian food …but that is a big project and would require some significant backing but I think it is incredibly important that India’s regional cuisine is documented.

India is changing very quickly and while I do not believe that Indians will give up their unique ways of eating a lot of things could get lost in the transition to a modern economy and society.


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