December 2007


Aside from the biriyani institutions Shadab and Paradise, I ate at four more full-service restaurants while in Hyderabad. From least preferred order to most, they were:

‘Southern Spice’ in the Banjara Hills. I started with these very tasty quails, chilli fried.

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The bones are tender enough that you can practically crunch them up whole. I was sitting alone on the terrace and more or less did. Not as chilli hot as you might think.

Apparently, I felt the need to follow poultry with two more meat dishes, so I also ordered a paya (goat’s foot) curry and dry cooked mamsum (mutton, as designated in Telegu, the language of Andhra Pradesh. I’m about to make a couple spurious characterizations of the area, so I hope Sekhar will step in to correct me. Hyderabad, unlike AP, has a majority Muslim population, thus the city is known for it’s ‘mughlai’ cooking. Outside of the city, the state is mostly Hindu, so a mamsum dish (as opposed to a Hindi ‘gosht’ dish, e.g.) suggests a non-mughlai origin.)

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The mamsum burned my lips pleasantly and had a nice, coconutty aroma. Paya still challenges me. I love the marrow and happily sucked up the juices through the bone like a straw. I even love the soft bone parts, which are very pleasant to gnaw upon. (Lamb’s bones at home seem depressingly hard to me, now.) But all the skin and fat on the foot? I’m not feeling it. Give me a bowl of pho, and I’ll eat great, glistening gobs of fat, pillows of melting tendon and nets of chewy tripe spiderwebs. I will probably persist in eating paya when I visit India in the hope that somehow my tastes will transmute and I’ll come to appreciate them as greedily as I do pho.

At ‘Our Place’ I seem to have dined similarly. This prawn chilli fry was okay.

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But this mamsum was superb.

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I ate every morsel of the curry leaf scented meat with intermittent nibbles of green chilli, then sucked on the bones like lozenges. My photos of the restaurant itself didn’t turn out, but this is great place to visit if ambiance is what you’re after. It offers nightlit gardens, spacious halls and romantic interiors.

This next photo is merely of the condiments available with your meal at ‘Abhiruchi’ in Secunderabad.

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And by merely, I mean, who needs anything else? Bring on the rice. I put away two mountains of it myself, first with the vegetable dishes on my thali, but secondly with not much more than ghee and gunpowder, the dry, powdered chutney in the rear of the trio. Okay, with big dollops of the other sour-hot-spicy pickles, too, but mostly with ghee and gunpowder.

Here’s the thali.

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A soft, tomatoey dal, sauteed potatoes and a buttermilk based dish. I supplemented this with mutton, smartly.

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The meat was cooked in a soft, mildly sour puree of gongura leaves. Tasty.

The last place I visited was ‘Rayalaseema Ruchulu’. If I had more time, I would have eaten here again. I understand this was where I could sample goat’s head curry, but if I’m not feeling the feet it would probably be foolhardy for me to tackle the head. Anyway. Great food. After Shadab’s biriyani, perhaps the highlight of my little Hyderabadi visit.

This is just the front door.

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Here’s the soup you start with. (Did I just write that about Indian food?! Oh my.)

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Yup, more bone sucking goodness. You can see the marrow, what you can’t see is the excellent depth of flavor and body here.

The vegetarian portion of my meal included a millet bread, a pappadum and various stews, yogurt, rice and sautes.

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At one o’clock is my favorite, a generous portion of a savory peanut chutney. This constituted an entire side-dish in its own right if you ask me.

I put my hand in this photo so you can judge the size of this accompaniment. You will think it’s small from the photo, but it’s actually comparable to a common American orange.

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The menu called it ragi sankati (a sankati made from ragi flour) though it might also be known as a muddi. The subtleties and variations around this are beyond me, though you should at least be able to see that it’s a great, moist ball of the flour mixed with rice. You pull off bites of it, and mix it with, in my case, a pair of chicken and mutton curries.

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I really enjoyed my sankati, though the idea of a moist ball of flour and rice might be offputting to some people at first, I would heartily recommend trying them out. Healthy and delicious.

Now I most report some unfortunate business. It seems that also dining with me at Rayalaseema Ruchulu was The Very Important Man. I last encountered Him in Las Vegas, where He harried the dining room staff so incessantly that everyone else’s service suffered. At Rayalaseema Ruchulu, The Very Important Man was SO important I didn’t get a chance to order dessert. I’m still miffed about this.  While I tried to ask a question about the sweets, The Very Important Man snapped His fingers and my server disappeared. He flew across the patio, wringing his hands, to sate His Important needs. So, this is a small revenge, but as I sat without my dessert I snapped His Picture. Here He is, the Denier of Desserts. Can you figure out which one He is?

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Over and over again as I traveled in India I felt the shortness of my visits. There were *always* uneaten meals, markets unvisited, foods untried. So similarly went Hyderabad, where I only got to eat haleem once. And if you’ll allow me to complain a little, not even a very good example. This

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was from here

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Rainbow Restaurant. Rainbow is one of a couple of places that serves haleem year round. (It’s normally a specialty of Ramazan.) While better versions must be a great delicacy, of slow-cooked mutton and wheat, this was mostly gluey and bland. I could have eaten it like porridge with a spoon, but I ordered a fresh baked bread to scoop it up instead.

I actually tried very hard to get the well-regarded version of haleem at Pista House. But while Pista House is a multi-national chain, on the day I visited to taste theirs, they were closed. Dubai, yes; Hyderabad, no. Hum. I settled for a box of sweets.

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I had hired a private car (to circumvent the rickshaw strike) and driven across town at great expense for nothing!

Or at least, almost nothing. Or…..rather…..a great and wonderful pleasure.

My driver made an unexpected stop at the incomparable Chowmahalla Palace. If you’re visiting Hyderabad, go there. It’s really fantastic. And I’m not into this sort of thing.

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Descriptions of the lives of the Nizams pale when you marvel before the extravagant dioramas in this museum. The fantastic details, the jeweled embroidering, riches, governance, more riches. Have you been in a room with a hundred chandeliers before? Like here? A hundred chandeliers made of a thousand facets each?

Perhaps that’s an apt comparison for one of the pinnacles of India’s cuisines, biriyani. I hope my euro-american friends who are reading this will take a leap beyond the greasy and gross versions availiable in restaurants here (I mean Portland) and imagine the sophistication and elegance you can taste in India. Especially in Hyderabad. Biriyani is a dish like a roomful of chandeliers. I tried two versions in Hyderabad.

Paradise Restuarant in Secunderabad (up north) is well known. It’s a sprawling restaurant with many sub-venues. I especially enjoyed sitting on the terrace and watching the street below buzz with activity as I ate.

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Hyderabadi biriyani is served with two side dishes, normally. Mirchi ka salan (a sauce of green chillis and nuts) and raita. You can see those behind the rice. And notice the chicken format: a whole leg.

Paradise’s biriyani is excellent, but even excellent-er is the biriyani at Shadab. I mean, IMHO! I’m a biriyani neophyte! I thought the rice was subtly spiced, but rich in flavor, and not too ghee-laden.

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Shadab is just north of the Charminar in the old city. I like the nifty interior, too.

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Perhaps in anticipation of the sweets I would soon be enjoying in Kolkata, I had my share of sugary things in Hyderabad.

Thrice I ate khubani ka meetha, Hyderabad’s famous apricot compote. As I already noted, I’m afraid my favorite version was eaten at Legend of Sikandar in Bangalore, courtesy a Hyderabadi ‘expat.’ At Southern Spice I ate this deep, sweet monotonous bowl:

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Shadab’s version was good:

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Our Place offered the most nuanced flavors, a hint of spice and a drizzle of cream.

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I really considered trying the khubani ka meetha at Paradise, just for comparison, but how much could I really eat? That’s a lot of apricots. Instead, I had their kulfi, and I’m glad I did. It was delicious.

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The magic of dairy in a clay pot is wonderful. I don’t know why it’s so aesthetically pleasing, but the texture of kulfi in a rough, cold terracotta bowl is something every food lover should enjoy at least once.

Osmania biscuits are a specialty of Hyderabad. The older Irani chai shops, whose popularity is waning, each offer a version of the light, not-quite-sweet and flaky cookie.

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These were from the Banjara Darbar. I hope there’s a future for this little pastry in the face of the new coffee gigachains.

The last sweet thing I enjoyed in Hyderabad was my friend Falooda at Shadab:

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Scented syrup, rich milk, pistachio ice cream and crunchy-jelly takmaria (soaked basil seeds). Nummy. I totally ate this whole glass with a huge plate of biriyani!

Just fifteen minutes ago I’d taken off my pants for the evening to settle down and write about how magnificent Coorg is.  You will never be able to imagine my horror unless you’ve survived a similar experience.  *I* can hardly imagine my horror, and it’s still recent and ripe. 

Do you recognize these? 

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For the sake of my gentler friends I’ve chosen a bloodless photo (and for my myriad non-gentle friends, send me a note and I’ll email you a copy of the real mayhem) but it’s testament nonetheless.  On my trip today to taste honey and pork, to see green cardamom plants and greener coffee beans I was crawled upon and sucked by a leech. 

Oh god.  Do you know?  The horror of a leech is that they do their crawling-on-your-body completely unbeknownst to you.  They only leave behind a sickening calling card that they’ve visited.  This one had to jump up past my sneaker, up past my sock , almost a full HANDSPAN above my ankle.  (That is, in the area of my very heart.) All the while, under the cover of my thick denim jeans. 

I can still see it, though I hadn’t seen it, working its awful, slimy way up my leg, just like in that David Cronenberg movie.  Crawling, inching, sneaking–to have it’s way with me. I can see that too, the rotten thing wallowing in my blood, confident of my ignorance, squirming–squirming not just like a worm but squirming with pleasure.  Getting fat and juicy.  I bet they somehow get slimier as they bloat up with blood.  Then, so as not to tip their victim off, they dribble off like a thick gob of spit sliding down a sleeping invalid’s chin. 

And you would never know they’d been there, or that they’d drank your blood. 

But.   

The thing about leeches is that when they dine they need to attach themselves to you.  So they secrete some special, wormy superglue to stay stuck to your skin.  And while they’re pigging out, like children with jam smeared all over their cheeks, that glue is mixed with your blood and makes a shiny mess behind.  In fact, as a succulent leech slides down your leg, that’s what it leaves behind–an awful trail of black-red blood hardened into acrylic.  You practically have to chip the stuff off.  (Though if you’re quick, you can pull the leeches off and turn their trails into Gummi Worms made from your jellied blood.)  *That’s* what I just found in my pants, the Horror of Coorg, and what is tempering my romantic nature. 

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AND COORGI PARADISE, really 

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I think it’s pretty common to balance overwrought accounts of nature by pointing out her horrors, too.  My prologue should therefore indicate that I’m about to sound overwrought. But I’ll be damned if Coorg isn’t one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited.  I mean, Coorg is soul-stirring in the way that makes your soul feel stirred.   What will description avail? 

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The fences are made from poinsettias, only gigantic tree-like poinsettias that must bloom year round.  Behind the fences grow wild citrus, acres of coffee and peppercorn vines that spiral up tree trunks.  When you stop along the road you drink honey and clouds race so low overhead they’re actually beneath you.  The birds look like butterflies.  The earth is red; it rises and turns itself into roof tiles.  Foliage, let alone the ludicrous flowers, is nothing special.  Pigs scamper without knowing they’re delicious.  Children on the other hand know sugarcane is worth the risk of smuggling it.  Men hunt for wild boars with antique rifles.  The rainforest sleeps, then wakens with a roar of insects’ saws.   

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If it sounds like I’m trying to be poetic, I am.  But I’m doing it in Coorg’s honor and with the idea that my extravagant words are trying to indicate a little bit of what I enjoyed.  (Ugh, for instance, I really watched a boy happily defy his elder for the sake of his snack.) 

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So included are a few photos of this place I can’t do justice to, and which were taken in defiance of my stated mission. Though the food is good, Coorg is better.  

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A POST OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE, written later

How fetching that first bit on the Horror of Coorg now seems to me.  A leech!  I was sucked by a single leech! Well, if humans aren’t adaptable they’re nothing at all.  We cling to life, we cling even to mere pleasure, in the direst circumstances.  What was once horrific becomes mundane, like castaways turned cannibals, humans adapt.  We suffer all sort of degradation to survive and enjoy. 

So it is that I’ve been transformed by these miniature leviathans, by leeches.  For the sight of waterfalls and cascading clouds I will now hardly bother to reach down with a stick and scrape the marauders from my sneakers.  Why, even as I write this I’m bleeding from eight separate wounds.  It seems like nothing.  Or, perhaps, it seems like daily life in Coorg.   This is a place where you become a hybrid of the land literally and quickly.   

Let me talk about food then. Coorg is in the Western Ghats in Karnataka, so its cuisine has many similarities to other parts of the south.  It’s probably best known for its distinctive pandhi curry, pork curry.  Though a few other dishes seem somewhat unique, too, like kadam puttu, balls of rice meal.  A black vinegar-like liquid called kachampulli is also used only here in the rainforest.  Farmers’ honeys are well worth seeking out; they literally taste like flowers. Coorg is covered in coffee plants, endless, endless, endless acres of coffee plants.  Here’s one. 

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And a bunch of coffee berries. 

This is a terrible photo, but I’m including it merely to show the source of the kachampulli.  A fruit grows on this tree which is sundried and processed to yield the fragrant, sour black liquid. 

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Here’s a pool of it on a saucer. 

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A field of ginger. 

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Rice paddies. 

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Turmeric plants in front, mango ginger plants struggling behind. 

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An areca palm tree, source of the betel nut. 

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Vanilla beans.  (A potted vanilla bean plant grew on a vine around my bathroom in the woods.) 

A black pepper vine. 

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Cardamom plants. 

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You can barely see the cardamom buds trailing along the base of the plant, here. 

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This big, wild lemon isn’t just big.  You can rub it on your sneakers to keep the leeches away, though the locals I talked to didn’t bother with such foreign activities. 

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I hate to deviate from my chosen mission, but it sure is purty in Coorg. 

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Bees suckle the abundant flowers, though many died in a viral outbreak years back.  Here are some survivors. 

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And the beekeepers’ local co-op headquarters. 

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See?  I DID eat in Coorg.  Here are some plain rice breads (akki rotis). 

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A Coorgi chicken curry. 

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Some tasty potatoes. 

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Follow the sign. 

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And this is what you get. 

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Some rustic noolputtu, or rice noodles.  When I’ve tried my hand at noolputtu in the past I’ve come pretty close to these guys. 

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The rasam in Coorg always tasted especially excellent to me.  I don’t know why, maybe the fresh mountain air went well the hot, refreshing ‘soup’. 

A bowl of rasam.

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A clear shot of the same. 

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And another super rendition, this time demonstrating that peeling those miniature garlic cloves isn’t always necessary. 

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A tasty homemade meal from the folks across the street from my lodge. 

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And an even simpler meal, but man it was excellent.  Just a few elements.  SO tasty.

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Kadamputtu, rice balls with topnotch coconut chutney and potatoes in a thin sauce.  I love how uncluttered, easy food can be the most delicious.

I’m home in Portland again, but I have several more posts to make.  So please stay tuned.

My visit was fantastic, wonderful, delicious.  Many folks showed me their kindness.  I want to take a moment (before writing about Coorg) to express my appreciation.

Here’s to all of you!

Vini, Kriss, Jugjeet, Jyoti and family, Bashir, Stef, Ketan, Hemal, David, Carolyn, Saucy and family, Ammini, Babu, Joli, Ravi, Suresh, Rathna, Uma, Veena, Sekhar, Gautam, Sam, Laura, Ash and Pushpendra. 

You took some extra time to make my trip special.  It wouldn’t have been the same without your thoughtfulness and caring.

Thank you.