British chef Anjum Anand hits Hyderabad to discover the city's unique blend of flavours, with biryani, the local speciality, the jewel in the crown. Michael Harden follows the rice trail.
We arrive in Hyderabad late at night and there are goats everywhere, tethered in small herds by the sides of roads, under the city's soft-yellow street lights, and trundling past on the back of trucks. As we near our hotel, inching through the mass of honking traffic, a goat falls, legs tied, from a tiny rickshaw next to our van. Three passengers emerge from the vehicle, pick up the goat and toss it back in before reboarding and disappearing into the traffic. As introductions to cities go, it's a memorable one.
There's a reason for all the goats. Hyderabad, India's fifth-largest metropolis with a population that's more than 50 per cent Muslim (the other half is mainly Hindu), is celebrating the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. The city is awash with coloured lights and exuberant music blasts from the backs of trucks. In two days' time, Eid will culminate in great feasting, with goat meat playing a central role in the celebration, spiced and steamed with rice as a biryani - a Hyderabadi speciality - or spiced and caramelised over charcoal.
Given Hyderabad's reputation as one of India's culinary capitals and its religious demographic, it's easy to understand why the festival - and the goats - is such a big deal. It's this culinary reputation that has drawn us to Hyderabad; the Eid feast and all that delicious goat meat have come as something of an unscheduled bonus.
We're tagging along with Anjum Anand, the glamorous British-Indian television chef, cookbook writer and owner of Indian food company The Spice Tailor, a producer of chutneys, sauces and naans. She's here fulfilling a long-held ambition to explore the flavours and ingredients that have made this southern Indian city such a draw for food lovers. "Hyderabad has always been known for its pearl and diamond trade and, more recently, for being one of the tech hubs of India," she says. "But for me it's always been about the food.
"What fascinates me is the mix of influences here, the blend of the traditional, often spicy Andhra cuisine with the Hyderabadi cooking that's been influenced over the years by Turkish, Iranian and Arabian cuisines. Of course, I came mainly to seek out authentic Hyderabad biryani, but I'm also here for the street food and to try the pastries in the famous Irani cafés."
Our first stop is the market in the centre of Hyderabad's old city. It spreads around the beautiful and imposing Charminar, a 16th-century four-minaret mosque and monument finished with intricately patterned pale ochre stucco that straddles the main crossroads marking the city's original centre. The call to prayer hovers above the roar of traffic and the constant honking of horns in the humid yet still slightly dusty heat.
The market includes the Laad Bazaar, where glittering multicoloured bangles, saris and bridal clothes are sold, but the labyrinthine streets of the old town are lined with shops and stalls selling fruit and cookware, T-shirts and sugarcane, silver leaf and shoes, pickles and hardware.
Everywhere there are piles of fruit - figs, bananas, guavas, sitaphal (like a custard apple), green papaya - displayed in carefully stacked garish plastic baskets or under canvas canopies shielding them from the intense sun. The papayas are mainly used here to tenderise meat; in Hyderabadi cooking, meat is, almost without exception, tenderised to a fall-apart texture.
But Anand has her eye on street food. Unfazed by the stalls and the traffic - mostly motorbikes and the three-wheeled yellow rickshaws - that hurtle past in sometimes alarming proximity, she leads us to a street stall where she orders little flat pastries filled with spiced meat and topped with raw Spanish onion (sweeter, juicier and less astringent than the Australian version), and green-chilli pakoras that contain a whole chilli wrapped in spiced dough. They're fried in front of us and have a measured, appealing background hum of heat.
We follow these with a lassi flavoured with rose syrup and spiked with black chia-like seeds, then tuck into lentil dumplings, first fried and then soaked in a spiced yoghurt sauce, and small, crisp, perfect vegetable samosas that, again, contain an amazingly finessed level of spice.
The transactions with the sellers are swift and perfunctory, and there's not much in the way of acknowledgement of our expressions of appreciation. As Anand points out, "The Hyderabadi are almost blasé about whether you enjoy the food or not because they know how good it is." We find great street food all over the city.
After exploring the magnificent Qutb Shahi Tombs, a dreamily decaying park-like gathering of seven domed tombs, we come across a vendor selling whole cucumbers, kept in a cooler full of ice, that are sliced open half their length and dipped in salt and chilli powder.
At a ramshackle amusement park on the shores of the Hussain Sagar lake, near the old city, street vendors sell bhel puri, a mix of spiced peanuts, roasted chickpeas, puffed rice and spicy tamarind sauce topped with diced tomato and red onion, and served in a paper cone. We eat white pepper-spiced pappadums topped with tomatoes, green chillies and tomatoes, sugared fennel seeds and pathar-ka-gosht: marinated cubes of goat meat cooked on a hot rock.
Despite the brilliance of the street food, it's the definitive biryani we're here for. And this is where Eid - and the goats - come to the party.
After eating biryani at several places, including Paradise, the sizeable biryani specialist restaurant favoured by locals, some notable characteristics emerge. The meat and rice are thrown raw into the pot and steamed without the addition of any sauce or, in fact, any other liquid. There's also none of the yoghurt or masala or fried onion condiments you might find with biryani outside India, so the dish is much lighter, leaner and fresher. It's good, but the version we try fall a little short of revelatory.
And then Anand manages to score us an invitation to the home of local grandee and food expert Nawab Mehboob Alam Khan for his Eid feast - then we get revelatory.
Given that the feast serves more than 100, the biryani here - with goat meat freshly slaughtered - is made in a large deg, a traditional copper cooking pot with a narrow top and wide bottom that takes two people to carry into the room. The top of the pot is sealed with dough (the technique is called "dum") that cooks with the heat and not only keeps the steam in the pot, but also indicates when the biryani is ready when it becomes browned, puffed and brittle.
Scooped from the pot with plates onto serving platters, this biryani with its subtle but brilliant spices, light, separated rice and side of chillies in peanut sauce surely borders on the definitive. It's certainly good to know all those goats were being put to such good use.
"That biryani changed the ballpark for me," Anand says later. "The lightness and freshness was such a surprise. I had high expectations and wasn't disappointed. Now it's time to get home and recreate it in my own kitchen."