(DAWN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A burst of aroma greets one’s arrival at Hyderabad Colony, a small neighbourhood located off main Jamshed Road. There is a whiff of achaar, a dollop of fried green chillies, a burst of bagharay baingan, a smattering of Hyderabadi luqmi, and most definitely a hint of Hyderabadi qorma.
“Everything Hyderabadi is very different, it has a unique identity of its own,” argues Chef Tahir Kaleem of the Deccan Achaar Ghar. “My shop has 52 varieties of achaar, home-made and cooked with fresh ingredients. If you don’t find something to your taste, I can always cook it for you.”
The shop is lined with achaar and chutney jars and tins. And the variety of pickles is mindboggling: mango achaar, raw mango achaar, mutton achaar, shrimp achaar, chicken achaar, many types of vegetable achaar, chutneys and even vinegar.
Chef Kaleem’s favourite is a green chilli achaar which is cooked in yogurt and preserved. “We study chemical reaction between various foods, so we know how to process various foods. The green chilli and yogurt achaar is kept for 10 days just so the spices can rest and react with each other. The yogurt will never go bad since it has been processed in a particular way,” he says.
There are crackers of various kinds too: rice crackers, lentil crackers, wheat crackers and so on. Then there is dried fish which is sold per packet. The trick is to fry them and use them in a gravy; the moisture from the cooking process will ensure that the fish returns flavour to the gravy.
For Chef Kaleem, the trick is to ensure that the ingredients are used in the way they are meant to. “In Lahore, for example, they use hot oil to make achaar. That is a no-no in Hyderabadi culture, it affects the quality of achaar too.”
One of Kaleem’s specialities is a home-made peri-peri sauce, commonly associated with Portuguese cuisine. “Someone came to our shop and asked me to create a better peri-peri sauce at half the price. I accepted his challenge. Two days later, he couldn’t believe that I had concocted something better. The original peri-peri sauce has some wine in it; mine is completely halal.”
Kaleem is a known name in culinary shows on television but few would appreciate his humble beginnings or the cultured history that his shop carries. “My daadi set up this shop way back in 1950,” he says.
“Back at the time, my grandfather was in construction but he was shutting down his business because he didn’t want to deal with the corrupt practices in government offices.”
Daadi’s modest business took off in a big way. She was a woman with a flair for flavour and she was armed with recipes that had been closely guarded in the family and passed down from generation to generation. Kaleem is now the third-generation owner of the shop. He is also heir to most of daadi’s recipes and flavour palette.
Hyderabad Colony, as its name suggests, was a colony constructed for migrants arriving from Hyderabad (Deccan). Those who settled here after Partition needed a flavour from ‘home’ and many of the businesses subsequently set up catered to the desires of Hyderabadis.
The Deccan Achaar Ghar was one of the shops to have capitalised on this desire but it wasn’t just food that was being demanded. Many jewellers and tailors set up shop on the street too; their clientele would prefer a slice of Hyderabad every time they visited.
The Hyderabadi aesthetic
Over time, Hyderabad Colony has witnessed many changes. Of the most obvious ones is that the number of achaar shops has reduced dramatically. Vendors and residents say that many Hyderabadis sold their houses at modest rates to Memon real-estate developers and moved out of the area. The properties were converted into apartment complexes and sold at handsome profits.
As Chef Noman Rehman of Abdul Rehman Catering House remarks, “Most Hyderabadis have left the neighbourhood but Hyderabadi cuisine refuses to do so.”
Today, from a lane filled with achaar shops, only two major ones have survived. Some have converted their achaar businesses into catering companies specialising in Hyderabadi food and have associated tandoors selling naan, kulchay, taaftaan and sheermaal. Meanwhile, Pashtun tandoors and a fast food restaurant have also invaded Hyderabadi territory. From an all-Hyderabadi staff, some shops have begun to employ non-Hyderabadis.
This begs the question: is traditional Hyderabadi cuisine in danger of going extinct? Is there enough demand for Hyderabadi food?
“It is all about affordability,” says Chef Noman, who describes the Kache Gosht Ki Biryani (biryani made with meat cooked with the rice) as his most popular item. “Not everyone can afford Hyderabadi cuisine so we price it accordingly.”
Chef Noman’s package deals range from Rs160 (S$2.16) per head to Rs845 per head. Orders received from around the area tend to be on the humbler side whereas those coming to Hyderabad Colony from afar tend to opt for the more expensive packages.
In all, catering shops such as Noman’s make a monthly profit of about Rs60,000 (S$810) — “modest but enough to run a household.”
Mohsin Ali of the Munno Mian Cooking Corner and Food Centre concurs. His shop sells food like any dhaba would but also supplies lunch to many offices. Their shop too used to sell achaar but they lost clients because they shut shop for a few weeks to deal with a family tragedy. Ever since, they have focussed on catering.
“Many in the neighbourhood still have Hyderabadi cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” says Mohsin. “But for everyday use, you’ll see vegetables being bought more than biryani or qorma. Why don’t you have our bhindi?”
Meanwhile, Chef Kaleem is adamant that Hyderabadi cuisine will remain a crucial part of the city’s culinary palette since there are still many connoisseurs of Hyderabadi food across the city.
“Do you know Qutbuddin Sahib? He is in the running for new governor. He is one of our most loyal clients,” he beams. But pricing is still an issue: “Hyderabadi luqmi is sold at Rs45 a piece. Usually people can’t afford that so we sell regular luqmis at Rs15 each.”
And of course, there are always weddings to turn to when there is a need to display the entire palette of Hyderabadi cuisine. “My niece is getting married soon. We have 52 varieties of achaar in this shop. All of them will be there at the wedding.”