We mocked the several visitors sprawled aimlessly on the grass with their bellies exposed. We ridiculed the many posing for "cool" selfies. But then I realized we were doing those exact same things...except our stomachs were even more bloated...
On the second day of the year 2017, an ambitious team of four set out on a mission to Hyderabad, India. The infiltration and extraction points were set. The arrangements had been made. Their targets, several. Their objective, singular: to gourmandize.
By the way, this post will have a different flavor than my usual ones as the journey did not focus on nature; it was culinary in nature.
I am a foodie. I descend from a long line of food enthusiasts who boast legendary feats of superhuman eating. I have had my days too. But since the last few years, I have been observing moderation...more or less. However, moderation should also be in moderation and so, on the right occasion, I indulge.
I love Mughlai food. I love biryani. But, as of January 1, 2017, I was yet to taste the best and most famous biryani of them all - the Hyderabadi Dum Biryani. Yes, I've had "Hyderabadi" biryani in the United States. But come on, that's equivalent to having a vegan meat burger! I wanted the first legitimate morsel to be from the best. A close, native friend of mine, Vijay, suggested other famous food joints to add to our conquest. Then, if possible ( a very big if), we would attempt to add Golconda Fort, Char Minar, and Salar Jung Museum to our itinerary. I wasn't too concerned about the tertiary destinations as the primary objectives was biryani, and the secondary goals were the other acclaimed eateries.
So who were the four crusaders? A dentist from Australia, a.k.a Mr. Dr.. A creature born in Poland. A sister whom I owe 2 jackets and of course, yours truly. Kanishko, Urmila, Kaveri and I booked our tickets before we arrived in India for Christmas-New Year.
Here are some logistics to lend perspective to our tremendous feat. T minus 1 day, we stopped eating at noon. Our flight from Delhi arrived in Hyderabad at 10:30 in the morning. The return flight was at 10 pm on the same day. We had less than 12 hours in the city, which was 40 kilometers from the airport. On the menu was Bawarchi (biryani), Gokul Chaat (chaat), Karachi Bakery (Osmania biscuit), some stall selling Irani Chai, and Paradise (more biryani). My father helped arrange for a car that would ferry us to all these places.
Our contact in Hyderabad was a man of mystery named K.V.R. Reddy. We stylized it to "Caviar" Reddy. I phoned him from Rajiv Gandhi International Airport. In about 30 mins, we were on our way. I briefed Caviar on our agenda. He recommended we break our self-induced starvation at Bawarchi, stopping at Golconda Fort on the way to the city.
We had a minor hiccup outside the airport premises. Some Uber/Ola cab strike was in progress and a bunch of nothing-better-to-do drivers blocked the road. With some Tollywood-esque swagger, Caviar explained the non-commercial nature of his passengers to them. The only words of the excited exchange that I understood were "relation" and "woohkay!"
Caviar stopped at the entrance of Golconda Fort. We stepped out - looking conspicuously touristy. But, I was very hungry and desperate for the biryani that had eluded me my entire life. The feeling was mutual. So, without even making it past the ticketing counter, we stretched our necks to get a "satisfactory" view of the fort and called Caviar for the pick up. That was probably the shortest tourist stop in Golconda's history! On to Bawarchi!
Bawarchi is so famous that almost every biryani serving place in America does business under its name. Same goes for Paradise. In fact, there are so many fake "Bawarchi's" in Hyderabad itself that Caviar Reddy had to confirm the coordinates of our destination. Bawarchi in Secundarabad at RTC Cross roads - that's where we were going. There is even a giant poster at the true Bawarchi that states it has no branches and advises to be wary of apocryphal "Bawarchi's."
I knew we had arrived. I kid you not - the aroma floated across the entire street. Wow! Thinking about it makes my mouth water. We ascended the steps, the fragrance of the biryani getting stronger. Such a tease! It is almost unfair that you have to wait for your food after sitting down. Looking at the menu was an unnecessary formality. "One chicken biryani, two mutton biryani." That's all we needed to say. We added a plate of chicken tikka and some beverages.
We had discussed on the way to Bawarchi that it was imperative to pace ourselves. We must not succumb to the heavenly food and fill our stomachs at the first point itself. We had a long day of eating ahead. I committed the first mistake of asking the server how much biryani was sufficient for one person. "One plate," was his terse response. He wasn't cognizant of our mission. Most patrons look for a stomach-filling meal. Moreover, employees tend to make you order more than you need anyway. Still, he was not at fault. I was. I forgot the very things that I just mentioned myself! Hunger had taken over. It was only after ordering that I noticed the biryani's on other tables. That was my second mistake. The portioning on one plate was enough to feed two. We ordered three plates and the girls didn't possess the same capacity as the boys. We were also going to order some haleem but it wasn't in season. In retrospect, haleem would have ended our quest prematurely.
Finally, the arrival. The momentous occasion! The first spoon of mutton biryani. My tongue attained gastronomical nirvana. For the next few minutes there was silence. All you could hear from our table was the movement of four hands. It was everything I had expected - and more! Layers of rice cooked in traditional spices with delectable chicken/mutton that disintegrated in your mouth. It was emotional. We forgot the need for restraint and finished all of it. Kanishko and I consumed 2/3rds of it. By the way, our entire meal cost us only ₹710. The rate of quality AND quantity per dollar for that amount was something unheard of today!
We were already felt at 90% capacity. That was not good. We failed in our resolve. But we were eager to move on to the next place - Gokul Chaat!
I am not a chaat person. I don't like it - very picky, at best. The girls ordered some paani puri and cold dahi papdi. Yes, I did try some. But the cold and sweet dahi papdi was SO delicious that I returned to the counter and ordered a plate for myself! Gokul Chaat also served some really nice kulfi - traditional Indian ice cream, if you want to call it.
Our stomachs were now "cooled." We spent a total of maybe ₹100. I was just amazed, especially after having dished out a few thousand rupees for an appetizer and a plate of paratha a few days earlier in Hauz Khas Village (Delhi)!
Next, Karachi bakery. Established in 1953, the bakery bakes the very famous Osmania biscuit. Unlike Bawarchi, they do have official branches. I wish we had gone to the original one on Nizam Shahi Road but we ended up going to the one on Banjara Road, where we had a rather anti-thematic meal at its cafe. What we ordered was not worth what we spent - so I won't go into details.
But, we each bought a couple of boxes of Osmania biscuits to go. Those biscuits turn a mundane sipping of tea into an experience. Now what?
It was barely 3 pm. We were way ahead of schedule. More importantly, we needed a break from eating before Paradise. Hence, I asked Caviar to take us to a place serving Irani Chai. He phoned a contact for recommendations. Local knowledge!
It wasn't a heritage kitchen. There wasn't a teapot with a halo around it. We stopped under a flyover, next to a dilapidated tea stall. Its molested board read in bold "IRANI CHAI." However, I trusted Caviar. Though, I must admit, he looked unsure himself.
My co-voyageurs were reluctant. Still, I ordered some Irani Chai. First sip. Wah! I cannot tell you what exactly I liked about it but it was strong and sweet! I fail to understand why the others didn't share my positive reaction. Maybe the Assamese in me happens to be a connoisseur of tea! Whatever - I finished two cups!
We still needed more time before the concluding stop. Caviar recommended we explore some of the city parks around Hussain Sagar. We attempted a stroll around Necklace Road but abandoned it as soon as we realized the premises were dominated by exhibitionist lovers. Caviar was really enthusiastic about the parks. Fine, we gave in.
He took us to this Telugu actor/politician's memorial (NTR). It looked decent enough to digest our food. We were just about to enter the hallowed grounds when a woman yelled at us from behind. She gestured at our shoes. Oh right! No shoes were allowed. Urmila and my sister decided against entering and so we had them watch over our shoes. Nope! The lady yelled again. She wanted her 10-20 rupees. We had to leave our shoes with her.
The four of us finally walked in through the wet entrance, circled the structured and lay down on the grassy slopes. It was a nice afternoon; I won't lie! We mocked the several visitors sprawled aimlessly on the grass with their bellies exposed. We ridiculed the many posing for "cool" selfies. But then I realized we were doing those exact same things...except our stomachs were even more bloated.
Finally, we felt ready to negotiate the next batch of carbs and protein. Paradise!
Paradise is the other stalwart of Hyderabadi Biryani. Unlike Bawarchi, it was more developed and "furnished," if you will. The lobby boasted testaments from celebrities such as Sachin Tendulkar who dined at Paradise. We were seated. We didn't bother looking at the menu. Everyone knows what you need to order.
Spoonfuls went in. Each gulp became an increasing struggle. I have never felt so disappointed in myself. I just couldn't eat - I was SO full. But I kept eating. There was a clear communication gap between my mouth and stomach. If you've watched DDLJ, Simran was the mouth and Amrish Puri was the stomach. Except, when Amrish Puri says "Ja Simran, ji le apni zindagi!" (Go Simran, live your life), Simran runs away with his credit card. When the scrumptious biryani entered the former - it was heaven. When it entered the over-capacity latter - it was hell.
Our server noticed our struggles. He inquired if we were not enjoying the food. Nononono! That would be a sin! We explained our day's history to him. He suggested we take some to go. That was gold! Paradise has a separate to-go counter at the ground level, where the packaging is airplane-friendly. Sweet! I felt less guilty.
Caviar dropped us back to the airport. He was very instrumental in the success of our mission! After check-in, I received a call from an unknown number. The voice identified himself as K.V.R. Reddy. He asked if our sojourn in Hyderabad had been satisfying. I thanked him but then after I pocketed the phone, the realization sank in. If that was K.V.R Reddy...then who was our Caviar??
We don't know. But he was really cool. Without him, we wouldn't have realized our ambitious trip. All that was left was the safe passage to our homes in Delhi. However, that included two and a half hours by air. My convex stomach had tolerated enough abuse. To give you an idea, I was wearing my elastic North Face hiking pants that needed a belt to be kept secure around my waist. I wasn't wearing a belt. In fact, I had to unbutton it...AND the fly was halfway down. The abdomen had expanded to a new horizon!
Somewhere between security check and our boarding gate, my world came to a halt. The only sensation I could feel was that of my digestive system and its urgent need to shed some payload. I could not survive through to Delhi. Here's some relevant background info: I cannot use public restrooms for No. 2. I have an aversion and I need water + soap. No excuses. I had only used one once in an emergency in a National Park in California. This was going to be the second instance.
I searched for the nearest restroom - which happened to be on the floor above. Each step increased my discomfort. I walk in with tunnel vision - searching for an empty, usable stall. That is when I met a messiah - the restroom janitor. He understood my look of desperation. He raised the victory sign in an inquiring manner. I nodded in submission. He opened the gates of a stall, motioned for me to wait till he cleaned it himself. It was spotless. I went in. Sat down. The loud crescendo of a grand symphony was underway in a toilet stall of an airport in Southern India.
I had lucked out. Not only were my surroundings clean, there was a water jet as well! Moreover, I could place my clothes on a glass shelf above my head, with the watch-face of my wristwatch facing downwards. Perfect! Oh wait - FYI, I have a compulsory need to undress completely while taking care of said business. I wanted to leave the stall as clean as it had been. So picture this - or rather don't. A naked dude mopping the floor of a public restroom with TP!
At the sinks, I couldn't get the handsfree faucet to work. My messiah stepped in again, used his own hand to facilitate the flow of water. He then brought me paper towers to wipe my hands dry. Wow! I left him a very handsome tip. We need more of these heroes around the world!
Anyway, excuse me if I went into too much detail! But that was one heck of day! Undoubtedly, one of the most memorable days of my life! It was my first trip to Hyderabad. I did not visit Char Minar. I did not stop at Salar Jung Museum. But, I finally tasted Hyderabad's gift to the world. That is more than enough to justify 12 hours in a city rich with history.
Aurangzeb was not the most popular Mughal emperor. But he did affect a good deed. His invading army pioneered the genesis of the legendary Hyderabadi Biryani when his Mughlai cuisine fused with the local flavors of the Nizams' kitchens. My stomach now knows royalty.