3 years

Food

The Primal Flavours of Telangana

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In Hyderabad, a city where you are what you eat, we look for the original, minimalist cuisine of India’s newest state
Food never lies. In Hyderabad, a city of unmatched culinary pageantry, it becomes a cultural lens, revealing people for who they are. An old-school glutton enamoured of the dum biryani, the vestige of a long and sumptuous Nawabi reign that today casts a shadow over dinner tables and waistlines. An unwitting tourist who benumbs his palate with the Chicken 65 and then struggles to keep it down. A lover of conversations endless as the boiling of condensed milk at Irani chai shops. A homesick newbie lured by the promise of Andhra bhojanam served at roadside messes. In this city, you are what you eat. But beyond the scope of these superficial identities is an under-represented cuisine that speaks, in a sparse, rustic tongue, of something primal. It is the native food of Telangana, and it evokes its vast agrarian heartland in the Deccan. A marriage of earthy lentils, rain-fed millets, omega- 3-rich oilseeds and a burst of chilli and garlic for flavour, it is not for the sophisticate, yet its deep reverence for seasonal, local ingredients is now rekindling interest among gourmands who expect it to break into the mainstream in the wake of bifurcation.

Imagine washing down a hot, charcoal-baked jowar roti with a gazpacho of aged tamarind spiked with bits of onion and green chillies, toasted sesame and cumin. Pachi pulusu, a poor man’s comfort food, is nowhere to be found in modern-day Hyderabad, a city that harbours a supercilious nostalgia for royal excess. But there are stories. Of liver cooked with soy leaves to subdue the flavour of the pancreatic juices, for it was a sin to waste even the entrails of a butchered goat. Of watery gravies enriched with galijeru, a native hogweed foraged from the forests after the first rains. Of a time when mutton was slow-cooked with tender tamarind leaves and meat grilled on an open fire sans marinade or oil. “Telangana food has the distinction of being true to its key ingredients. We believe in minimalism. There are no ancillary spices camouflaging the real taste of a vegetable or meat entrée,” says Sudhakar N Rao, director, Culinary Academy of India, a cooking school in Hyderabad.

On a cool evening after a steady rain has lashed the city, Rao is overseeing a Telangana spread for his son Adarsh’s thirteenth birthday bash at their three- storeyed villa in the urban thicket of Manikonda, near Gachibowli. “Most of my friends are from Andhra and I want them to savour this food,” he says, adjusting his traditional red turban. In Telangana, even the food has been camouflaged by the dominant culture of undivided Andhra and its Nizami heritage, Rao says. “Things are changing now. I expect that our food and culture will emerge from the shadows in the coming months.”

A vegetarian, I try to keep my wits about me at Rao’s astroturfed terrace, where a counter is laid out, inter alia, with nalli mamsam, tender pieces of mutton cooked in bone marrow, boti kura or lamb intestine curry, and thalakaya kura, goat head meat curry with bits of bone. Offal isn’t offensive in Telangana, which has its own versions of brain fry and blood pudding. It is a gastronomy born of need, says Rao. “In the state’s poorest districts, where meat remains a rare delicacy even today, a feast would mean butchering one of the local chickens (ooru kodi) or a ram—called pottel, its high-fat meat is preferred over ewe meat,” he says. Some of these specialties find a place on the menu at Palamuru Grill, Rao’s restaurant in Madhapur, Hyderabad, named after an ancient moniker for Mahbubnagar, a district south of Hyderabad.

At T Radhika Ravi’s chic apartment in Gachibowli, I am treated to a relatively sedate Telangana breakfast of uppudu pindi, a fluffy, delicate upma made of rice-rava and onion, and mokka jonna garelu, or golden corn cakes served with tamarind relish. “You won’t get these anywhere in town,” she says, with the triumphant air of a champion of tradition. Growing up in Alampur, Mahbubnagar district, Ravi picked up a wealth of culinary material from her grandmother. Her fondest memories are of picking tamarind flowers to be fried in groundnut oil for a crunchy side dish. “The aroma of puntikura (as gongura or sorrel is known in Telangana) cooking on the wood stove was like a gift from heaven,” says the 40-year-old software consultant. Ravi left behind her slice of heaven for the opportunities of Silicon Valley, California, returning to settle down in Hyderabad in 2004. “I missed the taste of home, until I found a cook from Adilabad who makes the best jonna (jowar) roti,” she says, introducing B Sehar Fathima, a shy woman in her twenties.

The urban Telanganite who acknowledges the grounding force of his native food is a rare bird today, even threatening to go extinct. Amnesia is his first line of defence against an impoverished past, and cultural coalescence the only way forward. “We are so assimilated into the modern way of life that our everyday diet is now dosa, dal, rice, and subji,” Ravi says. The fiery vegetable vepudus (stir-frys) and pachadis (pickles or side- dishes blended with spiced yoghurt) are all that is left of a robust cuisine that spanned the 10 districts of Telangana. “Many old recipes are lost, sometimes discarded because as we moved up in society, we did not want to eat like poor people. We were no longer dependent on the home harvest. Hyderabadi food was something we aspired to,” Ravi says. Not today. Today, as Fathima cooks up the most basic Telangana fare—mokka jonna gatka, a thick corn porridge tempered with jeera and chilli—we speak of the hot earth and the long days of toil, of mangoes sucked dry by children and the values that informed a spartan way of life. “This is the gruel Telangana was built on,” Fathima says, offering me a ladleful. “But go to Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao’s house in Karimnagar and you won’t find this. Class is a major ingredient in the Telangana kitchen.”

Austerity isn’t bland in Telangana. My mouth on fire even after a cool glass of ragi ambali, a nutritious millet drink, I make a mental note never to douse my food with Sriracha again. For I have discovered a condiment several times as flavourful and potent: a spice powder of roasted niger (valiselu) and linseed (aviselu) ground with salt and chilli. Warm and earthy, karam is the perfect thickening agent for vegetable curries, just a spoonful of it adding body, nutrition and depth. “When you are poor, you pour more water into your gravies and add a lot of spice so that people eat less and there is enough food to go around,” says Salome Yesudas, a researcher from Zahirabad who has been documenting traditional food systems for two decades. Telangana food has the perfect balance of nutrients, argues Yesudas. “Until rice was introduced under the PDS, the region had a food crop-based hyper-local cuisine focused on millets (ragi, foxtail, little, pearl, barnyard, kodo and proso millets), pulses, oilseeds and green, leafy vegetables. People hunted wild boar, consumed beneficial weeds and grew local varieties of sugarcane. Jaggery-making was a beautiful ceremony that went on from November to February, when fresh jaggery syrup would be added to dishes and turned into sweets. This has been replaced by hard, commercial sugarcane that you can’t bite into.” The colourful Telangana palate, she laments, has turned as white as the rice that has now crept into every meal.

Travelling in the remotest reaches of Telangana to document festive recipes, Yesudas retrieved from the dim niches of history treasures like the yavva polelu, a bread made of barley flour stuffed with jaggery and chana dal, sweetened ragi dosa, and karijelu, small puris of wheat flour filled with jaggery, sesame and roasted semolina. The latter is a favourite at Sri Devi Swagruha Foods, Hyderabad’s first Telangana snack shop. Sprawled over an entire wing of a shopping complex near Habsiguda, it is no longer the small enterprise V Savitri, an enterprising woman from Karimnagar, founded two decades ago. Over two dozen women in red saris sweat it out in makeshift kitchens at the back of the shop, heating cauldrons of oil, frying peanuts and curry leaves, dusting sugar onto buttery pheni, and fashioning a thick, sesame-laden rice flour dough into impossibly thin concentric circles. Called sakinalu, this deep-fried snack is Savitri’s claim to fame. “People come from afar to buy Sakinalu Savitramma’s snacks,” says B Radhakishen Rao, a Green Card holder who is here to stock up before flying out to the US next week. “We used to make these at home, after the sankranti harvest. To me, it is tradition readily packaged and made enjoyable for the benefit of our children, who are now scattered across the world.”

Savitri’s son Rajesh Rao says demand for their snacks has never let up. “We do more than 100 kg a day and we are expanding our capacity, especially now that Telangana culture is in the limelight. None of this can be machine-made, though,” he says. He walks me to a quiet corner where M Sadamma from Nalgonda district is spreading a thick layer of rice paste flecked with chana dal, chilli and peanuts on the flat bottom of an aluminium pan. She pokes a few holes in the pancake and pours oil on top, carefully watching it for five minutes— the time it takes to cook. “This is sarva pindi, a breakfast staple from Telangana that was once made in a heavy curved vessel called the ‘sarva’,” Rao says. “It is one of our most authentic items. Encouraged by our success, 15-20 Telangana families in Hyderabad have now taken to supplying native snacks to local bakeries.”

A golden era of regional cuisine is upon us, says chef Chalapathi Rao, who recently opened a fine-dining south Indian restaurant in the upscale neighbourhood of Film Nagar in Hyderabad. Simply South showcases culinary traditions from Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and other south Indian states, devoting a page on the menu to each cuisine (Hyderabadi food gets a page of its own). “We were in the middle of conceiving a menu when the bifurcation happened,” says Amita Lulla, a partner in the restaurant. Almost instantly, Simply South’s Telangana Kodi Roast (chicken roast) and its Oorgai Mamsam (mutton in a pickle sauce) hit a sweet spot that restaurateurs didn’t know existed. “You typically don’t associate such hearty regional food with fine dining. But we saw a gap in this space and we knew we wanted to fill it,” Lulla says.

Chalapathi Rao says the notion that Telangana is a culinary wasteland is entirely unfounded. “In undivided Andhra, there were always three culinary threads—one from coastal Andhra, one from Rayalaseema and the third from Telangana—each mirroring the landscape and the culture of the respective region. In the dry, hot districts of Telangana, people preferred spicy, heat-producing foods to balance their metabolism,” Rao says. “In a few months, you will see a lot of interest in this cuisine. Diners are already asking for jonna roti.”

Thanks to a health food wave and advocacy by progressive farmers and NGOs like the Deccan Development Society, millets may slowly inch their way back into the mainstream. At Aahar Kutir, a rustic eatery tucked away in a lane in Begumpet, Hyderabad, Ram Babu, a partner in the venture, is a passionate proponent of millets and native foods. Over a steaming mug of herbal tea, Babu talks about the ethno-botany of the tribal belt in Adilabad and how tribal food can be made relevant to the modern diner. “From using mahua blossoms to sweeten their food to identifying edible roots and wild varieties of rice, the tribals of Telangana still follow a sustainable lifestyle. In an urban setting, the least we can do is to substitute rice and maida with processed millets,” says Babu. “Today, a health-conscious section of people in Hyderabad, aware of Telangana’s agrarian history, wants to explore millets as a supplement, if not an alternative.”

Ironically, as Hyderabad discovers this forsaken spice-kissed cuisine born of the soil, agrarian Telangana is suffering its worst crisis in years, with over 350 farmers ending their lives in frustration in the past five months. The crop diversity of Telangana has dwindled drastically in the past two decades, with commercial rice and BT cotton cultivation wiping out millets and dryland grains. “It takes 5,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of rice. Millets consume just 200 litres per kg,” says GV Ramanjaneyulu, executive director, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad. “This forced change in cropping patterns— and the subsequent crop failures—is Telangana’s biggest challenge today. The only viable solution is not a dam or an irrigation system, but a return to the roots and a shift towards more wholesome, sustainable food consumption.”

Local food is increasingly trendy abroad. But in India, diners are easily blinded by the grease and glamour of Punjabi and Hyderabadi food. To vindicate itself, Telangana cuisine must first duck the crossfire of KCR’s bottle gourd politics— an Andhrite will call the vegetable sorakayi, and not anapakayi as it is known in Telangana, he famously said, declaring war on Andhra’s taste buds. And it must offer up accessible fare lovingly garnished with the crushed kernels of a sensible, folksy culture.

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