I hail from Hyderabad, a city in southern India. It sets itself apart from the region through its culture , and I don’t just say that because I’m personally biased towards my hometown.
Other parts of South India speak in Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam, all derived from Dravidian roots. Whereas Hyderabad speaks in Urdu, a language heavily inspired by Arabic and Persian. Hyderabad emerged as a cultural center from the time it was founded in the 16th century. It is embedded in a rich history of diamond and pearl trade along with the development of Indo-Persian and Indo-Islamic literature.
However, I’m here to talk about our food.
If you’ve ever tried Indian food, you’ve likely heard of the Hyderabadi biryani. Hyderabadi cuisine is relatively modern; it was developed during the Nizam rule in the 18th century. It is an amalgamation of Mughal, Turkish, and Arabic food, along with the influence of the Telugu and Marathwada cuisines. But, my love for our cuisine isn’t because of its rich history; there’s a woman I owe the inspiration for this article to. She taught me how to love our culture, through food.
I am one of the people who has been lucky enough to wake up to the smell of breakfast in my grandmother’s home.
The most vivid memory of my maternal grandmother (or ‘nanna’ as we called her) is of her hands, slender and wrinkled, as I held them in mine. I remember the texture of her skin, the gold rings that snuggly adorned her fingers. She lives no more, but she left a legacy of love and generosity in the members of our family. She was a smart woman; she raised six kids and spoke three languages. She never held a grudge and she always, always made you feel welcome.
She showed her affection through her cooking. Every time we traveled to Hyderabad, she’d have the table set. You could smell the delicacies the moment you set foot into her front yard. Fried river fish, khatti daal (lentil and tomato curry) with rice. It may not seem like much, but it was magical. Perhaps it was the joy of being together or even just our hunger that made it so.
Towards the end of her life, my grandmother would sit on her bed with a large steel pot by her feet. The maid would place meat in the center of it while she would add the spices with her own hands. The result was a finger-licking biryani, one that’s famous in our neighborhood. There was no secret ingredient and there was certainly no magic. It was her skill and the aura of benevolence that surrounded her. If you want to recreate the same dish, the recipe isn’t enough. You need the same amount of selflessness and love that she whole-heartedly added to her dishes.
She represented Hyderabadi cuisine, dominated by meat and rice. We’re not just about the biryani though. Every curry is a blend of spices: cumin, caraway seeds, stone flowers, turmeric, saffron, and my absolute favorite, garam masala.
My grandmother did not only pass on her culinary skills, but she also set an example with her behavior. She guided us to embrace our guests and treat them with the utmost love and respect. Like every grandmother, she subconsciously instilled our culture, values, and norms in us. We carry her legacy as we travel across the globe, passing it on to the next generation.
Culture is not rigid. It is defined by the beings who shape it with their individuality. My great grandmother had given nanna a completely different outlook on food. Then she gave Hyderabadi cuisine new life before sharing it with us. I guess it’s my turn.