Their Masala Dosa is rated one of the top 10 must-try dishes from around the world, their Patala dates back to the time of the Mauryan Empire, and yet these are just the shine of South India’s culinary iceberg!
No more limited to the famous idli, sambar and vada, or the iconic Masala Dosa, South Indian cuisine today has popular niche chapters such as the Mappila cuisine of Malabar, the Chettinad from Tamil Nadu and the royal Nizam food from Hyderabad. But is this all to the oldest culinary legacy of India? After all, the Deccan cuisine is not only the oldest but also the most evolved segment of the Indian culinary legacy, many of its dishes making the basic foundation of Ayurveda.
Take the Ulundhu Kanji (Bengal gram porridge) for instance. The Chandragupta Maurya era dish is to date one of the popular breakfast items made at home much like the Puttu. Or the original batter-fried chicken of Andhra Pradesh, which became a popular trader’s snack later adopted by the royal kitchens of Nizams who made the kulcha famous in the South. From the palate coating coconut based dishes to the ‘set your tongue aflame’ offerings from the kitchens in Cuddapah and Guntur, we look at a slice of the Deccan culinary maze.
The Historical Connect
A chance meeting with writer– turned chef Arun Kumar (of Zambar fame) gives you an insight into how ‘chillies’ were not a part of cooking till about the latter half of the 11th century along with the Portuguese, who got with them the style of cooking with vinegar, and their love for sourness in food – which later became a benchmark of the Asaf Jahi developed Hyderabadi cuisine. But for the rest, it was a chokerbox of spices that allowed them to spice their curries as per the season, taste and the newer influences.
An excellent example is of the Bagarey Baigan, a dish that many believe inspired the iconic Mirch Ka Salan. In coastal Andhra, the dish is essentially eggplant cooked in the flavourful masala of coconut, peanuts and sesame seeds, and served with rice or millet rotis. However, the Hyderabadi version includes cream along with a generous inclusion of garam masala. Interestingly, the use of chillies is minimalistic and often external – in the form of chutneys and pickles. So how did it become spicy, one may wonder?
Kumar believes that it was Andhra’s strategic location that gave it accessibility to a lot fragrant spices and herbs like ginger, coriander, asofoetida and black cumin; marinades of yoghurt, sugar and filaments of citron flowers. Manasollasa, the 10th century cookbook written by Chalukyan King Somesvara III, corroborates the fact that not only chefs and homemakers back then knew the art of flavours and aromas, but were masters of creating new flavours by roasting/pounding and using the spices as whole.
Kumar traces the origin of chicken fry (Kodi Iguru) to Andhra. There are two reasons for such assumption: one, eating fowl meat – like wild chicken- was much prevalent during the time of Somesvara, the Vijaynagar Empire and then the Kakatiyas, under whom the cuisine actually developed; and two, the existence of Sabudana Vada (Telegana) and Pootharekalu (cream and sugar sandwiched rice flour wafers) back then.
The Common Thread
The use of ghee and tamarind as a key flavourant is the only thing that is common in the culinary style of Andhra, Telangana (now a separate state), Rayalseema and Hyderabad. Like Andhra, the rice bowl of India, is more vegetarian with numerous rice dishes, thanks to the abundance of vegetables, fruits and spices and of course seafood.
A traditional Andhra thali includes hot and spicy dishes like tamarind rice (Pulihora), Poppadams, Andhra pappu, Gongura Chutney, Pesaratu, Pulusu, Avakkai Pickles made of raw mango, seasoned eggplant (GuttiVankaya Kura), sambar and payasam. Rayalseema, a rather arid place, has more meat-based dishes like the niharis and stews along with deep fried snacks like the medu vada, which is often served with a Mutton Gasi. In fact, while Telangana has a more refined culinary style that is usually a clever blend of spices and herbs and robust in its flavours, the dishes from Rayalseema depend upon the accompaniments like pickles to add to the pungency.
The Royal Effect
With Hyderabad taking on the power centre, it was in the kitchens of Nizam that the modern-day Andhra cuisine developed with a distinct style as well. Much of Hyderabadi Cuisine is influenced by the erstwhile Andhra food along with inspired culinary techniques borrowed from Persia and predominantly Lucknow.
Take the instance of Double Ka Meetha. A signature Hyderabadi sweet dish, the original recipe was made with two millet rotis that were tawa fried, soaked in sweet syrup and then layered with rabri or payasam. With the arrival of Portuguese and the British, sliced bread penetrated the culinary corridors of Andhra and became a popular substitute for the rotis. What, however, distinguishes the Hyderabadi legacy from that of Andhra is the liberal use of spices like dagad phool along with cream and cashew nut paste. The Hyderabadi Biryani is an excellent example of how the Nizam’s cook combined the art of yogurt marinating with the dum technique and home grown chillies to create a spectacular culinary masterpiece.
Another gem from the Nizam kitchen is the Hyderabadi Marag. A lightly textured mutton soup, it revived the ancient culture of coating the earthen pan with butter first to lend the dish the richness.
Written by Madhulika Dash