Some Accounting For Taste (Food, Faith & Syncretism in the Deccan)

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Charminar_hyderabad_india_photo One fairly nondescript morning a few years ago I found myself headed to Barkas in the old city of Hyderabad to meet my friend, Saleh Ahmed bin Abdat, the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of Al-Jamaitul Yemenia bil Hind, which administers affairs related the migrant community of Yemen, particularly the Hadramaut province of Southern Yemen. As part of an ongoing project, I have been speaking to members of the community for several years now. Barkas, close to the scorpion-shaped Falaknuma Palace, is a corruption of the English word barracks, for it was here that cadre of the Irregular Arab Forces of the princely ruler of Hyderabad, the Nizam, were housed. It was 7 AM and we were scheduled for a shoot with Sheikh Ba’wazir Ba’shaiba, a 76-year-old local resident, who had recently returned from his first ever trip to the land of his ancestors. The septuagenarian, as part of the last ruling Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan’s personal staff, had tended to the erstwhile autocrat of the independent state of Hyderabad till his dying breath. The Sheikh was a Khanazad – one of the many wards adopted by the Nizam to keep him company in his palace at King Kothi. We were late to arrive and consequently missed what was to be a delicious start to the day – a saucerful of Harees, the Turkish/Arabic originator of the more popular Haleem, a thickish, pulpy stew (or porridge) of wheat, goat meat or lamb, and spices.

In his foreword to Lila Zaouali’s Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World, Charles Perry points to the oldest surviving Arabic cookbook, Kitab al-tabikh, compiled in the 10th century by the scribe Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq. The Nabataeans, as the Aramaic-speaking Christians of Iraq and Syria were known, he informs us, contributed significantly to the Arab repertoire of dishes (and terms used to describe them). Perry points out that the pioneering scribe Ibn Sayyar devotes an entire chapter to stews called nabatiyyat, and it is here we see a mention of Harisa, a Nabataean dish: “whole grain stewed with meat until done, and then beaten to a smooth, savory paste.” Interestingly, in this illuminating foreword, Perry also mentions that there is no proscription against meat at all in Islam and ‘this surely explains why meatless dishes were called muzawwaj (“counterfeit”)’.

2010090650501301 That there is a rich encounter between the various traditions and customs of the many kinds of people of the Deccan is stating the obvious. But the problem seems to lie in how the idea of this intermingling, particularly the culinary aspect, is articulated. When I posed this question to Vikram Doctor, a writer/journalist who specializes in food writing, he in turn suggests that when speaking and writing of food from the Deccan (and Hyderabad in particular), there is a general proclivity to refer to the royal kitchens. The everyday stuff though remains elusive, as do the more general patterns of form, composition, exchange and technique. The question then arises: is there a means to suggest a generalized topography to point to the various traditions that inform the highly idiosyncratic cuisine – an expression of the curious composite culture of the region. Alongside the language Dakhani, is there a ‘taste’ to the Deccan?

I propose here a highly modest mapping of the countless customs, traditions and kitchens that point to a most attractive feature of South Asian syncretism – food culture.

J.D.B Gribble offers that his attempt at a history of the region is to make local readers more aware of their own past. Acknowledging a debt to Ferishta (as translated by Scott), the colonial historian says:

Now it seems to me that it is essential for a Deccan boy to know something of the early history of the part of country in which he lives, as it is for him to know about Akbar, Aurungzebe, Clive or Warren Hastings. In the same way a Poonah boy should be thoroughly grounded in the history of the Mahrattas, and a Bangalore boy in that of Mysore.

Bounding the region of Southern India by the Vindhya Mountains and the Godavari river northwards, the Tungabhadra and ‘Kistna’ rivers to the South and the Ghats on the East & West, he initially proposes that the etymology of ‘Deccan’ has been linked to Dandaka, the forest where the Hindu god Rama was exiled. However, ‘the most probable derivation’ he adds, is that it is a corruption of Dakkhin, the Prakrit form of the Sanskrit Dakshin.

Richard Eaton, in the introduction to A Social History of the Deccan, argues that the region is relatively understudied due to a lack of ‘an enduring political or cultural center’. The Chalukyas, Bahamanis & the Vijaynagaras all had their capital cities and then subsequently, Golconda and Hyderabad became the focal point over the last four centuries. Defining the Deccan he suggests, presents a problem. Unlike Gribble’s geographical definition but also relying on Ferishta, Eaton says instead:

Ignoring physical geography altogether, Firishta mapped the region in terms of its vernacular languages, using for this purpose the metaphor of kinship. One of the four sons of India(“Hind”), he wrote, was “Dakan,” who in turn had three sons: “Marhat, Kanhar and Tiling”–that is, areas native to speakers of Marathi, Kannada, and Telugu. “Presently, these three communities (qaum) reside in the Deccan.” For Firishta, as indeed for twenty-first-century residents when queried on the matter, the Deccan comprises the territory today constituted by three linguistically defined states: Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. Deccan

The food traditions broadly incorporate practices linked to these linguistic communities, as well as to location. Andhra and Telangana are Telugu speaking regions, Hyderabad is physically located in Telangana and is the capital of the greater state of Andhra Pradesh created in 1956, following the fall of the independent Hyderabad princely state, or Azad Hyderabad, as it was known in some quarters. Besides these broad linguistic groupings, we see the influence of migrant communities over the course of history – from Persian, Turkish, Arabic, Moghul to Marwadi, Kayastha, Parsi, Anglo-Indian, etc. The resultant culinary communication is pretty complex, idiosyncratic, and at times, charmingly eccentric, I might add.

My friend Habib Aidroos finds issue with what he feels Marag has transformed into. He describes this Arabic origin dish as a simple, mildly flavoured soup with leftover bones, meant both as a curative remedy and a robust, heartwarming meal. All the meat off the bone(s) and whatever forsaken marrow is meant to melt away, leaving just a broth. Marag or Maraq (of Ottoman Turkish origins possibly) is found in its Yemeni form as Salteh – a meat broth with ingredients as diverse as potatoes, eggs, rice, Hilbeh (a sort of chutney which I shall come to later), and a salsa called Sahawiq. In its Hyderabadi/Deccani form we see it flavoured with ginger-garlic paste, peppercorns, coriander, mint and caraway seeds (shahjeera). Bafanna, the antiquarian book-seller, Habib & Saleh bin Adbat (all Hyderabadi Arabs) attest to its recent resurgence, particularly as a dish that appears on the menu of weddings & family functions, much to the consternation of Habib, who although born and partly raised in Aden, is a thorough-bred Hyderabadi of his own admission. The use of roasted grated coconut points directly to local adaptation, a common feature in many dishes of the Deccan region. Grated coconut, roasted alongside sesame seeds, poppy seeds (and coriander seeds in some households) is a common dry masala. When peanuts are added to this roasted mixture (called Bhojwar Masala with some variation), it performs a critical function in the famed Mirchi ka Saalan and Baghara Baingan.

Sultan Ghalib al Qu’aiti (the monarchy was deposed in 1967), an amateur historian and a prominent Hyderabadi/Yemeni Arab, mentions both Harees and Marag in an essay on the relations between the Arabian Peninsula and the Deccan in his book titled Arabian and Other Essays (1998). Also mentioning Kuzi ‘a whole lamb cooked in a mud-oven buried underground’ and Madhbi ‘meat grilled on heated stones’, Sultan Ghalib, whose forbears were Jamadars in the Nizam’s employ, points to how the Deccani influence travelled back to the Arabian Peninsula through clansmen and other Hadramis.

For example the “Laddu” in the Hijaz is still known as “Laddu” and the “Jelabbie” as “Mushabbak”; and while in Iraq, Kuwait ad Bahrain the “Biryani” is still known by its proper name, in Aden and the coastal ports of the Yemen it is now recognized as “Zurbian”, a derivation from “Ruz Biryani” or Biryani rice.

Pratibha Karan is the author of two books on the regions cuisine – Hyderabadi Cuisine – A Princely Legacy and Biryani. Married into a prominent Hyderabadi Kayastha family whose connections with the princely court go back to the formative years of the Asif Jahi dynasty that ruled the region for seven generations, she says to me that in her opinion Pathar Ghost, another Hyderabadi specialty (clearly along the lines the aforementioned Madhbi) has its origins as a game dish. In her opinion, hunting camps short on utensils, used coal fired thick slabs of granite for cooking meat. This unusual kabab is a famous ambassador of Hyderabadi cuisine and is featured in Prathibha Karan’s book as well as Bilkees Latif’s The Essential Andhra Cookbook, amongst others.

6f4fd0153a-TAJ_FALAKNUMA_PALACE The interesting introduction to Hyderabadi Cuisine – A Princely Legacy is written by the author’s husband Vijay Karan, whose forbear Raja Sagar Mal traveled to the Deccan with Mir Qamaruddin Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah I, the first Nizam of the province, which he governed on behalf of the Moghuls. After Aurangzeb’s death the principality became independent with some notional allegiance to the Moghuls. Raja Sagar Mal, Pratibha Karan informs me, the son of Aurangzeb’s Grand Vizier Raja Raghunath (who was killed in battle with the Mahrattas) grew up in the Moghul courts of Delhi and must have been acquainted with both Moghul courtly cuisine and that of the Hindu Kayastha community and of Hindu cuisine in Delhi. Due to their contact with the Muslim princely classes, the Kayasthas (mostly administrators), adapted several socio-cultural practices associated with the ruling class as well as Muslims in general. Apart from fluency in Persian and Urdu, and appearance, they were predominantly meat eaters, which any Hyderabadi will attest is an essential feature of Hyderabadi Muslim cuisine. The author points out to me that contact with local cooks in Telangana would have necessarily resulted in certain forms of exchange, which over time came to be collapsed into a more general use of flavouring and certain compositional styles.

A most intriguing and excellent example of this remains Chigoor Ka Saalan – mutton cooked with tender tamarind leaves and shoots. Tamarind is used extensively in the region as a souring agent, and food, generally, has a khatta (sour & astringent) character to it. Pungency and piquancy are added elements to this characteristic sourness through the use of tempering and powdered spices and chilly. Tamarind, Tamar-i-Hind in Arabic, now considered native to the region, is believed to have originated in tropical Africa. Pointing to the various kinds of souring agents used, Vijay Karan, in his introductory essay to his wife’s book says: “What also distinguished Hyderabadi food is its sourness, clearly a Telugu influence. No one else can sour his food like the Hyderabadi can.”

The use of Chigoor is common in Telangana and Andhra. In fact, in coastal Andhra Pradesh, the leaves & shoots which appear abundantly between the months of February to April as the fruit begins to form and eventually ripen, are made into a dal, commonly known as Chinta-chiguru Pappu. Similarly, the tender leaves and shoots are also made into a pickle, or Pacchadi – a most common feature of Andhra cuisine. My mother, while in England in the seventies, starved for the lack of appropriate ingredients, innovated a most delicious baking apple chutney.

Sapna Reddy, a friend residing in Bangalore, mentions her family tradition of mutton with Chigoor. She belongs to the community of Nellore Reddys – agriculturalists and businessmen of Southern Andhra Pradesh, bordering Tamil Nadu. Intriguingly, she informs me, that her grandmother used to abstain from making this kind of mutton during religious functions due to a perception of it being ‘Muslim’. This perception, one can reasonably speculate, is a result of their migrations northward to Telangana, where such a preparation was learned and brought back home. And where contact with Muslims was greater and unavoidable.

Although there are clear distinctions between Muslim and Hindu home food, in the quantity and style of meat primarily, the commonalities to be found are very dense, interlinked, and countless. Marak-sana

I ask former Vice-Chancellor of Osmania University Suleman Siddiqui if there is any negative perception to such interlinked food traditions, if something is considered ‘Hindu’ and therefore proscribed. He replies in the negative, and instead argues that the Muslims of Hyderabad, and the Deccan region, have most enthusiastically adopted local food practices, and although meat dominates their diets, local vegetarian food as well as common Udipi food of Idlis, Dosas and Wadas, is much sought after. He mentions a famous Udipi eatery in Hyderabad, Gayathri Bhavan, as being one he visits from time to time. The late medieval Qutb Shahis, the Shi’ite dynasty that preceded the Sunni Central Asian Asaf Jahis, had strong and quite profound linkages to Telugu culture and traditions. When I ask the historian of the common tendency to make pickles and chutneys as accompaniment and point to Tamatar Chutney and Tamatar Ka Kut as correspondences in Muslim households, he suggests Til Ki Chutney as an expression of this propensity. It is chutney made from roasted sesame seeds, garlic, coriander, mint and again, tamarind, in some cases. Dried red chilies, cumin and curry leaves, a most aromatic advocate of southern influence, are added as tempering. This chutney is commonly eaten with Kichdi as well as being an accompanying condiment.

Fascinatingly (or perhaps not so?) there is an immediate parallel to be found with Hilbeh, a Yemeni dish of similar imagination, which Vikram Doctor mentions to me as worthy of investigation. Here, fenugreek seeds (Methi) are soaked overnight and blended similarly to Til Ki Chutney. Farouk Mardam-Bey’s Ziryab – Authentic Arab Cuisine mentions this as Aden’s Hilba, which one dips bread into and eats. Fenugreek seeds are commonly used in tempering in Andhra preparations.

A common accompanying dish to Kichdi in Muslim households of Telangana, lesser so in Hyderabad, is Patchi Pulusu – a sour, watery preparation with onions, green chilies, mint/coriander, tempered with cumin and curry leaves which Pratibha Karan’s book says is commonly eaten alongside Bhuna Gosht, a mutton curry.

Vijay Burgula, an independent researcher and staunch pro-Telangana activist in Hyderabad, comes from the Golconda Vyapari community – a Telugu Brahmin sub-sect that had historical links with the Muslim rulers as administrators and traders (as the name suggests). Their household cook for the last 35 years is Razia, a Muslim lady from a stonecutter’s family from the Telangana district of Mehboobnagar, the area to where their forbears migrated. Their home diet is a unique blend of all these varying traditions since the influences they have imbibed, as a family and as individuals, through many levels of contact, socio-cultural and ideological alike, represent the broader food communication that I write about here. Patchi Pulusu, again, is a prominent part of their household, and it performs an ameliorating role in its provocative accompaniment to relatively impoverished/simpler dishes.

Foreign tastes are necessarily provoked by local piquancy. Mansoor Ali Darvesh, of Iranian extraction, and the owner of a couple of Irani Cafes in Hyderabad explains to me how this is conducted in their homes. They prepare a simple stew of meat, chickpeas (Kabuli Chana), carrots and onions, seasoned with turmeric, black pepper, some salt, a little ghee and to which they may add a small portion of rice. With a crispy loaf of bread, baked in their large coal fired ovens, this hearty meal finds a local sparring partner in lemon or mango pickle of the Telangana style. Intriguingly, Mansoor, a childhood friend of mine, also mentions that they traditionally sour Shooli, a beetroot soup, with green grape extract. Mardam-Bey, in his aforementioned book writes interestingly of the role of green grapes in seasoning food: “The must from the grapes was mixed with some sun-dried fish, called murri, a necessary seasoning at the time.” Ibn Sayyar’s book also finds mention in its recipes using must. Mansoor’s late father, who moved to Hyderabad in the mid 60’s, used to run a monthly meal plan at Olympia Café in the Gunfoundry area for homesick Iranian students who came to study locally. Discussing local tastes and dishes, Mansoor brings up Dalcha.

A lentil and meat curry, Dalcha takes various forms regionally. Again, we see the use of tamarind, as is the Telangana/Andhra practice of souring food. In Pratibha Karan’s recipe (Bilkees Latif’s is almost the same), we see the use of different cuts of meat (mutton cubes, marrow bones and tender ribs of lamb) with a mixture of pulses. The flavouring here is quite elaborate and includes diverse spices including ground watermelon and musk melon seeds, caraway seeds, clove, cinnamon, cardamom, green chilies, coriander, and ginger-garlic paste. Dalchas may have vegetables in them; some families add bottle gourd (lauki), the lesser spiced vegetarian version of which is a common Andhra/Telangana dal. 3843098-Rajahmundry_bridges-Rajahmundry

This brings me to ginger-garlic paste. This is absent in Andhra cuisine. Browned garlic cloves appear in the staple mango and tomato dal, and ginger is used separately as well. The two however, particularly as a paste, do not feature in traditional dishes, but Telangana food has adopted it enthusiastically. Ginger-garlic is seen as a meat ingredient and one can surmise that it came to the region via the Moghuls. In Telangana, a peculiar version of the iconic Andhra mango pickle Avakkai, is found in Masala Avakkai, where ginger-garlic paste is used. In my extended family as well, the use of ginger-garlic together is perceived to be ‘Muslim’/‘North Indian’ and it is only used when attempting non-traditional dishes. This difference points to the limits of culinary contact. Having said that, one of my favourite dals as a youngster was the Masala Pappu (dal) that my mother used to make. Either Moong or Toor was flavoured with ginger-garlic-green chilly paste, and uncharacteristically, no tempering whatsoever was added.

My friend Satish Kolluri who teaches media studies at Pace University, points interestingly to an Andhra reluctance to adopt Telangana cuisine. He argues, rightly so in my opinion, that their cultural and religious conservatism came in the way, as well as, arguably, a nose-in-the-air attitude towards the people, the language and the Islamic/Muslim character of the region. But as the decades passed, he further suggests, culinary contact came to be more visible – more so in non-vegetarian food than vegetarian. This is clearly linked to Brahminical ideas of contact, purity, etc, as both my extended family and his, have historically demonstrated.

219-Protestrors-throng-Rajahmundry-Railway-station-for-rail-roko But it was these same conservative Andhra migrants (many of whom were vegetarians) that came to the region in the wake of the independent Hyderabad state, and went back to the hinterland corrupted by ginger-garlic paste and other ‘contaminants’. Andhra Biryani (more a Pulao) and Korma, corruptions of the Hyderabad and Telangana versions, became popular amongst the younger lot, much to the squeamishness of their elders. Andhra Pulao (some still do not use ginger-garlic paste in it) uses whole spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaf, nut meg, mace, clove, black pepper but its appearance, unlike its aromatic and arresting culinary cousin, is uncoloured – no saffron, no turmeric, no rose water, no caramelized onions. This again, in my mind, suggests a front of austerity – a sort of false modesty and a fear of too much ‘contamination’. The pulao though, is delicious.

This process of contact underscores syncretism here. To what extent contact exists and to what extent it is perceived as ‘contamination’ defines whether the syncretic process has negative or positive attributes to it. The idea of syncretism is fraught with many difficulties and traps, as discussed by Peter van der Veer in his essay Syncretism, multiculturalism and the discourse of tolerance. It may, on one end, suggest a ‘sinking of theological differences’, but that is an extreme expression and narrow definition. The difficulty lies in the many levels of contact and the author cautions on the lack of clarity of positive functions:

Nevertheless, it is by no means clear that syncretism in the sense of borrowing from one tradition into another would indeed create harmony and tolerance. In some contexts one would almost be tempted to prospose an inverse relation: growth of syncretism implies decline of tolerance.

The author points to the Sufi shrine as a focal point of Hindu-Muslim syncretism in India. It has been at the centre of reformist discourse and the negative notion of ‘innovation’ has been robustly argued on the strident side of the argument. Saint worship is often equated with Hindu polytheism, and therefore, ideas and opportunities of contact, become problematic.

The positive side of all of this is the ‘permeability and fluidity of social life’. The conflicts of stridency and opposing ideologies find some manner of softening through popular syncretic processes – food, architecture, music and other arts being attractive expressions. The author, although tonally positive, remains highly skeptical about how popular political currency is extracted through the discussion of syncretism. One cannot merely see it as an attractive, desirable humanistic blending, asserted in many instances in ‘Hindu’ terms, the author argues, but instead suggests that:

…indeed every religion is syncretistic, since it constantly draws upon heterogeneous elements to the extent that it is often impossible for historians to unravel what comes from where. One could therefore argue that it is a useless concept. I agree that it is, when seen as a simple descriptive term. However, I hope to have shown that syncretism is a very interesting, though elusive, concept when seen as part of religious discourse.

I agree with that and I append the central point of this essay to it: the attractive features of syncretism – music, food, art and philosophy – are indeed quite attractive.

In the end though, it is just a matter of taste.