A Hyderabad Idea, Part One: A 500 Mile Foodie Pilgrimage By Train
At five in the morning I sprinted through the Madurai Train Station, hop-scotching over sleeping bodies in tattered clothes and weaving between mustachioed luggage porters balancing suitcases on their heads. The loud speaker crackled with a gushy woman’s voice—the kind of gushy voice an Indian porn star might have—informing me that my train was departing from track number ten.
When people refer to a mode of public transportation as a ‘quintessential travel experience,’ you know you’re in for some serious shit. I find guilty, sadistic humor in watching other Westerners board their first Indian train. They’re easy to spot—they’re just standing there, amidst the chaos, looking utterly panicked and betrayed. I silently giggle as their romantic notions of the Orient Express and Darjeeling Ltd spew death rattles on the fecal-stained floor, drowning in a puddle of dubious liquid, before being trampled to oblivion by the shoving mobs of beggars and chai-wallahs.
Gazing down upon the peaceful, cheery colors of a map, this unglamorous face of Indian travel is easy to overlook. Ergo, traveling five hundred miles for an authentic bowl of Hyderabadi Dum Biryani—and then immediately turning around to travel all the way back—might not seem so unreasonable. At least it didn’t to me as I reclined in my hotel room, effortlessly booking train tickets online with a stupid whiskey grin.
Distance-wise, this would be like someone in San Francisco driving all the way down the west coast of California then across the border into Mexico, just to eat a good and honest burrito in Tijuana, before heading back home. But such a comparison is irrelevant, because this isn’t the United States, where five hundred miles means ten hours of drumming your fingers on a steering wheel, listening to your favorite playlist blare over the hiss of an air-conditioner. No. This is India, where traveling five hundred miles by train takes thirty-four spirit-crushing hours of dirt, heat, chaos, and at several points being completely enveloped amid a heaving mass of fat, sweaty Indian flesh. And that’s thirty-four hours each way.
Oops. Ticket’s booked.
I’d like to stress that this culinary odyssey isn’t just about some bowl of rice. Because Hyderabadi Dum Biryani isn’t just some bowl of rice. It is the Ferrari of bowls-of-rice. Teriyaki stir-fry? Throw it to the peasants. Paella? Paella’s the pigeon shit that Biryani scrapes off her expensive designer shoes.
“I think you like rice too much,” blurted Bashir, breaking a long and awkward silence that followed the announcement of my plan. “Biryani from Hyderabad is too oily and spicy,” he warned, before I handed him my room key and picked up my pack to leave. “And Hyderabad is a very, very bad place. Why don’t you just order it at a restaurant here in Kerala?”
I scoffed to myself. This well-intentioned simpleton didn’t understand. Eating a Hyderabadi Dum Biryani in Kerala wouldn’t be the same as experiencing one in Hyderabad.
Furthermore, I had already tried to cancel my tickets, and they wouldn’t give me a refund.
And so I dashed through the Madurai railway station, leaping aboard my Chennai-bound train, and navigating to my seat in Carriage S3. As the train rattled out of the station,both the laws of government and reason quickly began to deteriorate.
The standard Indian Rail carriage is vaguely segmented into blue, metal grottos of opposing semi-soft, triple-tiered bunks—though it’s not unusual to find these six spots occupied by as many as fifteen people.
On the crowded berth across from me, a woman in an orange sari opened a tiffin box of idly rice cakes and curried sambar and tucked into breakfast. To my right, a younger boy with aggressively shiny pants cradled a cellphone, which belched out a regrettably loud, Low-Fi recording of an old Bollywood classic, replete with plinking sitars and the wailing voice of a desi starlet. Peering through the prison-style window bars, an old man with thick glasses watched as the city gave way to dusty, Hoover-ville slums of corrugated tin, palm-thatch, and dirty, blue tarps. On occasion, small mountains of burning garbage would blur past, sending acrid plumes of smoke whipping through the carriage. And then, civilization faded into endless fields of yellow crops, stitched with lush palm trees, and in the distance, the undulating purple hills of Tamil Nadu.
Then the train rattled into a station, and the raucous, ghetto circus began.
The carriage doors slammed open as a dozen wide-eyed vendors bounded aboard, frantically screaming their wares at startled passengers, flailing buckets of bottled drinks, candy, bags of chips, and sweet-smelling trays of street food. Other, less practical vendors were rigged with enormous, colorfully grand displays of objects nobody would ever need or want on a train ride: overtly religious coloring books, industrial boxes of elastic bands, epileptic L.E.D. balls, a plastic squirt gun (the young boy only had one), and key-chains with cliché inspirational quotes floating over incongruous pictures of babies.
“Biryani! Biryani! Biryani!”
I was Pavlov’s Dog, suddenly drooling at the word. Despite my snowballing obsession, I shook my head—I was saving myself for Hyderabad. Instead, I tossed a few rupees to a samosa vendor, and he handed me a crispy, stuffed pastry. The train lurched forward, and the screaming vendors stampeded for the door, tripping over suitcases and gracelessly leaping through the air with their flopping displays, before tumbling onto the receding platform.
This same anarchic scene repeated with clockwork regularity at every single station all the way to Chennai, as well as on the long, overnight Charminar Express train to Hyderabad. Only after 10PM did the belligerent vendors stalk home, leaving us to our sleepy, beckoning berths and the soothing clatter of the tracks.
“GARAM CHAI, GARAM CHAI, GARAM CHAI, GARAM CHAI!”
Except the chai-wallahs.
“GARAM CHAI, GARAM CHAI–”
If Indian trains had an ambient soundtrack, it would be the perpetual roar of the engine, the disembodied banshee-shriek of an infant, thunderous and pervasive flatulence, and the constant, nasally drone of “Garam chai, Garam chai,” uttered by scrawny men lugging thermoses of hot tea. This eternal wall of noise persists at all hours of the day, no matter what.
“GARAM CHAI, GARAM CHAI, GARAM CHAI, GARAM CHAI–”
It’s like The Tell Tale Heart, eventually even permeating your dreams. Except, you eventually realize that its not your dreams, and that there’s actually an Indian man standing over your berth at four in the morning, screaming “GARAM CHAI,” as he unsuccessfully tries to hawk caffeinated tea to a carriage full of sleeping passengers.
An ‘essential experience’ like this can easily drive a person to suicide, so I’ve learned it’s best to come prepared with patience, a sense of humor, and a liberal supply of Tramadol—it’s just a grade below liquid morphine. Tramadol makes you overly euphoric to stare blankly at the wall for nine hours, as beggars tug at your pant leg and babies screech into your bleeding ears. Like many travelers, I find this the perfect antidote for the bad acid trip of Indian Public Transportation.
Clap, Clap, Stamp!
I was floating on a cloud of chemical Zen, grinning dumbly at the pink, rising sun, when I heard it.
Clap, Clap, Stamp!
The hijra had arrived—a caste of India’s anomalous ‘third gender.’They’re essentially low-budget drag queen beggars—terrifying creatures of purple mascara and scruffy stubble, who insist on receiving payment for performing this service. While I give them a ‘D’ for effort, they garner an ‘A’ for entertainment value, strutting about the carriage and shouting with all the horrible charisma of Vegas show hosts.
A toothless one with cherry-red lipstick and hairy knuckles singled me out, theatrically clapping her hands like an angry Flamenco dancer, stamping her foot, and then thrusting her furry hand in my face. “Money!”
I stared blankly, overwhelmed, soaring on opiates, to which the other Indian passengers found great amusement.
The hijra huffed. Clap, Clap, Stamp! And then, “Money!”
The Indian men giggled like children, fishing out ten rupee notes to shower upon the haggard transvestite, before she lumbered off to harass the next carriage.
I gazed out the window as we chugged into the outer-city slums of Hyderabad, past unmarked ‘toilet fields’ where the bedraggled poor tip-toed over fecal landmines to perform their morning business. Then colors appeared—bright, pastel apartment blocks and glass shopping malls. A giant red and white sign of block letters cheerily announced: “HYDERABADI DUM BIRYANI,” to which I nearly crawled out the window, had it not been for the metal bars.
I was buoyant—but this excitement was tempered by anxiety. What if it’s not amazing? What if this was all just a colossal waste of time? I felt like I was heading to a blind date, or an important job interview. I sank into my seat, as crumbling concrete and spray-painted city-sprawl flitted past the window, and the train rumbled in to the urban belly of Hyderabad…
To read the second half of the story, continue on to “A Hyderabad Idea, Part Two: Paradise on My Plate“
For another foolhardy foodie adventure, follow me to the spiciest hotpot restaurant in the world in Chongqing, China, in “Sichuan Lava Cuisine & The Top Four Most Common Myths about Spicy Food”