A Hyderabad Idea, Part Two: Paradise on My Plate
Black columns of smoke curled over the old city of Hyderabad, mingling in heat with the screams of rioters.
THOOMP! The police fired a tear gas canister into the knife-wielding mob, prompting another wave of projectile bricks and stones.
“Excuse me!” I shouted, “Can you tell me where’s the best Dum Biryani restaurant around here?”
“What!” screamed Amjad.
“Where is the best place to eat Hyderabadi Dum Biryani!”
“Shadabh is where most tourists go,” he cried.
He pointed a remote at the deafening television and click, the screaming mob went mute and the small Tourist Booking office fell silent. “It’s right near there,” he said, pointing to the television, where the flickering mob waved swords over a burning motorcycle. “You can get there by rickshaw,” he nodded. “But do you want to die?”
I considered this for a moment.
Over the past thirty-four hours, I had traveled five hundred grueling miles by train just for an authentic bowl of Hyderabadi Dum Biryani. I was accosted for money by toothless transvestites. I calmly watched as a small girl in the train station dropped her underwear and defecated before my feet. I rode a metal bus as colorful and rickety as a bad carnival ride, desperately praying for my life each time the screaming bus driver swerved into oncoming traffic. No, I did not want to die, but considering the circumstances, I wasn’t about to give up at the finish line—even if there was a mob of brick-chucking Hindus in my way.
I understood that I could have just ordered the dish from the safety of any restaurant in Malabar or Delhi, but it’s a simple fact of travel that Food tastes better at its source. A plate of Penne Alfredo tastes best in the romantic warrens of Rome. Pork dumplings are best served in a steaming, bamboo basket, handed through the window of a Chinese bus by a smiling old woman in a rice hat. And the best way to enjoy a crispy, cheesy slice of pizza is on a bustling sidewalk, beneath the soaring skyscrapers of Manhattan. It’s in these seemingly commonplace moments—biting into a samosa served by a screaming vendor on a clattering Indian train—that Food and location align, and the true essence of a culture is illuminated.
If you’re unfamiliar with the gastronomic marvel that is Hyderabadi Dum Biryani, I might describe it as a fragrant orgy of basmati rice, saffron, ghee, curd, onions, cilantro, chili, and spices, married in a pot with raw mutton that’s been marinated for over a day in yoghurt and spices. The pot is then sealed airtight with dough, and slow-cooked over charcoal for several hours, allowing the aromatic flavors to mingle. It’s a similar culinary tradition to American Barbecue—humble cuisines of explosive taste, born from regions where locals have little better to do than devote eight-plus hours to watching things cook.
The riot had begun when a group of Hindus discovered ‘beef and green color’ in their local temple, and immediately pursued the first reasonable plan of action one would think of: find the nearest Muslims, and smash them with bricks. The ensuing brawl escalated to knife fighting, arson, a couple fatalities, and most grievously of all, it forced me to disembark my train prematurely, in the hyperbolic shithole of Secunderabad, far outside the lawless downtown.
Shielding my eyes as I trudged out of the station, it took me several moments to realize that what at first appeared to be an occupied landfill, was instead a city, and that those weren’t piles of garbage I was looking at, but in fact grimy, rotting buildings. Amidst the simmering heat and honking traffic, leagues of skeletal beggars and wretched cripples groveled on sidewalks buried under food wrappers and rancid garbage. The biting smell caused my eyes to water, and I fought to breath through my mouth, sucking in hot gulps of exhaust and pollution fumes. Just remembering it now, I must thoroughly wash my hands.
And then I saw it, directly across the street, emblazoned with massive letters like a beacon of hope: “Hyderabadi Dum Biryani.” My stomach growled and my spirit soared. I glided across the street, doing happy cartwheels through a gauntlet of human suffering that would make even the beggars of Delhi nervous.
“Dum Biryani!” I salivated to the greasy man watching the door. He gestured me into a filthy, claustrophobic room, where I was seated at a wobbly table littered with decaying food scraps and crumbs. He then hobbled off to the kitchen, leaving me to take mental inventory of my two-year supply of antibiotics, pondering whether it would be advisable to eat them all at once.
The grungy chef reappeared a minute later and unceremonious plopped a metal dish on my table. Through wisps of steam, I gazed upon a mound of yellowed rice, stippled with curry leaves and crude chunks of ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom. As I dipped my right hand into the Biryani, distant angels sang and glorious trumpets swooned, and I lifted a scalding handful to my mouth.
It wasn’t bad.
It was awful. I was chewing on stale, scorching grains of cardboard—all the flavors had perished in the radiation blast of the microwave; this biryani was easily a day old. I lifted another grim handful and uncovered (to my horror) an emaciated, sickly chicken breast. I tried to imagine what butcher would even sell such a diseased-looking bird, before concluding that it must have been scavenged from the side of the road, where it had died a cancerous death amidst the garbage.
Then my eyes shot open as an abusive wave of chili kicked me in the face. Rivers of sweat erupted from every pore, my lips numbed, and my palette ignited in an overwhelming inferno of pain. I forced down a third bite before pushing the plate forward and tossing a few rupee notes on the table. My foodie pilgrimage wouldn’t end like this.
“I think you should go to Paradise,” said Amjad, swiveling behind his booking desk. “It’s where locals go and it might be hard to find, but if you want Dum Biryani, this is the best in India.”
I thanked him as he scrawled some directions on a paper scrap, and a minute later I was dashing down the streets, with only two hours to find ‘Persis Paradise Biryani’ before catching my return-ticket train.
As I wandered deeper into the Muslim backstreets, I imagined Persis Paradise as a time-honored hole in the wall, overflowing with families and blue-collared Muslims in robes with Fez hats. But reaching the intersection circled by Amjad, I stopped dead in my tracks. Towering seven stories over the surrounding city blocks, Persis Paradise was a blinking fortress of neon, glass, and polished chrome. I made my way through the grand entrance, past posh, artificial waterfalls, and a thorough, pat-down security check. I then followed a gilded hallway to an elevator, where I ogled helplessly at the confusing directory map, with floors labeled ‘Persis Silver,’ ‘Gold,’ and ’Platinum.’
“Gold,” nodded the wise elevator attendant.
“But what’s Persis Silver?” I asked, “And what’s Platinum?”
“Gold,” he repeated, and I boarded the elevator, following his advice.
When the doors slid open at floor two, I realized this was a mistake. I cowered before a five-star assault of white-linen, chandeliers, velour seat-cushions, and elegant, silk-upholstered ceilings. Speakers cooed classical music, and I looked down at my filthy-douchebag-backpacker’s uniform in shame, noticing the quarter-inch thick layer of grime on my skin. I suddenly felt like one of the street urchins. I turned to retreat before anyone else noticed, but a man in a tuxedo stopped me.
“Only one?” he uttered, bowing slightly.
I looked around. “Only one,” I said.
He then paraded me across the dining room for the smug amusement of the other upper class diners, and I tried my best not to touch anything. A moment later, another tuxedoed server appeared with a lime, a few sauces, and a beaten-copper dish of water. I stared at this assortment, bewildered as to its significance, not sure what one is expected to do with sauce, water, and a lime. It was like a bad sitcom. A nearby table chuckled.
Before I could embarrass myself any further, I was handed a leather menu, headlined with “Famous Hyderabadi Dum Biryani”—priced at an impossible 280 rupees (nearly double what I’d spend on a hotel room).
I swallowed hard. I was trapped.
I looked to the door. I had a clear shot. But maybe, just this one time, I could treat myself to something really nice. Maybe maintaining face and dignity would be worth splashing out a couple more bucks.
I made a red-faced retreat for the door.
“Yes, sir?” asked the Maître-d’, as I stalked past him.
“Oh, I just need to menfufubeufbss–” I mumbled, as I frantically pressed ‘Persis Silver,’ and the elevator doors closed behind me.
When the elevator doors reopened, I found garish blue polyester, padded metal chairs, cheap glassware, and a plaster ceiling. Old, moody sepia photographs of Hyderabad hung from the walls, but I cared little, because I hadn’t come for ambience. I came here for legendary Hyderabadi Dum Biryani.
And when it finally arrived at my table, it was perfectly golden-brown and mouth-wateringly aromatic, garnished with a pearly, hard-boiled egg.
The moment of truth. Weary and anxious, I took a bite.
Perhaps food-writer Mayur Sharma puts it best. “Life can be divided into two parts,” he wrote. “One before you ate here and the other after. Yes, it’s that good.”
For a long time I sat there, eyes closed, blindly shoveling Food into my open maw, making vaguely sexual noises as juicy mutton and a harem of spices performed wild fellatio on my taste buds. The ingredients were fresh and the capsaicin heat was perfect—eliciting a moderate sweat, but not compromising the bold, but delicate spices. The mutton was marinated and slow-cooked to perfection, literally falling off the bone as I lifted it from my plate. It was the most tender meat I had ever eaten, like the chewiest filet mignon, but with a superior flavor that I am powerless to describe.
The call of the muezzin echoed as I scraped the last grains of rice off my plate, and I glanced over at my camera and an open, empty notebook. I was planning on snapping a picture of me weeping over my biryani, and jotting some notes throughout the meal. But after the first glorious bite, all of this was forgotten.
So, all things considered, was it worth the journey?
But I’ve since convinced myself otherwise, and would do it again in a heartbeat. Food truly does taste better at its source. In the past sixty-four hours, I have learned that Hyderabadi Dum Biryani is best eaten with your hands, amidst blue polyester and the company of weathered-looking Muslims in white scull caps, listening to the evening call of the muezzin ring out from a thousand slender minarets, silhouetted as the smoldering sun casts its last rays, sinking over the crumbling city of Hyderabad.