Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Andhra Food: A Spicy Bone of Contention

Andhra food is a matter of pride. Every Hyderbadi I know defends the food of his or her native land with zealous and slightly insane pride. It is deadly to mention that you have partaken of biryani in a Hyderabadi's presence. "What kind of biryani?" they will ask as they move in closer to you, a look of growing insanity in their eye.

"A biryani biryani, with meat in it," may seem to be the correct answer. But of course, it is not.

You must reply "Hyderabadi biryani," and furthermore, the biryani must have hailed from a reputed restaurant or source of such. (They may be found overseas, but they are rare).

If the biryani is not Hyderabadi, or not vetted - well, so much for you. "How can you eat hat crap?" your Andhra friend will say. "We have got the best biryani, the best food in India, the world, and you subject yourself to that swill? What kind of a fool are you anyway?" After the verbal abuse, the Hyderbadi will inevitably whip out a pen and paper and write down the names of at least four or five places in which one can find real Hyderabadi biryani, and will cluck a few times in sorrow and horror. And then they will send you on your way.

And the people of Andhra Pradesh really do earn their bragging rights. There is the vaunted biryani, of course, but there is more to Andhra food then that. The cuisine is extremely sophisticated, has a long history, and involves a profusion of excellent local ingredients, including fresh dairy, fresh seafood and vegetables, and tons of blow-your-face-off hot green chilies. Andhra food today is a synthesis of local food - not dissimilar to that of the rest of South India - and the Mughlai food brought by the old time rulers of still predominantly Muslim Hyderabad. Rice and lentils are the main carbohydrates on offer, although papad (lentil crackers) are also popular. In Telgana, Western Andhra Pradesh, people even eat uppudi hindi or broken rice, a dish more commonly associated with Indochina. Pickles and chutneys come in a bazillion different forms and are considered entirely integral to a good Andhra style meal. The people of Andhra's coast lines prefer coconut and sesame oils to ghee and palm oils - it's a flavor that's pretty easy to detect in many of the region's speciality foods.

My favorite expression of the region's culinary genius comes in the form of Andhra "carrier meals."

A carrier meal is exactly what it sounds like. You are given a banana leaf, and a bunch of little thali dishes, composed of some form of vegetable and dahi and ghee and sambar. Then, a man comes around carrying a few metal pots, in which are contained the day's dishes. These are usually some form of rather bitter daal, a stir-fried vegetable, and something involving potato. Another man comes by to provide you with papad (lentil crackers), roti, and rice, with a dollop of liquid ghee to top it off. To supplement the meal, most non-vegetarians order some spicy (and bright red) fish fry, or perhaps a fish curry, or maybe even some of Andra's beloved fried chicken. The food keeps on coming until you tell it to stop or keel over, whichever comes first. Andra restaurants are usually busy and social establishments, with a mix of businessmen and women, families, and random hangers on (like myself), all eating ferociously with their right hands and shouting happily at each other over matters of great import. The carrier meals at lunch are usually scandalously cheap. 200 rupees is pushing it.


Bheema's
Asha Building,
Ground Floor,
31, Church Street,
Bangalore - 560 001




Bheemas is located on Church Street, and is a favorite haunt of Bangalore's umpteen downtown IT Professionals (whatever that means). Like everywhere else in India, it is a deserted ghost town until about 1:00 sharp, wherin it almost instantly fills up with the famished and highly paid. Like all Andhra style food, Bheema's serves up its veg carrier meals on a banana leaf - and eating with your hands is pretty much mandatory.

I ordered the carrier meal. Everyone orders the carrier meal. It's 225 rupees for a constantly-replinished spread of Andhra dishes, and it's even (theoretically) somewhat healthy. The stir-fried vegetables are tasty. The daal was a bit bitter for me - I like Nagarjuna's version better.



Buttermilk and curd served with a little bit of chili, salt, and onion. It's amazing how refreshing buttermilk can be in hot weather. There's also a sweet dessert of vermicelli with milk and lots of sugar. Papad and rice are mandatory. You can get some liquid ghee drizzled on the rice or not, your choice.



Apparently this is not sambar but is in fact charu, which is...pretty much the same thing. Don't ask me.



I also ordered aloo gobi, which turned out to be both excellent and not needed considering the amount of food already on offer. Still, a lovely representative of a dry dish that is often man-handled.



Nagarjuna Residency



Nagarjuna is an institution in Bangalore. The firm runs at least four or five other restaurants and a hotel besides, and it's attractively outfitted dining rooms turn into total nut houses around lunchtime. The guys carrying the carrier-meals look harried, but the food is totally worth it, featuring spices ground fresh daily and obviously intensely fresh dairy, vegetable, and fish products. This is definitely Andhra food at its best, and you're missing out on an essential Bangalore culinary experience if you don't make it over here. I love the tomato-sesame oil prepared chutney that's served with the veg and the daal here a lot . It's probably awful for you. Whatever.



I wanted the roast fish but they didn't comprehend this madness and brought me fried fish instead. Which was excellent, so much the better. No bones here, just tasty and perfectly cooked meat in a spicy and crispy filling. Excellent.



If you ever wondered where they get the banana leaves, the bug fuck insaneBangalore central market may provide an answer. They're purchased in bulk from various leaf sellers, who probably keep up banana leaf plantations somewhere or another in the tropical countryside. I like to think they are scrupulously washed prior to use. It's nicer that way.

1 comment:

  1. You didn't have the chicken biriyani (Size Large) at Nagarjuna? That's a crime. Chicken biriyani + fish fry is the staple order when we visit + plain rice & rasam to wash it down with! Btw, the Nagarjuna biriyani (or the one's you find in Bheema, RR, Nandini etc) is infinitely (ok, at least vastly) superior to the Hyderabadi biriyani you actually get in Hyderabad. So we distinguish this as the Andhra biriyani as opposed to the Hyderabadi.

    p.s. I think you mean 'saaru', not charu. That's what we call sambar, same difference.

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