Indian Cuisine Fit For Royalty


Say “biriyani” and Azhar Bhatt’s eyes light up. Biriyani is the dish most prized in Hyderabad, the city in India where he was born.

Biriyani was one of the dishes I tasted recently at the home of Azhar and his wife Rubina Rafi. Although both were born in Hyderabad and grew up in Saudi Arabia, it was not until they came to the U.S. that they met and wed. Azhar came here when he was in 11th grade and then received his bachelors and masters degrees and works as a computer programmer. Rubina came to do her bachelors in biology at NYIT and is now studying to take her MCAT exam for medical school. They have lived in Westbury with their three young daughters since 2008.

Rubina Rafi and Azhar Bhatt with their eldest daughter Zaara with a meal of Hyderbadian specialties.
Rubina Rafi and Azhar Bhatt with their eldest daughter Zaara with a meal of Hyderbadian specialties.

Hyderabad, in southern India, competes with Bangalore and Channai as the center of IT in India. Both Microsoft and Google have their India headquarters there.

But before the invasion of modern technology, there were the Muslim mughals with the first mughal emperor, Babur, a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. Afterward, the Hindu nizams ruled Hyderabad from 1719 until 1948, the year after the British left India. The nizams favored Persian culture, which became central to the Hyderabadi identity. They were among the wealthiest people in the world (the last nizam had been the world’s richest man) and were fond patrons of literature, art, architecture, culture, jewelry and rich food. It is said that the nizams spent more time on culinary matters than on battle strategy.

This history has led to a composite culture with Hindu and Muslim customs, mingled with Arab, Persian and Turkish influences leading to delicious food. Hyderabad cuisine is a blend of north and south Indian ingredients—chilies and cumin seeds of the north are mixed with mustard leaves from the south. A sour taste is prized. Says Azhar, “If you try a curry and its sour, it’s from Hyderabad.” The sourness came from ingredients such as tamarind fruit and leaves, lemon, raw mango, under-ripe grapes and pomegranate.

Biriyani was the star of the meal. Biriyani is a Persian word meaning fired or roasted rice. In Indian it has come to mean rice roasted with meat, spices and herbs. There is a real art to cooking biriyani properly. Marinated meat and partly cooked rice are placed in a pot together in a sealed pot. Timing is everything and the rice and meat must be ready at the same time. Also important is that the grains of rice remain unbroken and separate and should have absorbed the flavorful stock. Also on the tables were meatballs in a creamy sauce; ground beef cooked with coconut, almonds and turmeric; and eggplant curry. The meal was rounded out with chapatis and yogurt. Definitely worthy of the attention of a nizam.

Bagare Baigan (Eggplant Curry)

Since the preparation of biriyani requires some advanced cooking skills, I’m not including a recipe for it here but there are certainly plenty of recipes on the Internet and in cookbooks for the bold cook to experiment with. For the starter-Indian chef, this eggplant curry is a great with rice or chapatis. Eggplant is a popular ingredient throughout India and this preparation, called Bagare Baigan, got its sourness from tamarind juice.

4-6 eggplant
1/2 tbsp red chili powder
1/2 turmeric powder
1 tbsp ginger & garlic paste
1/2 cup tamarind juice (Imli ka
6-8 curry leaves
Coriander leaves fine chopped.
1 tsp garam masala
1/2 cup oil
salt to taste
1 1/2 cup fried onions
2 tbsp sesame seeds
2 tbsp peanuts
4 tbsp coconut powder
2 tbsp cumin seeds
2 tbsp mustard seeds

1. Clean and cut the eggplants in quarters.
2. Take a non-stick pan and dry roast at medium heat, sesame seeds, peanuts, poppy seeds, coconut powder, 1 tbsp cumin seeds, 1 tbsp mustard seeds separately until the color starts changing. Grind the roasted ingredients to make a fine paste. A little water can be used to bring the desired consistency.
3. Shallow fry the eggplants in a pot until the eggplant starts changing color. Remove the eggplant from the oil and put aside.
4. Add 1 tbsp cumin seed, 1 tbsp mustard seeds in the pot with left over oil. After they start spluttering, add curry leaves and ginger-garlic paste. In a minute add the fine paste from step 2 and tamarind juice and stir it. Add red chilli powder, turmeric powder, salt, garam masala and mix well. After 10 minutes of cooking on medium heat and frequent stirring add the eggplants and chopped coriander.
5. Leave the pot on low heat until a thin layer of oil starts separating on the top. Stirring occasionally ensures the masala doesn’t get stuck and burnt at the bottom of the pot. A little water can be added for the thick gravy consistency if the gravy gets too dry.

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