Andhra Cuisine: A Symphony of Spices
The Krishna-Godavari basin and the people inhabiting it known as the Andhras, have featured in the political map of India since ancient times. Over time migrants and conquerors from the North have repeatedly arrived in the region resulting in a highly eclectic and cosmopolitan culture. The state of Andhra Pradesh has an extensive coastline and the sea has played a formative role in shaping the culture and civilization of this land. The cuisine of the region is a worthy example of this rich intermingling of influences.
The History: An overview
During the ancient period, the region around the Krishna-Godavari basin was ruled by prominent dynasties of peninsular India such as the Satavahanas, Ikshvakus, Pallavas, Cholas and Chalukyas. By the medieval period, incursions by rulers of Islamic dynasties of North India, brought in new elements of polity and culture to this region. The Delhi Sulatanate, the Qutb Shahis and the Mughals introduced Arabic, Turkish and Persian elements to the cultural fabric of this region. The process culminated in the kingdom of the Nizams of Hyderabad in the 18th century who developed a multifaceted and sophisticated aristocratic tradition. After the British arrived on the scene, Hyderabad became a princely state still ruled by the Nizams albeit with a subordinate status to the Imperial British empire. Hyderabad remained the capital of the modern state of Andhra Pradesh till 2014, when the north-western portion of the state was separated to carve out a new state called Telangana. Hyderabad now functions as the joint capital of both the states. The royal kitchens of the Nizams of Hyderabad developed a sophisticated cuisine which carefully combined novel culinary influences with native traditions. This culinary legacy is a shared heritage of both the states.
Geography and Staples
The state of Andhra Pradesh can be divided into two major geographical regions: the coastal belt on the east that runs along the Bay of Bengal, and the inner mainland on the west known as the Rayalaseema region. The coastal region is well endowed with river-systems and water bodies creating a fertile alluvial plain, while the inner mainland becomes progressively arid and hot. Andhra Pradesh is known for its hot and spicy cuisine. As one moves from the coastal area to the inner mainland, the cuisine also gets progressively spicier. The major rivers of the state are Krishna, Godavari, Tungabhadra and Pennar. The region receives ample rainfall and has witnessed the development of modern irrigation projects. Overall, the climate is hot and humid. This makes the topography ideally suited to the cultivation of rice. In fact, Andhra Pradesh is designated as the “Rice Bowl of India”. Rice crop also forms the staple of the region. However, in the arid regions of the inner mainland, sorghum and millet breads are widely consumed. Apart from rice, other major crops of the state include, bajra, jowar, ragi, maize, millets and pulses. The coastal region has a flourishing fishing industry.
Andhra Bhojanam: Features and Signature Dishes
An Andhra bhojanam is a happy amalgamation of spicy, tangy and sweet flavours. While the individual components of an Andhra platter may vary depending on the region, Andhra cooking has certain unique characteristics that sets it apart from other cuisines. The use of spices to induce strong flavours and impart an intense character to the food is an important feature. One of the most celebrated and ubiquitous spices of the region are chillies. The Guntur chilly is world famous for its heat and pungency. Several signature Andhra dishes make use of copious amounts of chillies. Another predominant ingredient is the curry leaf which is added in generous amounts to the food. The use of spices in Andhra cuisine is a symphony of careful balancing that gradually titillates your palate. The spices also help to excite your stomach and work up your appetite.
The coastal platter involves a variety of curries involving sea-food that are relished with rice. Freshly grated coconut or coconut milk is added to the gravies to balance out the pungency imparted by spices. The northernmost part of Andhra Pradesh, also known as Uttarandhra, makes wide use of jaggery and fenugreek in its dishes. The food of the Rayalaseema region is distinct for the use of copious amounts of chilly powder and exhibits influence from neighbouring Tamil Nadu and Karantaka. Ragi constitutes one of the staples of this region. The Nellore region boasts of its own distinctive style of cooking. The Nellore-style Biryani and Nellore-style Dosa are popular specialities. Nellore is also well known for its exquisite varieties of shrimps.
The Andhra culinary repertoire involves an incredible variety of vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian dishes. One of the quintessential dishes of the cuisine is Pappu or dal. While dal is an almost ubiquitous dish in the Indian culinary spread, cutting across regions, the Andhra Pappu has its own distinctive flavour. Pappus can be distinguished from other dals by their thick consistency and the use of native spices and herbs. The seasoning is separately prepared and then added to the cooked dal. Some of the most popular varieties are, Tomato Pappu, Kooda or Spinach Pappu, Gongura or Red Sorrel Leaf Pappu and Beerakaya or Ridge Gourd Pappu. A creamy morsel of Pappu mixed with rice can provide comforting interludes between savouring the spicy dishes of the Andhra cuisine. Apart from Pappu, rice is also accompanied by signature stews of Andhra Pradesh known as Pulusu, enjoyed predominantly in the coastal region. The characteristic sourness of this dish is added by tamarind. Pulusus can be prepared using a variety of vegetables such as tomato, drumsticks, eggplant and gourd, or with non-vegetarian items such as fish, prawns, chicken and mutton. A common accompaniment to a meal is Charu, an Andhra version or Rasam or a watery soup typically brewed out of tamarind and spices.
Eggplant is one of the most favoured ingredients of Andhra cuisine and is used to prepare delicacies such as Gutti Vankaya Koora or tender eggplant stuffed with a mixture of grated coconut, peanuts and spices, simmered in a light gravy. Eggplant is also used to make a traditional Andhra chutney called Pachadi. An Andhra meal is in fact deemed incomplete without a Pachadi. These are also prepared out of tomato, gongura, ridge gourd, mango, lentils etc. Complementing the spicy repertoire of Andhra dishes are delectable pickles which the state is famous for. Traditional Andhra pickles are known as Avakaaya, the classic being the Mamidi Avakaaya or mango pickle. Other popular varieties are Usirikaya (gooseberry) Avakaaya and Nimmakaya (lemon) Avakaaya. Appadums or papads add a crunchy and appetizing note to an Andhra meal. An integral part of the platter is Majjiga (Buttermilk) or Perugu (Yogurt) that provides the much-needed respite from the spicy food as well as the hot climate.
The Royal Cuisine of the Nizam Shahis
A discussion of Andhra cuisine is incomplete without exploring its royal cusine. What more befitting tribute can a state pay to its food, than having it as a part of its royal insignia? The flag of the Asaf Jahi dynasty constitutes a yellow background with a white disc at the centre. It is believed that the white circle represents a kulcha (a type of Indian flatbread). The legend goes that Mir Qamar-ud-Din Siddiqi or Asaf Jah I, the Mughal viceroy of Deccan under Aurangzeb, once visited the sufi saint Nizamuddin Aulia and shared a meal with him. When Asaf Jah could not finish his share of food, he packed the remaining kulchas in a yellow piece of cloth. In the course of the meal, the saint prophesized that Asaf Jah I and his descendants would rule over the Deccan for seven generations. The viceroy eventually broke free from the Mughal empire and laid the foundation of the royal house of the Nizams of Hyderabad. It is said that the official flag of the Asaf Jahi dynasty was designed as a tribute to the saint Nizamuddin Aulia who blessed the foundation of the kingdom.
The Nizams of Hyderabad were patrons of fine dining and oversaw the emergence of a sophisticated culinary culture under their rule. Being an offshoot of the Mughals, they brought with them culinary customs and techniques which had already reached a refined state in the Mughal kitchens, and combined them with the existing Deccani traditions to produce yet another distinctive mix. Pir Ali, a celebrated royal cook under the Nawab of Awadh, is said to have migrated to Hyderabad after the British take-over, and found patronage under the Nizam. Under the Qutb Shahis and the Nizams, a profuse amount of meat dishes was introduced to the local cuisine. The Nizami Dastarkhwan included Kebas, Kormas and countless varieties of barbequed and curried meats. The exotic melt-in-the-mouth Shikampuri Kebab with a filing of yogurt, and the Boti Kebabs or succulent pieces of meat marinated in select spices, are winning hearts in the region to this day. Patthar-ka-Gosht or lamb roasted on a slab of stone is a well-known Hyderabadi delicacy which is believed to have had its origins in age-old techniques of preparing meat in the Middle East. The Hyderabadi Dum-ka-Murgh is a rich delicacy prepared out of chicken marinated with a mélange of spices and slow cooked in a creamy gravy of ground cashew and yogurt. Dum, is a slow-cooking technique which is also believed to have its origins in the Middle East. Under the Nizams, the rich Mughlai dishes were adapted to the native style by adding ingredients such as tamarind, curry leaf and chillies to them. Chugur Gosht or lamb cooked with tender tamarind leaves is a unique Hyderabadi recipe that clearly demonstrates such fusion at work. The use of banana leaf is also an indigenous Andhra tradition. The Hyderabadi Haleem is a creamy stew prepared out of minced meats, lentils and pounded wheat and barley. The popularity of this dish has led to it being awarded with the prestigious GI (geographical indication) tag. This dish becomes an integral part of the menu during the holy month of Ramzan.
The Iconic Hyderabadi Biryani
The Hyderabadi Dum Biryani is a signature dish of Andhra Pradesh that enjoys wide popularity both within the region and beyond. In fact, for outsiders, a Hyderabadi Biryani is often one’s first introduction to the Andhra cuisine. While the Indian subcontinent is home to numerous varieties of Biryanis such as the Awadhi, Kolkata-style, Malabar and Thalassery, to mention a few, the Hyderabadi Biryani stands on its own with its distinctive flavour imparted by a careful play of spices. Such is the dynamic nature of this dish that it is believed that in the kitchen of the Nizam itself more than 50 varieties of Biryani were prepared. Being a wholesome dish, Biryani was also a favoured dish for royal entourages that were constantly on the move. Hyderabadi Dum Biryani can be prepared using chicken, lamb, shrimps and even vegetables.
The Biryani can be divided into two types: Kacchi Biryani wherein the meat is marinated overnight before being layered with rice and cooked under pressure, and Pakki Biryani in which the meat is marinated for a small period of time and then cooked separately before being added to the rice. It is, however, the spices rather than the meat that lends the Hyderabadi Biryani its unmistakable characteristic flavour. While most of the spices are drawn from a common pool of garam masala popular in the Indian subcontinent such as cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, nutmeg, mace, anise and so on, it is the proportion in which these spices are mixed that creates the real magic. While the Awadhi Biryani (also having Mughal roots) is also based on a careful blend of spices, the aim therein is to achieve a subtle and delicate flavour. The Hyderabadi Biryani on the other hand has a distinctive bold tenor. Apart from the Hyderabadi Biryani, Andhra Pradesh also boasts of several regional varieties of Dum Biryani, one of the most well-known being the Nellore-style Biryani in which small pieces of pineapple are added to impart a unique tart note to the dish.
Traditionally, the desserts of Andhra Pradesh adorn the menu on special occasions such as seasonal festivals, weddings and celebrations. Poornam Boorelu or Poornalu is one such festive dish prepared by frying dumplings of chana dal mixed with jaggery, and coated in a urad dal and rice flour batter. Pootharekulu, also known as the paper sweet, is a unique dessert native to the town of Atreyapuram in Andhra Pradesh. This delicacy is prepared by skillfully crafting paper-thin sheets out of a batter of rice and gram flour and then coating them with ghee and jaggery. Ariselu is another festive sweet prepared by frying dumplings of rice-flour, ghee and jaggery, garnished with sesame seeds. The royal Hyderabadi fare comes with its own repertoire of rich and exquisite desserts. Some of the most celebrated ones are Khubani-ka-Meetha (an apricot based dessert), Double-ka-Meetha or Shahi Tukde (fried pieces of bread dipped in condensed milk and spices) and Sheer Khurma (a rich vermicelli pudding with dates, dry fruits and spices).