Growing up as part of the fast-food generation, I never paid heed to how food ended up on my plate. It just did.
I love to eat, but you probably won’t find me drooling over episodes of MasterChef Australia. Until fairly recently, when people asked if I could cook, I usually made light of it. “Not really, but I probably could if I tried,” I would say. “It can’t be that hard.” A trip to Aurangabad proved me wrong.
Having tired of visits to Mumbai’s Mohammed Ali Road every year, I was looking for a new feast during Ramzan. Last year, when I made a biking trip to Aurangabad during the holy month, I decided to ask Chef Gerard D’Souza, a long-time resident of the city, to join us as an informal food guide for an evening. A chef with the Taj Group of Hotels and dean of teaching and learning at Aurangabad’s Institute of Hotel Management, Chef D’Souza agreed. He has tasted all that Aurangabad has to offer, and watched the city’s palate evolve. Nearly every restaurateur and food stall owner knows him, at least by face.
Aurangabad has long outgrown its roots as Aurangzeb’s capital, but the gargantuan gates scattered across the city are indelible reminders of the Mughal era. “Even though Aurangabad was once a Mughal capital, it was never really a lavish place,” Chef D’Souza explained, as we drove through crowded, smoky streets to Buddi Galli, weaving past unruly rickshaws and seemingly suicidal men on two-wheelers. “It was more of a military base with a workmanlike culture, and you can see that amongst the people even today.” None of the buildings were more than three storeys tall. Unlike Mumbai’s obsession with craning necks upward, Aurangabad seemed happy to evolve in its own time. Its attitude towards food turned out to be quite similar.
It was iftar time, and Buddi Galli, on the outskirts of the city, glowed neon green, blue, yellow, and red. Marinated chickens on long skewers at a stall nearby sat waiting to be cooked in the tandoor. They were coloured bright orange. This was a trick, Chef D’Souza said, originally used by highway dhaba owners to attract the attention of truckers. Even so, the chickens were just barely visible amid Buddi Galli’s sea of loud colours. Men sat on long rows of tables set on the street, breaking bread after the day’s fast. Most were engrossed in their food, pausing occasionally to lick their fingers. Others with their plates wiped clean chatted loudly, frequently erupting into raucous laughter. I looked around, savouring intermittent wafts of freshly-baked sheermal (saffron-infused, slightly sweet naan) and spicy gravies. It struck me as odd that almost all the boards on the food stalls seemed to be advertising food from a different part of the country—Hyderabadi haleem, Lucknowi kebabs, Indore jalebis, and most amusingly for me, Bandra falooda.
Despite all these culinary imports, Aurangabad’s staple food has been the same since the days of the Tughlaq dynasty, especially among the Muslim communities that form more than half of the population. Naankhaliya is a simple dish that was born from necessity. “For several centuries, during the Tughlaq and Mughal eras, Aurangabad was a military base due to its strategic location on the Deccan Plateau,” explained D’Souza. “There were large numbers of soldiers who needed nourishing food. The catch was that fires for cooking couldn’t be lit at night, because that would give away outpost locations. That’s when they came up with the idea of slow-cooking curries in a tandoor all day, so they were ready to serve by evening.” The fiery-red curry has chunks of meat in it (usually beef), and is served with naan or sheermal. Spicy, nourishing, and filling in equal measure, it’s a fixture on every wedding menu in Aurangabad even today. I found it incredibly hard to wrap my head around the concept of waking up early in the morning to start cooking dinner. I can barely get myself to make breakfast. I felt an odd pang of guilt as I dipped my naan into the curry.
I felt considerably better about ordering plates of kebabs, though. Amidst the standard fare of chicken tikka and reshmi kebabs, the beef seekh kebabs stood out. They were deliciously soft, yet crisp at the same time, with a tangy lingering spice; the best I had ever eaten. In the midst of my fifth kebab, a sign across the road boasting of “Aurangabad beef biryani” caught my eye. Chef D’Souza warned me not to expect a traditional biryani. Although it’s advertised as biryani, most eateries in the city serve a cross between pulao and fried rice. It seems to be the way people like their rice here. “Over the last couple of decades, Aurangabad has started taking famous dishes from other parts of the country and the world, and reinventing them to suit local tastes,” D’Souza said. “Everything is a bit spicier, heavier, and more in your face.”
The slow-cooked naankhaliya was born in Aurangabad, but the city’s most popular snack is an amusing international import. Served at eateries across the city, “Aurangabad Cantukky” is a tribute to Kentucky Fried Chicken. We stepped into Sagar Restaurant, one of the oldest in Buddi Galli, to try a plate. The crispy, fried chicken was actually nothing like the American version whose name it echoed. It had a spicy, smoky flavour, somewhere in between Amritsari chicken and fish koliwada, and a satisfying crunch with each bite.
While most of Buddi Galli’s delicacies are available all-year round, haleem, associated with Hyderabad’s Nizams, is an indulgence limited to Ramzan. It seemed to be well advertised on every menu board. As we made to order a plate, D’Souza pointed out, slightly disapprovingly, that what they served in Buddi Galli wasn’t real haleem, but actually harees, a less lavish version of the real thing, made with the addition of lentils, from a recipe borrowed from West Asia. It seemed rude to refuse a day’s worth of cooking, but we were there for the real deal. We found it at Himayat Bagh, a few kilometres away.
The melee of Buddi Galli was far behind when we stopped at a forlorn stall seemingly in the middle of nowhere, run by a man known popularly as Munna Bhai. His haleem stall was open only during Ramzan. A man wearing a prayer cap sat perched atop a giant clay oven, stirring the contents with an implement that looked like a long, wooden oar. The process of making haleem begins early in the morning, when the beef and wheat are placed in the clay oven along with dozens of spices, and ground to a fine paste for several hours. The mixture is slow-cooked for the rest of the day, stirred every few hours. The consistency varies depending on how well it’s ground—the thicker, the better. I received a bowl of the gooey brown ground beef, which, although piping hot, had a consistency similar to ice cream. Topped with onions that seemed almost sweet, coriander, and a dangerous amount of ghee poured from a kettle, it was beef like I’d never imagined it—thick, bordering on creamy, with what seemed like a million different spices on a tour of my taste buds. I was surprised by how light it was. Another hallmark of good haleem, the Chef said. It had taken half a day to prepare, but my bowl was over in minutes, and I greedily asked for seconds. It was followed by Munna Bhai’s signature desserts—mango rabdi, doodhi halwa, and apricots with cream.
Having had a few starters, a couple of main courses and three desserts, it seemed strange that we were only halfway through our meal. I willed my stomach to hold on as we made for our final stop at Roshan Gate—named after Aurangzeb’s sister Roshanara—in the heart of the city. The buzz in the streets and markets was akin to Buddi Galli, but the iftar crowds had dispersed. Kebabs seemed to be the main attraction, with skewers and smoke everywhere I looked. A man behind a little cart with no board stood frying tiny kebabs, with customers clamouring hungrily around him. They were called tikki kebabs, made from beef, onions and potatoes—a take on Lucknow’s galauti kebabs. Five or six kebabs were stuffed into a pao and handed to me. I stared at the miniature heart attack I held in my hands and bit into it before I could reconsider. Spicy, with a hint of coriander, the kebabs melted in my mouth, but their piquancy still lingered in the flavour-soaked bread. I asked for another. Twelve kebabs and two pieces of pao later, I was bewildered to find I had to pay a paltry ₹25.
D’Souza began to explain how melt-in-mouth kebabs became symbols of grandeur in the post-Mughal era. The aristocrats in Lucknow and Hyderabad in those days were so eccentric they believed that chewing was a menial chore. They believed only slaves deserved to chew their food. The cooks were almost forced to create tender kebabs so that they could keep their heads.
Our culinary exploits for the night were brought to a close by a dessert of mawa jalebis at Shahganj, a couple of lanes away from Roshan Gate. Mawa jalebis are instantly distinguishable from their more traditional counterparts. They’re thicker, stickier, and dark brown, made from thickened milk, and taste similar to gulab jamun—frightfully addictive when eaten fresh and piping hot. It was close to midnight when I finished eating, but the final feast would come six hours later.
I found myself awaiting breakfast at Islami Restaurant at six the next morning, with a brown cat staring at me. Despite being tiny, Islami Restaurant, right next to Delhi Gate, is a landmark in Aurangabad. The specialty here is paya (trotter soup), which I learnt, was a popular breakfast dish not just in Aurangabad, but also in Iran and Afghanistan. D’Souza told me that the preparations for paya had begun the previous night. The bones are cooked overnight in a wood oven and served with fat-laden gravy, seasoned with spices ranging from saunf (anise) to dagadphool (a lichen). It’s served with delicious, soft tandoori rotis made from three kinds of flour and washed yellow with turmeric. I watched patrons on the tables around me sucking the bones dry of marrow and casually leaving them on the table next to their plates. Apparently that was the paya-eating etiquette. I couldn’t get myself to mimic their marrow-filled exploits, though. I sat there, poking at my soup, incredulous at how something always seemed to be cooking in this city. To the people who had fed me over the previous 12 hours, food was more than just something on a plate. It was a passion. It had to be. To me, this was an upside-down world where breakfast was cooked all night and dinner prepared all day. To the men in charge of Aurangabad’s food, it was just another day. They had shooed the fast-food revolution away.
Appeared in the June 2013 issue as “Something’s Always Cooking”.