KUALA LUMPUR, July 5 — Ramadan is a time for Muslims to observe a holy month of fasting. For Muslim and non-Muslim Malaysians alike, it’s also the time of year when Ramadan bazaars sprout up in every neighbourhood offering delicacies such as ayam percik (charcoal-grilled chicken), santan-infused lemang and rendang, nasi beriani gam kambing (mutton biryani), traditional kuih-muih and the requisite bubur lambuk (spiced porridge).
But how do Muslims elsewhere break their fast? A visit to the home of a couple from Hyderabad, India, reveals an entirely different menu of Ramadan dishes.
Nazeen Koonda, a freelance communications, public relations and social media specialist, and her husband S.G. Masood, a product manager with an established internet security firm, have been living in Malaysia for the past seven and half years.
According to Nazeen, Ramadan and Aidilfitri in Hyderabad is called Ramzan and Eid Ul-Fitr. “Ramadan is a very Middle Eastern and Westernised term as they don’t pronounce the ‘zzz’ sound but the ‘dhh’ sound instead,” she says.
It’s not only the spelling of the celebrations that is different but the foods that are customarily served. Part of the reason for this is because Hyderabadi cuisine (or Hyderabadi Ghizaayat) today is a legacy of the Nizams who ruled the Hyderabad State from 1724 to 1948. Hyderabadi dishes bear the influences of Mughlai, Turkish, Arabic and the native Telugu and Marathwada cuisines.
“Key flavours come from the use of coconut, tamarind, peanuts and sesame seeds,” says Nazeen.
Growing up in Hyderabad, which was a predominantly Muslim city with Hindu citizens too, was fun for Nazeen. She shares, “Until I was 19, I didn’t know what caste my friends were. I used to spend Diwali cooking in the kitchens of vegetarian friends — there was no segregation.”
The lessons she learned in the kitchens of her home and of her friends’ made Nazeen appreciate the art of cooking. “The older generation were adamant on checking the quality of ingredients to preserve the purity of the cuisine. Unusually, in Hyderabad, the younger generation is willing to learn and the older generation is willing to teach.”
Nazeen finds that her husband offers her the best feedback and criticism of her cooking. “As my husband is also from Hyderabad, he knows what Hyderabadi food should taste like. Some of my dishes he finds great, others he observes drily that it doesn’t taste like the way his mother makes it.”
Not easily fazed, the feisty home cook has discovered the definitive comeback. “I’ve learned to tell him that ‘This is my take’, which is a nice catch-all. In fact, I learned that from an experience I had once in a restaurant. The chef served purple-coloured biryani! And when the guests asked him how he could call that biryani, his reply was, of course, ‘This is my take.’”
Judging by the happy faces of friends invited for a recent Ramzan fast breaking meal, Nazeen’s guests are more than happy with her take on Hyderabadi dishes. “While I don’t cook every day — Kuala Lumpur is such a food haven, there’s really no need to — I love cooking for friends, especially during Ramzan.”
Typically, Hyderabad Muslims first break their fast with a nibble of nutrient-rich dates and a sip of Roh Afza, a local drink made from roselle flowers. Following this, they adjourn for the Maghrib prayer, after which the main meal is served. Rather than digging into heavier fare immediately, beginning with light and invigorating salads is preferred.
Channa Chat is a salad made with freshly boiled chickpeas, tomatoes, potatoes, onions and green chillies with a squeeze of lime. Nazeen says, “It’s refreshing and provides a lot of energy after a long day of fasting. You can either eat it as it is or add tamarind sauce to it.”
Another popular salad is the Fruit Chaat, a melange of different fruits mixed with pepper, chaat masala and lime juice. Chaat masala consists of amchoor (dried mango powder), cumin, coriander, asafoetida, dried ginger, salt and chilli powder. This imparts a salty and sour flavour to balance the sweetness of the fruits.
Nazeen also likes serving pakora, potato fritters fried in a mildly spicy but flavourful batter. She says, “You normally eat this with a spicy coriander and mint chutney or a sweet-and-sour tamarind-based imli chutney. Personally, I like potato pakora but you can dip almost any vegetable in this batter. Variations include onion, spinach, and even brinjals. It’s almost like Indian tempura!”
A favourite of children and adults alike during Ramzan is Shaami Kebab. Meat — beef, chicken or lamb — is mixed with chana dal (split yellow lentils) and whole spices, then ground on a flat mortar and kneaded with chillies and coriander before being shaped into balls and shallow fried. “Sometimes you can even fill the centre with an onion, green chilies and coriander salsa. It’s a classic Hyderabadi dish that has a lot of energy. Normally one kebab is enough to fill you up!”
A time-intensive dish that Nazeen only prepares during Ramzan is Dahi Bade. First, balls made of lentil flour are deep fried. These lentil balls are then soaked in a thin mixture of water and yoghurt, topped with tamarind sauce and whipped yoghurt flavoured with chaat masala or cumin powder, and rested for a few hours.
“Almost everywhere else Dahi Bade would then be served with tamarind sauce and coriander garnish, but in Hyderabad, we temper it with cumin, dried red chillies and curry leaves. It’s a filling mix of carbs and proteins topped by yoghurt which has probiotics and cools your system.”
Possibly my favourite of Nazeen’s Hyderabadi dishes is Haleem, a congee-like concoction of lentils, grains, barley, wheat and generously spiced meat, which is served drizzled with fresh ghee and condiments like mint, coriander, green chillies, chaat masala, julienned ginger and wedges of lime.
“Haleem is a super food,” says Nazeen. “Its name comes from the Persian word for ‘patience’ because of the time and effort required to prepare it. Normally we start cooking at dawn with someone constantly pounding at it as the mixture as it cooks. It is very sticky and elastic because of all the gluten and meat, almost like Malaccan dodol. This is the perfect dish for Ramzan as it refreshes and energises you.”
Of course, the pièce de résistance of a Hyderabadi dinner has to be the city’s famed biryani. But what’s so special about Hyderabadi biryani?
“Hyderabadi biryani is a symphony,” says Nazeen. “It’s a flawless balance of meat, spices and rice. We use long rice grains which are more delicate. The cooking process is very precise and follows a certain order. There’s always a small layer of rice at the bottom of the pot so that that gets crispy. Marinated meat goes on next, then 30 per cent-cooked rice, followed by saffron. This is all sealed with a wet dough. We don’t put it directly on the fire, you see. How do we know when it’s cooked? When the dough is cooked!”
Traditionally the Hyderabadi biryani is always accompanied by Mirchi Ka Salan, a sour and spicy green chilli curry, and raita, a yoghurt dip. “Mirchi Ka Salan has the consistency of a thick paste or curry, depending on where you eat it, and is made from long green chillies (mirchi), tamarind, poppy seeds, sesame, peanuts and coconuts. It takes a long time to cook so it’s best to make it a day or two in advance to give the flavours a chance to ‘become friends and get to know each other better.”
The passionate foodie also had the opportunity to meet and eat with Nawab Mehboob Alam Khan, considered the doyen of Hyderabadi biryani. The meeting left a deep impression on her with regards to the inimitability of her hometown’s star dish.
“There is only one kind of biryani in this world and that is the Hyderabadi biryani,” insists Nazeen. “Everything else, however good they might taste, is an imitation! I have yet to find a good Hyderabadi biryani in Kuala Lumpur. Here, the biryani is more like a pilaf. I am still a student of cooking biryani, but I am sure I make it much better than most of the restaurants here.”
To complete the meal, there is Kaddu Ki Kheer, a quintessential Hyderabadi dessert made from grated kaddu (white pumpkin), ghee, cardamom powder and saffron. A generous dose of almond adds richness to this sweet pudding.
Ramzan is a special time of the year for Nazeen. She shares, “In Hyderabad during Ramzan, the whole day is quiet but then everything comes alive in the evening. Celebrations in India are really very different from Malaysia and as much as I enjoy Malaysian celebrations, I do miss home.”
Nazeen observes that Muslims in Hyderabad rarely break fast outside of the home. “Usually we break our fast in our own home or at our friends’ homes. After our prayers, some of us then go food-hopping! While the food is delicious and nourishing, ultimately I see Ramzan as a time to renew the relationship with oneself and with God.”