Hyderabad is the capital of South India’s Andhra Pradesh region. Only twenty years ago this hilly city of seven million on the Musi River was in a state of decline, but recently it has undergone an economic uptick that has transformed the city into a tech powerhouse and kingpin of the call-center industry. (Yes, many of those annoying phone solicitations you get around dinnertime come from Hyderabad.) For a South Indian metropolis, it has an unusual history. Hyderabad’s culinary roots go back to the Muslim Mughal emperors of the North, who conquered Hyderabad in 1724. They brought with them some of their most delectable recipes, including biryani, a lamb-dotted rice casserole inspired by Middle Eastern pilaf — an unusual signature dish for a southern city.
You can get indifferent biryani in any of New York’s old-fashioned Punjabi restaurants, usually a greasy mountain of rice shot with tough morsels of meat and more raisins than you can shake a stick at. Often, it’s been desiccating on a steam table for days. Instead, whiz over to Hyderabadi Biryani & Chat, a sole Indian establishment among the Northern Chinese cafes and pizzerias of Kissena Boulevard. The restaurant occupies a boxy room with eight tables in the front and a steam table at the far end — the tubs are filled with things that actually improve with age, like palak paneer and goat masala. The room’s main decoration is a wall-size mural with color photos of the menu, which would make ordering easy if there weren’t so many difficult choices to make at this astonishingly good restaurant.
The biryani is some of the best in town, available in eight varieties. Rather than sitting on the steam table and drying out, it is assembled to order with freshly cooked morsels of meat and vegetables. Two of the choices are vegetarian, one also vegan. The rice is kept exceedingly fluffy, delicately flavored with ginger, garlic, and cardamom. The shards of meat, poultry, or seafood are tender, pleasantly fatty, and cut in pieces smaller than usual, the better to hide among the tan, yellow, and orange grains of rice. Deeply brown caramelized onions and bright green chopped cilantro and scallions are heaped on top; a lime wedge is provided on the side to further irrigate and sour the rice. By all means, squeeze it!
Maybe not surprisingly if you’re fond of the can-chewing quadruped, goat is a better call than lamb, and cheaper, too ($10.99 vs. $11.99). It’s more pungent and even slightly funky, very flavor-forward. The funniest looking is the egg biryani ($7.99), a vegetarian tour-de-force crowned with ivory ovoid humps of boiled egg. Crush them up roughly and mix them in with the rice before attacking. The most unusual is "chilli chicken biryani," which features boneless poultry fragments colored an alarming shade of red. The chicken comes from Indian-Chinese cuisine (which probably originated in Calcutta’s Chinatown in the 1940s), and this biryani constitutes a fascinating culinary mash-up that you won’t find elsewhere.
While the gigantic menu of Hyderabadi Biryani includes dishes from several regions of India, it spotlights several fascinating recipes from Southern Indian states. Best perhaps is Kerala pepper chicken ($9.99) from the southernmost tip of the South Asian landmass, where fish, coconut milk, and banana leaves figure into the everyday fare. This dish, however, deposits chicken in a bright tomato sauce tinged yellow with turmeric and flavored with aniseed and curry leaf, among many other spices. The main flavoring, though, which makes you sweat from the heat as you gobble the curry, is cracked black peppercorns. Using peppercorns rather than chiles indicates that this recipe probably originated before the 16th century, when the Portuguese introduced chiles to India. Not only is Kerala pepper chicken hot and historical, it’s also supremely delicious.
Other chicken recipes from Southern India include coconut chicken and chicken Hyderabadi (a variation on Chettinad chicken, invented by an ancient tribe called the Chettinars who, according to legend, migrated from India to Southeast Asia). Another Northern Indian flourish to Hyderabad cuisine is the passion for the yeast-risen flatbreads cooked in the tandoor oven called naans. The café offers seven; most compelling is the wonderful bullet naan ($1.99), which arrives glistening with oil and paved with minced jalapeños. They make the bread glow green and burn the heck out of your mouth. Named after a town on the Afghan-Pakistan frontier, Peshwari naan comes studded with dried fruit and nuts — you could almost eat it as dessert. Another potential dessert choice is the yogurt-based beverage rose lassi ($2.99), tinted pink with real rosewater. Some will love it. Others, like me, will think it tastes like liquid dishwashing soap.
Cost: Dinner for two, including a vegetable curry, a biryani or southern chicken curry, a naan of your choice, and two beverages, $28.
Sample dishes: Sample dishes: goat biryani, bullet (jalapeno) naan, gobi Manchurian (cauliflower Indian-Chinese style), methi malai mutter (peas flavored with fresh fenugreek).
What to drink: Mango lassi, rose lassi, Indian Thums Up cola, just plain water.
Bonus tip: Looking for just a snack? The chaat section of the menu includes pav bhaji (dinner rolls with a vegetable curry spread), and bhel puri (crunchy lentils and fried noodles with tamarind and cilantro dressings).