Telangana’s iconic meat dishes tend to overshadow its vegetarian fare. But there is a significant vegetarian tradition in Telangana food as well.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Hyderabad earlier this year, he was served a variety of indigenous vegetarian preparations — including the dosakaya pachchadi (cucumber chutney) and aloogadda vepudu (potatoes deep fried with a spice mixture). These probably aren’t the first dishes that pop into your mind when you think of Telangana’s cuisine. The region’s iconic meat dishes — mutton and its spares (from boti to paya) are used to great effect, for instance — tend to overshadow its vegetarian fare. But there is a significant vegetarian tradition in Telangana food as well.
Telangana is a land-locked region with scanty rainfall. It is arid, dry and — until recently — was not very well irrigated. Thus, the natural inclination has been towards harvest that requires little water to grow, and making optimal use of the entirety of specific produce.
“Traditionally, whatever was grown in the kitchen/home garden was used to prepare food,” says Jyothi Valaboju, the author of Telangana Ruchulu. “The middle class mostly used whatever was growing on their [land], and only the upper classes cooked non-vegetarian food on special occasions.”
These eating habits have seen a shift in the past few decades as disposable income and access have been on an upswing. Across vegetarian and non-vegetarian fare, however, some things remain constant: Flavours, for example, are spicy and slightly sour (owing to the use of tamarind). Easy-to-cultivate homestead produce — think leafy greens, pumpkins, gourds, brinjal, tomato — is consumed not only in the form of curries, stews and chutneys, but is also liberally used when cooking meat dishes as well. The policy of minimal wastage manifests in the existence of dishes like pottu pachadi, made from the peels of ridge and bottle gourd. Leftover rotis are ground into a fine powder, then treated with ghee and jaggery to make laddoos known as maleda (or malezza).
Chef Chalapathi Rao runs the popular restaurant Simply South. Rao explains that understated preparations like bendakaya vepudu (okra deep-fried in local spices) or the aforementioned aloogadda vepudu were the norm in Telangana households. Just as the Chettiars of Tamil Nadu — a merchant class that was predominantly vegetarian in their food habits — began to eat meat on account of their long trade voyages, so too Telangana saw a gradual change in dietary patterns as the influences of the Qutb Shahi and Nizami regimes permeated through the region.
Ancient literature and inscriptions dating to the Kakatiya period talk of the vibrant markets outside the Warangal fort which sold a variety of fruits, vegetables, pulses and oils. "Historical references tell us that apart from normal oils, cooking oil with the fragrance of the samapenga (Magnolia Champaka) flower was used,” says Jyothi Valaboju.
Availability of grains and seasonal produce determined what was eaten. Millet-based food (sarva pindi and uppudi pindi from rice flour) was used as breakfast, in addition to staples like jonna rotte (jowar roti), and other rotis made out of sajjalu (bajra), ragi or makkalu (maize) flour. A variety of lentil-based dals was served at lunch along with rasam or charu.
One indigenous dish that is very well-known is the pachhi pulusu. A form of rasam dominated by onions and tamarind juice, pachhi pulusu is a summer staple eaten with rice or roti. The sharp tanginess of tamarind is balanced by salt and jaggery, giving it a unique taste. It is said to bring your body temperature down in summer.
Valaboju makes note of the popular badeela koora — a traditional dry curry made using just a handful of ingredients, including fenugreek leaves and chickpea flour. “This has a Maharashtrian influence in which the flour is kneaded to make balls, and stir fried in methi leaves for 10 minutes. This is a healthy dish which is made almost all over the region.”
Greens are an integral part of the cuisine. One favourite is the bachhali koora made from vine spinach or Ceylon spinach. “It gets its tang from tomatoes and its mild pungency from green chillies, onions, ginger and garlic.” explains Valaboju.
While the vegetarian dishes of the Telangana hinterland are at least a little known, in Hyderabad owing to the overwhelming popularity of biryani, haleem and other delicacies like pattar ka gosht and marag, Nizami cuisine’s vegetarian specials are rarely heard of.
Qutub Alam Khan, who runs the trendy restaurant Chichas, has resurrected many old recipes from his aristocratic family’s kitchens. “From mirchi ka salan, used as an accompaniment to pulao and made from green chillies, to khatti dal — which, as the name suggests, is a slightly tangy dish made from lentils — there are options galore,” Khan tells Slurrp.
In fact, the cuisine has an interesting repertoire of lesser known dishes. Chef Rao enumerates some of these: “Chowki dal, which is subtly tempered and served with cumin and garlic; Nizami tarkari, which has hand-picked vegetables in a tomato spinach gravy; or bagara baingan, made with baby brinjals slowly cooked in a special masala…” Arising out of local needs and resources, the vegetarian cuisine of Telangana is restrained yet rewarding. Much like other unsung regional cuisines in India, it is a dexterous combination of skill, time-honoured traditions and rooted flavours. With home cooks, bloggers and restaurants always on the hunt for something new, these dishes might yet find their way into the limelight.