Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Chowing down in Hyderabad


Before I left on my first trip to India, I was warned by one of my Indian friends that the food is spicy.  "I've eaten Indian food here before", I said.  "It is not the same here as in India", he replied, and then he began to snicker.

That was worrisome.

What I found was that the food in Hyderabad is really good; and yes, it is spicy.  There is a wide variety of cultural influences there (East and West, North Indian and Southern Indian, Hindu and Muslim) that combine in some crazy and exhilarating ways in the resulting local cuisine.

I was told that the state of Andhra Pradesh (the state Hyderabad is located in) is known for having some of the spiciest food in India (this is, of course, hotly debated by people from certain other regions).  It was also very spicy, but not necessarily in the way I expected.  I thought that I would be eating a lot of dishes with tremendous spicy heat, but the dishes are spicy not in the sense that always burns out your mouth (although there are some dishes that do this), but in the sense that the flavors are all strong.  So the hot dishes are hot, and sour dishes are sour, and the sweet desserts are really sweet.  The bottom line is that if you travel here, and you can't handle spicy foods, you are going to have some difficulty surviving.  For those types of people, there is really only the starches.  Luckily, there are a large variety of delicious Indian breads and rice available: Northern naan and roti, fried puri, crispy and spicy papad, and the crepe-like Southern specialty, the dosa.  The spiciness of the main dish is normally allayed by the concurrent consumption of bread or rice (with rice actually being the more traditional accompaniment).  One of my co-workers who traveled with me from the States attempted to follow a no-carb diet he was on.  That turned out to be not such a good idea.  Both the meat and vegetables were heavily spiced, and he filled up on that, and didn't eat any of the bread or curd that would have alleviated the spice.  Indigestion ensued.

In Southern Indian areas like Andhras, it is common to eat with one's hands, i.e. no utensils.  This can be a bit unsettling to see at first, primarily because a) it involves eating types of food (for example curry and rice) that you would never imagine eating with your hands, and b) when people do it, they really handle and touch the food a lot before putting it in their mouths.  Eventually I got used to seeing it, but I didn't try it myself.  At the end of the meal, you will typically get brought to you a dish with warm water with soap or lemon in it to wash your hands with.

The dish that Hyderabad is famous for is the biryani,  The dish is really good, and evidently is hard to find a good example of in the States.  Biryani  is a steamed rice dish cooked with chicken or lamb and spices.
There is a stereotype that all Indians are vegetarian, but while vegetarian practice is common, meat consumption is also common in Hyderabad.  There is a large, mostly non-veg Muslim population in Hyderabad, and the younger generation in general seems to have less aversion to meat eating.  The common meats are chicken and lamb.  Amusingly, when I was dying for a Western hamburger, I managed to find one at the local Chili's.  The burger was made of buffalo, of course.  It turns out that at least one preconception I had  (no beef eating in India) was pretty accurate.

The culmination of my culinary experience came, naturally enough, at McDonald's.  I ordered the McSpicy Paneer sandwich.  It was vegetarian, spicy, and yet still familiar with that oh-so-soft bun and crispy and greasy Chicken McNugget-style fried batter.  I was able to experience the clash of East and West in one spectacularly unhealthy bite.

All in all, I had a great culinary experience in India.  There was a surprising amount of Western influence, but ultimately the food was probably the most different from California cuisine that I've had in my travels so far.

Travel Notes:

-- If you are writing about the tech industry in India, one thing to note is that it is a lot more formal than it is in the States, especially when compared to the West Coast.  By formal, I don't mean attire, but rather the adherence to hierarchy and the interaction between employees and their managers.  In my case, I would walk into the cube area where my team was located at the Hyderabad office, and they would all stand to attention immediately, and would not sit until I left the area.  This never happens to me when I visit my team at my home office (I'm lucky if they even notice I'm there, ha ha).

-- When you write about India, take care to pay attention about what region you are writing about.  There are large language, religious, and culture differences depending on the area of India you are focusing on.  There is a general division made between the culture of Northern and Southern India, and that difference is often even further sub-divided based on region and religion. 

-- One interesting quirk about fitness and exercise: like in the U.S., there is a growing interest in health and fitness.  However, one thing that is not common or popular is running in the streets.  For one thing, it is not safe; you are likely to get killed due to the crazy traffic (see my previous post).  The other thing is, as my friend laughingly put it, "If you run in the street in India, you will be arrested, because the police will assume you stole something!"

    

5 comments:

  1. Oh my god, I want to eat this food! It looks so dang good! The last paragraph is hilarious!

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  2. Wow this post made me hungry

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  3. I want a McSpicy Paneer Sandwich! They should have those in America!

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  4. I'm not big on spicy foods but I would love to try some Indian cuisine!

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