I first met Vijay Karan around 1993. He had retired as Director of the CBI but his real claim to fame was as one of the best commissioners of police Delhi ever had.
It was Karan who told the Delhi police that they were perceived as being rude and insensitive and began the process of sensitivity-training that still continues. (All that “Delhi Police – With You, For You” stuff is his legacy.) He also stopped the police from beating up suspects routinely and cleaned up the force.
We met because he was concerned about an article in Sunday that identified him as one of the recipients of money in the hawala case. Karan has spent his entire career being celebrated for his integrity so it was not difficult to see why he was upset.
I checked on the facts and discovered that the reference to him had been based solely on an entry in Surendra Jain’s diary which said that the money had gone to “VK”. It turned out that “VK” was V Krishnamurthy (or was not – the hawala case was thrown out by the Courts) and not Vijay Karan so we published an apology. But when I met him over lunch at the House of Ming to discuss his grievance I was struck by the way people called him Raja Vijay Karan.
What, I wondered, was he was Raja of? I discovered that he was a Raja from Hyderabad, which surprised me even more. Wasn’t Hyderabad ruled by the Nizam and his Muslim nobility?
Well, yes and no. Though we like to divide historical India into Hindus and Muslims, the reality was far more complex. Vijay Karan’s ancestor was Wazir at the court of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, one of the many Hindus who held key posts in that regime.
When the Nizam-ul-Mulk went South as the Governor of the Deccan, Karan’s ancestors went with him. Like the Nizam, they made Hyderabad their home.
While the Nizam ruled the old Hyderabad state, he did so through over a dozen Rajas. Each of the Rajas was given districts to administer (though these districts were never contiguous so that secession was a virtual impossibility) and granted the right to raise revenues and maintain an army. Fully one third of these Rajas were Hindus.
So, contrary to caricature, the culture of Hyderbadi nobility was not entirely Muslim. And neither was the food.
I became intrigued by Karan’s connection with food when I met his wife Pratibha who was then a Secretary to the Government of India (over a decade after Vijay Karan had retired). We were judging a barbecue competition together and she promised me that she would cook a Hyderabadi meal for me.
Naively, I imagined that Pratibha Karan, like her husband, had grown up in Hyderabad. But like my pre-conceptions about Hindus and Muslims in Hyderabad, this turned out to be an over-simplification.
Pratibha Karan is a Punjabi who fell in love with and married Vijay Karan. What’s more, she was brought up as a vegetarian – and continues to be one.
But when she realised how important food was to Rajas from Hyderabad, she taught herself how to cook mutton curries and biryanis. Through it all, she remained a strict vegetarian. Even today, if her spoon touches the gravy of a meat dish, she will send it away.
Vijay Karan recalls how when they first got married, his wife would faint at the sight of raw meat. Now, he says, in astonishment, she goes to the butcher and selects cuts of meat herself. Though we made many plans to meet up at the Karan bungalow in Lodhi Estate, nothing came of them. Then, Pratibha retired and the Karans moved to a spacious new home miles from the city. Two weeks ago, Vijay Karan phoned to say that Peter Burleigh, the acting American ambassador, was coming for dinner. Would I like to come too?
When I got there, I discovered a house full of members of the extended Karan family, his daughters, the designers Gauri and Nainika, his son, his wife, her parents and so on.
Burleigh, a former diplomat who served in Calcutta in the Seventies and is in charge of the Delhi embassy till the Senate approves President Obama’s choice for the job, told me that he had been using Pratibha Karan’s book (Hyderabadi Cuisine) in America. When he got to Delhi he sought her out and the Karans invited him for dinner.
Like me, he was overwhelmed by the food. I had no idea people still ate like that at home though Nainika assured me that the Karans ate like this everyday. Luckily, they have been blessed with great metabolism that keeps them thin.
I’ve reproduced the entire menu here as well as some of the recipes. But here are some of the dishes I found outstanding: a chicken sev, which consisted of shredded chicken deep fried till it resembled sev; a burhani, made with meat which I had never eaten before; a dum ka kheema, with tender mince and the flavour of cassia buds (kabab chini); doodh ki biryani, made with milk in which the spices are kept in potlis so that they can be removed before the biryani is eaten; chatni murgh with the flavour of pickles; and a saalim raan or a whole leg of goat with gravy.
I told Pratibha that I had never had Hyderabadi food of this calibre – and certainly not in Hyderabad. The answer seemed to be that, as I had suspected, the best Hyderabadi food was still made in private homes and not available in restaurants.
But the mystery of Pratibha’s technique remained. How can a vegetarian cook food of this quality without ever tasting it? All of us who cook a little believe that the secret of good cooking lies in tasting the dish and correcting the seasoning. But Pratibha never tastes her non-vegetarian dishes!
Her answer seemed to be that she’s got members of her family to taste each dish and give her feedback. Was there too much salt? Not enough chilli? Was the meat tender? And so on.
I would have thought that this was a very unsatisfactory way of cooking but the excellence of the cuisine that night proved me wrong.
Sadly, Pratibha’s food is only available to friends of the Karans. But her book (published by Harper Collins) is in the shops and judging by what Peter Burleigh and others say, it is easy to use and it makes Hyderabadi cooking accessible to the rest of us.
Speaking for myself, I’ll wait for another invitation.
A few recipes:
Thikri Ki Dal
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
300 gm red split lentils (mansur ki dal dhuli); ½ tablespoon red chilli powder; ¼ tablespoon turmeric powder; 1 large onion, cut into half horizontally and then finely sliced vertically; a few sprigs of green coriander, coarsely chopped; 4 green chillies, hand broken in large pieces; juice of 1-2 lemons; 4 tablespoons ghee; salt to taste
1 teaspoon cumin seeds; 25 curry leaves; ¼ teaspoon fenugreek seeds; 8-10 cloves of garlic, peeled; 4-5 whole red chillies; 6-8 tablespoons ghee; two 3” to 4” broken pieces from a new earthen pot.
Method: Boil the lentils with 5 glasses of water with salt, red chilli powder and turmeric. When half-cooked, add one tablespoon ghee. When the lentils are cooked, mash.
Heat the cooked lentils. Separately heat 2-3 tablespoons of ghee and fry the onions golden. Add to the lentils. Also add green chillies and coriander. Cook for 5 minutes over low heat.
For baghar, heat 3 tablespoons ghee. Add cumin seeds, whole red chillies, garlic and last of all, fenu- greek seeds and curry leaves. When the red chillies darken, pour the baghar into the lentils. Cover immediately.
Wash the pieces of earthen pot. Heat on burning charcoal or gas till red. Put them in the lentils as a second baghar and cover immediately. Squeeze some lemon juice before serving.
Doodh ki Biryani
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
500 gm rice; 1 kg mutton (inclusive of chops, marrow bones and medium sized meat pieces on the bone); 3 onions – sliced.
A: ½ teaspoon ginger, grated; ½ teaspoon coarsely ground garlic; 50 gm green chillies.
B: A few sprigs of fresh green coriander coarsely chopped; a few mint leaves.
C: 1 teaspoon caraway seeds; 1” piece of cinnamon; 4 green cardamoms; 4 cloves.
Three glasses milk; 1 glass water; 2-3 tablespoons ghee; salt to taste.
Method: Parboil rice with a little salt. Set aside. Tie the ingredients at ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ separately in three bundles of muslin cloth. Pressure cook the meat with milk, water and the three bundles of spices and herbs and salt, till tender. Squeeze out the liquids from the bundles. Take care to leave a little liquid, just adequate to allow the parboiled rice to get fully cooked.
Take a heavy-bottomed pan. Brush the bottom with a little ghee. Put meat and rice and mix them in the pan. Dot the surface with ghee. Cover with a tight fitting lid and cook over medium slow heat till the rice is cooked and steaming hot.