The first time I came to India was as a student at Christ University in Bangalore, in 2015. Aptly, the first meal I ate in the country was a masala dosa at the canteen on campus, and immediately I was captivated by the food of the South. The prominence of lentils, rice, and coconut, the use of a variety of my favorite spices, and the tanginess that comes from fermentation and ingredients like tamarind cemented my devotion to South Indian dishes.
Seven years later, I found out I would be returning to South India, but this time to Hyderabad. I was eager to reincorporate my favorite dishes like dosa, idli, sambar, coconut chutney, and filter coffee, but even more excited to explore the diverse food scene of the fourth largest metropolitan city in the nation.
As a foreigner in India, I am almost always aware of the ways I stand out. Because of this feeling of ‘otherness’, I sometimes fail to appreciate the diversity around me, especially in a city this expansive, I’m paying more attention to who calls Hyderabad home. When accounting for international, domestic, and interstate migration to Hyderabad, “(the) migrant population constitutes 67 percent of the total population.” (i) Some migrant groups have established communities in Hyderabad for hundreds of years, becoming fully integrated while maintaining a distinct culture. Still, the presence of these groups has become inextricable from, and essential to, the identity of the city. Other diasporas have arrived more recently, but nonetheless, are contributing to the perpetual construction of the ethos of Hyderabad. In an effort to learn more about migration to Hyderabad, I did some online background research into groups with significant immigration history to the city, and then I set out to explore restaurants owned by members of those communities.
The heart of Hyderabad is in the Old City. Designed by architects to model the Iranian city of Isfahan, more than 400 years later many of those original structures are still standing. (ii) The connection between Persia and the Southern Peninsula of India can be traced back to the 14th century, but “…the Persian influence on Hyderabad goes as far back as 1591, when Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah, the fifth monarch of the Persian Shia Muslim Qutb Shahi dynasty founded the city.” (iii) As I get to know the city more, it is challenging for me to distinguish Hyderabad from its Irani roots.
A short walk from my office, one of the hundreds of Irani tea shops stands out to me- Irani Chai Wala. Under the Osmania Medical College metro stop, a constant stream of customers walk through the tiny store. Behind a display case that glows with baked goods, two men serve tiny cups of thick, sweet chai. I grab a cup and a dense pastry filled with grated coconut and cherries and enjoy the evening chill with the crowd.
Twelve kilometers away in the affluent Jubilee Hills neighborhood is Soda Bottle Opener Wala, a cafe celebrating cuisine from Persia and Bombay. It is here that I’m introduced to dhansak, a classic Irani dish made with lentils and vegetables, served with spiced rice topped with caramelized onions. Accompanied by a drink inspired by the city of Shiraz, Iran, made with prunes, jaggery, mint, and lemon, the meal is so delicious that it is hard to be upset that I’m paying a premium price due to the restaurant’s location.
Through the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme, an initiative started in 1964 that now invites countries from around the world, “…to share in the Indian developmental experience acquired over six decades of India’s existence as a free nation,” thousands of Sudanese students have come to India to pursue higher education and technical training. (iv) While many have come to the country to take advantage of academic opportunities, most migrants from the Horn of Africa have taken refuge in India to escape famine and violence in their home countries. In 2018, 390 Somali and 50 Sudanese people were officially registered as refugees in Hyderabad, but the actual figure is believed to be much higher, as most refugees coming from Somalia to India have settled in Hyderabad. (v)
On the West side of the city, in the Toli Chowki neighborhood which is home to the largest population of immigrants in Hyderabad, is Paramount Hills colony, which has colloquially been dubbed “mini-Somalia,” due to the significant presence of East Africans in the community. On a busy street lined with shops, restaurants, and mosques sits Tafosha Cafe. The few tables available are filled with young men socializing, drinking tea, and enjoying a variety of Sudanese snacks and dishes. Although the cuisine traditionally relies heavily on lamb and chicken, as a curious vegetarian, I am kindly accommodated, and the menu is explained to me. The cashier recommended I try fatta ful, and I received a plate of toasted and torn bread, topped with fava beans, tomato, and peppers with a side of a spicy, tangy sauce. I also tried a strong black coffee, baklava, and a popular tamarind tea everyone seemed to stop in to buy. Everything was delicious, and I am told if I come later in the day, I can get anjara, which looks like the Ethiopian injera I have had in the past. I confirmed I will be back.
More than double the national average, 30% of Hyderabad’s population is Muslim, and the various cultural influences are felt nowhere more than in the Old City. In the Southern region is the Barkas neighborhood, home to a significant community of Arab Muslims, most of whom can trace their heritage back to the Hadhramaut region of the Arab Peninsula, chiefly Yemen. The first Yemeni tribesmen are believed to have ventured to the prosperous city of Hyderabad in the 17th century, but organized migration gained momentum in 1875 during the sixth reign of the Nizam under Mahboob Ali Khan, who in his effort to build an army of soldiers of different ethnic backgrounds, encourage Yemeni families to immigrate. (vi)
150 years later, the community is still thriving in Barkas, but the Hadhrami people and their cultural impact, namely the fragrant rice-based dish mandi, have permeated beyond the bounds of the old city. In his article for Gulf News exploring Yemen and Hyderabad’s connection, journalist Mohammad Siddique quotes Qasr Al-Mandi’s co-owner, Khalid Jameel Barziq, as he explains the significance of mandi in his community in Barkas, it has genuine Yemeni roots as Yemeni and Arab descendants here feel emotionally attached to it. They say ‘This is our own dish.’ (vii)
These days mandi has gained popularity among Hyderabadis. Excited to try it for myself, I ventured to a popular Yemeni spot near my office, Mandi House. It is traditionally made with mutton, chicken, or quail, but even without the meat, I understand the appeal. I was served rice perfectly seasoned with cardamom, ginger, and nutmeg, paired with a cold tomato and warm, spicy mixed vegetable sauce. I also tried kunafa and double ka mitha, semolina-based desserts made with spices and syrup. I am already looking forward to trying it again soon.
As a condition of the 1950 bilateral agreement signed by the neighboring countries of Nepal and India, The Treaty of Peace and Friendship made an official open border between the nations. It is estimated that now five to seven million Nepalis are living in India, most in the North. (viii) Hyderabad, however, is home to a small community of about 1,000 Nepali people. (ix)
Nepal is the only country I have mentioned that I have been fortunate enough to visit. In 2015 during a week of long days hiking in the mountains, it was simple, homemade Nepali meals that sustained me. On the Western side of Hyderabad, The Himalayan Cafe operates in the Kondapur neighborhood. The restaurant is small, unassuming, and hard to find, but is where I found the best thukpa, a thick noodle soup, I have had in India. Full of dark greens, tofu, and finely chopped vegetables and herbs, this thukpa is a perfectly designed, nourishing comfort food. Paired with freshly steamed momos and a triad of flavorful sauces, my love of Nepali food has been reaffirmed.
In my effort to learn more about migrant groups in the city, I got to see some really beautiful parts of Hyderabad, the place that I’m so grateful I get to call home for now; I also ate some amazing food. Someone could spend a lifetime trying to get to know the city, but after a week of intentional exploring, I gained a deeper understanding of its rich history as well as dynamic nature. I love the city for its blend of Indian as well as ‘foreign’ influences. I appreciate how Hyderabad’s diversity strengthens my own sense of belongingness.
i Sapra, Ipsita, and Nayak, Bibhu. “The Protracted Exodus of Migrants from Hyderabad in the Time of COVID-19.” Journal of Social and Economic Development, vol. 23, 2020, pp. 398-413, https://doi.org/10.1007/s40847-021-00155-z. Accessed 8 Jan. 2023.
ii Tehran Times. “Hyderabad, the City of Wonders.” Tehran Times, 2 Jun. 2008, www.tehrantimes.com/news/170061/Hyderabad-the-city-of-wonders. Accessed 8 Jan. 2023.
iii Lasania, Yunus . “Heterogeneous Hyderabad From Irani Chai to Habshi Halwa.” Economic&Political Weekly, 8 Feb. 2020, www.epw.in/journal/2020/6/postscript/heterogeneous-hyderabad.html. Accessed 8 Jan. 2023.
iv ITEC. “INDIAN TECHNICAL AND ECONOMIC COOPERATION (ITEC) PROGRAMME.” Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, 4 Feb. 2014, www.itecgoi.in/about. Accessed 8 Jan. 2023.
v Reddy, Sudhakar. “Somalian and Sudanese Students Turning into Refugees in Hyderabad.” Times of India, 29 Jun. 2018, timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/hyderabad/somalian-and-sudanese-students-turning-into-refugees-in-hyderabad/articleshow/64787391.cms. Accessed 8 Jan. 2023.
vi Siddique, Mohammad . “From Yemen to India’S Hyderabad: Tracing the History of Barkas.” Gulf News, 21 Nov. 2021, gulfnews.com/special-reports/from-yemen-to-indias-hyderabad-tracing-the-history-of-barkas-1.1637497858155. Accessed 4 Jan. 2023.
vii Siddique, Mohammad . “From Yemen to India’S Hyderabad: Tracing the History of Barkas.” Gulf News, 21 Nov. 2021, gulfnews.com/special-reports/from-yemen-to-indias-hyderabad-tracing-the-history-of-barkas-1.1637497858155. Accessed 4 Jan. 2023.
viii Bhattrai, R. “Open Borders, Closed Citizenships: Nepali Labor Migrants in Delhi.” Conference: International Migration, Multi-local Livelihoods and Human Security: Perspectives from Europe, Asia and Africa, Institute of Social Studies, 30 Aug. 2007, The Netherlands. Presentation.
ix Swathi, V. “Nepali Immigrants in Dire Straights.” The HIndu, 6 May 2020, www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Hyderabad/nepali-immigrants-in-dire-straits/article31521455.ece. Accessed 8 Jan. 2023