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“Hey, this doesn’t taste like pizza dough,” one of my guests happily intoned, chomping down on her ceyloni naan ($2.75), a crunchy and smooshy bread created in a swirl. She was referring to the fact that most Indian restaurants don’t make their yeast-risen breads from scratch. Instead, they buy pizza dough from the trucks that deliver “dough balls” to pizza parlors. Ever wonder why the naans in Indian places taste like sauceless and cheeseless pizzas?
We were sitting around a table laden with oblong dishes—each a different shade of yellow, brown, or red—flinging off some of the most pungent and delicious smells we’d ever encountered. According to the hostess at Delhi Gardens, her strip-mall café in Edison, New Jersey, is the only Hyderabadi restaurant in the tristate region, which she indicated with a sweeping gesture of her arm. Hyderabad is one of two places that claim to be the Silicon Valley of India, an emerging high-tech city where fully 50 percent of the population is Muslim. Their meaty chow stands in sharp contrast to the vegetarian fare of the rest of southern India. Though many Hyderabadi dishes share names with Pakistani and northern Indian offerings, there’s a difference: Hyderabadi cooking incorporates ingredients and techniques from the surrounding states, making lavish use of curry leaves, peanuts, coconut milk, young ginger, and mustard seeds and leaves.
As in northern India, a Hyderabadi cook is judged by the excellence of her biryanis, and Delhi Gardens offers four spectacular versions. “Hyderabadi dum ki biryani” ($13.95) is the flagship of the armada, and the one you’re likely to recognize, a moist heap of white and saffron-tinted rice interspersed with lamb chunks. Tomato slices, raw onions, and boiled eggs are festively strewn on top. Another type, dubbed thahiri ($8.95), is so pungently spiced and thronged with so many perfectly cooked vegetables that you won’t notice there’s not a speck of meat in it. In contrast to northern examples, Delhi Gardens’ biryanis come accompanied by twin sauces to be poured over the top, one made with peanuts and the other with yogurt, mellowing and souring the flavor. In southern Indian style, peanuts make frequent appearances, most notably in the brilliant baghare baingan ($8.95). Whole baby eggplants, slit and stuffed with spices, wallow in goober gravy, which also features a puckering dose of tamarind.
A further feature of Hyderabadi cuisine is the virtual worship of green chiles. Have them stuffed with spices and fried like bar-side jalapeño poppers in mirchi bhajji ($3.95), or stewed in a puree of onions and yogurt—which quenches the burn somewhat —in mirchi ka salan ($10.95). But best of all is the lilting “bhari hari mirch” ($10.95), a dish that would make Poles scream with pain and annoyance. It looks just like your standard Eastern European stuffed bell pepper, filled with ground meat and rice and drenched in gravy. But the real reason for this savory dish’s existence lies in the tiny green chiles that hide in the stuffing. They look like disconnected parts of the sweet pepper, but then explode in your mouth like tiny firecrackers. Kaboom!