Day 13: Hyderabad

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woman at golkonda fort

Yesterday on our wandering we picked up a random fruit that we have never seen before. It looks like a cross between a potato and an egg. Very unusual to us. A little web search determined that it was called chikoo (or sapodilla). This morning we broke it open to find an inside with a few large seeds in a light salmon colored flesh. We bit in and found an absolutely delicious, sweet flavor – reminiscent of a mangosteen. If we find these again, we’ll definitely pick up a few.

Most of the day would be spent picking up the last few tourist sites around town with a car/driver so we decided to take our free hotel breakfast as a way to get a quick start. Again there was a choice between continental and South Asian options and we went straight for the latter. We made a collection of one of everything and were able to cross off a number of popular items we’ve seen around the past couple of weeks. Some, like upma which we discussed previously and didn’t take today, and idly (the round white one in the pic), feel like you probably need to have grown up with them to crave them (kind of like B feels about Cream of Wheat, which M finds disgusting). Wada, the doughnut shaped item, is sold all over the place at street stalls with chai. It’s savory and a bit plain, flavored with cumin, and another thing you most likely have to know well to love. Also on the plate was a poori, the puffed fried bread that we eat semi-regularly on Devon Avenue in Chicago. This one was less greasy and perfectly fine. However, our favorite thing from this collection was the round fried item, kachori, that had a great spicy filling made out of one type of dal. That we’ll look for again. All of these items were served alongside 3 chutneys: cabbage, coconut and ginger. That ginger chutney is the next thing to go on our list of foods to replicate. The ginger was so strong and as it’s one of our favorite flavors we lapped it up, literally eating it with a spoon.

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hotel buffet breakfast

Our meanderings eventually led us to the Chowmahalla Palace, a beautiful compound in the Muslim area we had visited the previous day. Here we picked up a samosa from a kiosk at the palace. It was not particularly memorable, and we were beginning to come to the end of our interest in this all-too-ubiquitous snack (at least for this trip).

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palace samosa

We’ve learned many things about eating habits here and one is that breakfast and lunch times tend to skew pretty late. Lunch is generally at 2:00, at least here in Hyderabad. We really threw our driver for a loop when we asked him to take us to another site at 2:00 and to eat a late lunch. After making our way through both language and cultural barriers, he finally got it. So, after we knew we’d seen everything we wanted to see before closing time, we made our way to Paradise Hotel, the site of the most commonly referenced biryanis in this town of famous biryani. Unlike Bawarchi where we ate our first night, Paradise has many, many branches (9). Some people say that they have gone downhill in recent years. Obviously we have nothing to compare it to. But wait, we do. Our biryani from two nights ago. So here’s the rundown:

Taste: Paradise had a much stronger aromatic spice component. The cardamom came off it immediately and the clove hit later. But that’s pretty much where the flavor ended. There was no richness like there was in the Bawarchi. The onion-y/ghee flavors that made the dish at Bawarchi so savory delicious were missing here.

Meat: B actually liked the mutton at Paradise better because the spices went well with it. M thought it much gamier than Bawarchi and gives them the hands-down award. The chicken at Paradise (which we didn’t have at Bawarchi) fell off the bone but was very dry.

Gravy: Our palates aren’t refined enough to distinguish much between the two but we did think Bawarchi had more flavors running through.

Ambience: Paradise is a huge restaurant with tablecloths and cloth napkins of a sort. We were waited on by about 7 different people.

Price: Paradise was about twice the price of Bawarchi. You are clearly paying for the name. And to clarify, this is still a steal by American standards. The whole meal cost less than $15.

The winner: Bawarchi, by a mile!

In addition to our biryanis, we had some really great breads – garlic naan (thinner than what we’re used to but fantastic) and paneer kulcha, a bread made out of a different flour stuffed with grated paneer and cilantro inside. B LOVED this – it was like a little Indian pizza and she felt like she could eat it all day. A sweet lassi and pistachio milkshake later (we’re still in search of something that really tastes like pistachio!) and we were ready to get to the train station.

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biryani, naan and lassi

As the day came to a close we picked up a number of snacks for our sleeper train to Mumbai! There were also many, many vendors walking up and down the aisle of the train as we were going to sleep. You can’t help but love a country where somebody walks by you every few minutes offering a shot of chai for approximately a penny and a half!

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Day 11: Kerala to Hyderabad

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smog and chaos

This morning we had a plan – go up to the guesthouse breakfast and just eat fruit and drink a little coffee/tea! Genius. Then nobody will try to force anything else on us. So we skipped the toast and hard boiled egg but did try a steamed rice bun with a little coconut and sugar inside that was pretty tasty. We asked what it was called but couldn’t parse the answer so we’ll have to do a little research…or anyone who reads this and knows, please let us know.

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breakfast

Off we went for last minute site seeing and then to wait for the bus to the airport. The bus is so, so easy and took the same amount of time as a cab for 1/10 the cost. So, for future visitors to Kochi, we recommend that as your means of transport. While waiting for the bus M scouted around for chai street snacks, never too far away. We had a variety of fried things – a delicious sweet banana fritter (again it was cold and we would have loved it hot but took what we could get), a samosa shaped snack filled with onions in both caramelized and lightly cooked form with a great mix of spices, and a fried cake-like item with a hint of cardamom. Once we tasted it, B sent M back for a little more chai.and seconds later the bus pulled up. Luckily it had to sit for a few minutes but there was still some momentary panic. All was well in the end and we got on the bus with our cake and chai. Yum!

 

fried snack
samosas and banana fritters
fried sweet bread
fried sweet bread

After a quick flight to Hyderabad and a check in at our hotel (HOT water for the first time in days!!) we took a tuk tuk over to Bawarchi on RTC Cross Road, home of some of the highest rated Biryani in Hyderabad. And that’s saying something since it is a specialty of the area and the main reason we traveled here. There was some confusion when we got there over which way to go in, but finally made it through the omnipresent metal detectors (we’ve gone through so many on this trip and they always seem to go off no matter what) and up to the rooftop dinner area. It was nice to get a bit above the street fumes, which are terrible. Once inside we saw signs everywhere saying that this was the ‘real’ Bawarchi and that they had no branches. There seems to be absolutely no control over what you name your restaurant. We passed by at least three other Bawarchi’s on our way in from the airport and there is a Great Bawarchi across the street from our hotel. It can get a little confusing if you don’t know where you’re headed. Now I’ll get to the food – the biryani (we had mutton) was absolutely delicious. It had a wonderful side gravy and yogurt and the rice had a wonderful ghee and spice flavor to it. The meat was melt in your mouth tender. We also ordered Hyderabadi Chicken, which was also great. There were green bell peppers in the sauce that were a really pronounced flavor and we’re not usually fans of green peppers, but these added a really nice note to the curry leaf sauce. Two different rotis on the side (one basically our first naan in India!) and a sweet lassi that unfortunately brought B back to her childhood drinking Milk of Magnesia (M liked it a bit more) and we’re all set. Another fantastic meal.

biryani
mutton biryani

 

curry and naan
hyderbadi chicken and naan

 

Day 9: Kerala

backwaters

So today was one of our tourist days. Our homestay organized a trip to the backwaters for us. These are small water channels throughout the region – beautiful locations and a chance to see a little bit of village life. Foodwise, this meant that we were only given a small breakfast as we had to leave early. We were pretty happy about that as our breakfast the day before wasn’t much to blog home about. So just toast, fruit and hard boiled egg and we were on our way. We had fantasies of having fresh seafood cooked for us on board our boat for lunch, which we had heard stories of, but the boat we were on was small and crowded and had no cooking facilities and basically just took us out to a random snack shop along the backwaters (M had Lays Magic Masala chips, B had a coconut water – from an actual coconut). Then the boat went back to where we started (we were not pleased with this part of the trip) and there was a lunch waiting for us – another curry buffet. All vegetarian. No seafood. Sad. But there were three new things on our lunch buffet: a strange, fibrous, vegetable we’d never seen before called a drumstick; a pineapple tomato curry; and a porridge like thing the name of which was lost in translation. It was all fine, but not quite what we had hoped for out of our boat trip.

lunch

Fortunately, the afternoon part of the tour was more interesting in that we were taken in a canoe/punt through some narrow canals flowing among the homes of a rural village. So we got to see people doing various types of work along the canal. The Communist Party has done particularly well in Kerala during the past few decades, so this part of India has a great many workers cooperatives, and we were able to see some people making rope and coconut milk at their homes. Really interesting. But you read this for the food, so also know we got to see many spices and fruits growing naturally along the way – all pointed out to us by our ‘gondolier’ and guide. Nutmeg is particularly big here and we were able to buy some right from the nutmeg farmer, but we also saw things like cacao trees, vanilla vines and tamarind trees.

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cinnamon trees

When we got home we were exhausted (not really from the boat but from the 3+ hours we spent in the car to and from) but we gathered ourselves together and walked over to the Mattancherry area where we went to Kayee’s Hotel (remember, hotel means restaurant) to partake of two things for which they are renowned. One is Biryani (we had chicken and it was great) and the other is Chicken Fry. This dish might be our favorite of the trip so far. It was small pieces of chicken, fried twice, seemingly, with a heavy coating of explosive spices, most notably star anise, cardamom and clove. It was so delicious that we ordered another dish and almost got a third! They were seriously small portions – we could have eaten them all night. We also ordered Keralan porota (flaky parathas – very similar to what we had in Malaysia) and ended up getting an extra helping of those as well. On the side we were served a tamarind chutney (sorry, no photo) that was much thicker than the usual stuff we get back home with our samosas. It had a sweetness that contrasted nicely with the sour tamarind. M thought the sweet came from raisins. He was very close! It was actually dates – we were in a Muslim establishment and we were told they often use dates in their chutney. A great meal overall, and we are excited to try to figure out how to make chicken fry.

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biryani and side gravy
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parota and chicken fry
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tamarind date chutney

On the way back to the guesthouse we stopped for banana chips (made from the long banana, which is very starchy like a plantain) and a sweet (not really to our liking – grainy this sugar wrapped in a thick icing, with very little additional flavoring).

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banana chips and sugary sugar snack with sugar

 

Day 12: Kuala Lumpur

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kl to singapore train

 

All good things must come to an end. It’s the last day. We had a few hours before we had to catch a train to Singapore and then fly home from there. Soon, rather than just being consumers of this delicious food, we will also be creators thanks to the cookbook we got from our teacher and another, ‘Flavors of Malaysia’ by Susheela Raghavan. These will be our amateur way of trying to recreate some of the outrageously great meals we’ve had here. It will never, ever compare, but we will do what we can.

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mee rebus

There was one last bucket list dish that we were off to find – mee rebus. This is a noodle dish in a sauce made with sweet potatoes that B had really been wanting to try. But it appeared that we were cursed in KL just as we had been in Penang. The stall we had on our list to try was nowhere to be found. Then we stopped in a restaurant on the way back to the monorail that had multiple signs up about their mee rebus but they didn’t work out either as those signs appeared to be fictions. Our next idea was to head to the train station and then go find biryani – KL’s best is not too far from there. We got to the station, put our luggage in a locker and set out. But when we got out the door we found a chain-like cafe with mee rebus on the menu! Obviously, this wasn’t going to have quite the authenticity of a stall, but it was the best we could do. Turns out the dish is delicious, even when you get it at the equivalent of a TGI Fridays. Noodles in a dense, broth made sour with lime and maybe tamarind, topped with cucumber, hard boiled egg and fishy crackers. If we come back again, finding this at a hawker stall will be a must.

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biryani and curries

Well now we’d had a good start to the day but this wouldn’t stop us from going to find the biryani at Fierce Curry House (16 Jalan Kemuja, thanks to a local police officer for help finding it on the backside of the street we thought it was on). At first we thought we would take it to go and eat it on the train, but we figured it was better to eat it at the restaurant, since there were many components to the dish. The restaurant specialized in biryani and a banana leaf curry, which is basically rice with a bunch of curries served on a banana leaf. Or in this case a steel tray with bits of banana leaf on it. This is the straight up Indian version of all the rice and curries we’ve had. You get whatever is on hand. The restaurant (and this was an actual restaurant…it was the first time we really had to wait for our food to be cooked on the whole trip as the biryani was made to order) offered a combination they called bir-nana leaf curry where you got biryani rice for your banana leaf curry. We went for that version and ordered mutton biryani. It arrived in a metal pot with the cover sealed around the edges with dough. After asking our neighbors how to open the damn thing, we dug in. Now, again, we felt we owed it to you, our readers, to compare the best biryani in Singapore (still holding on as one of B’s top dishes) with the best in KL. And we can categorically state that Singapore wins this one hands down. The biryani at Fierce was much more one-note, and that one note was clove. It was almost overwhelming but we still enjoyed the meal to the fullest. One of the curries was our favorite, a tangy tamarind taste made it stand out as different from other Indian food we’ve had before.

After what we thought was a transitional meal in a restaurant preparing us for eating back home, we walked around the corner to go back to the train and B wanted one last sugar cane juice from a random hawker on the street. So we bought one and then stared at the fried chicken they had in a basket. It looked amazing. The owner said it was a traditional Malay dish. We figured we’d take some for later on the train as we had learned to ride the train like the locals, complete with our own food. So we ordered some of that and it came with a nice package of rice and sauce. Off we went to the train.

After our experience a few days early, we had developed some very low expectations for our train ride, but this train was completely different. New seats, no smell, free water and banana bread brought around by workers with a food trolley! A totally different experience. So while we stand by the last train ride post it appears that it’s just a crap shoot what kind of train you will get. (And this train was just the continuation of the same route we took last time, so it has nothing to do with where you are headed.)

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malay chicken and rice

Once comfortably on the train, that fried chicken and rice eventually called our name. With two sauces in small bags tied up with rubber band (seriously, these vendors are whizzes with packing material, whether banana leaves, newspapers or plastic bags that carry all manner of liquid regardless of temperature) poured over the rice, this was one of our favorite dishes of the trip, and a much better way to end things. The chicken had bits of coconut in the marinade that gave the outside a wonderfully different texture and the spice level was just perfect on the sauces. We gobbled this up happily.

 

Final total of dishes: 74

Day 3, Afternoon: Singapore

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laksa stand uncle
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laksa

After a few hours cooling off in the AC at home (and working on this blog!) we started off for our afternoon jaunt. First stop, Laksa. Laksa, a soup with a number of different varieties, is famous in these parts and pretty much impossible to find back home. We set off to find a stall, Sungei Road Laksa (27 Jalan Berseh), that had been recommended to B by one of her students. We found it in a small hawker center tucked away in a neighborhood full of lighting and home improvement shops. There was a long line and we had a good chat with the person in front of us who told us that the ‘uncle’ making the laksa had been doing so for over 50 years and had been forced to move twice. But his customers always find him. And we can see why.  The laksa was delicious (rest assured, much better than the picture would suggest)! Creamy coconut broth with fish cakes, cockles and noodles, curry flavor and spice. It was a perfect small bowl and we drank every last drop. B judged it her favorite dish so far (which lasted all of 2 more stops).

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chicken murtabak

Next we were off in pursuit of the perfect biryani. This was one of the top items on our bucket list, but when we got to the shop, it was closed! Fear entered our hearts as this biryani was supposed to be second to none in the city.  After nearly ignoring the details of a tiny hand written sign on the side of the shop, we read further and saw that it closed every day from 3-5:30.  It was 4:30 at the time – we could easily stall for an hour by eating at our next stop and be back when they opened again. So, we wandered through a flea market, and up the street to Singapore Zam Zam (699 North Bridge Street near Arab Street) for murtabak. This is a prata stuffed with meat and served with a dipping curry. We ordered the chicken-filled version and found it well spiced and delicious, but a tiny bit dry. But as far as we’re concerned you can put just about anything in prata and we’ll eat it up.

On the way back to Bismillah Biryani (50 Dunlop Street, Little India), we got caught in our first downpour. The monsoons we feared (based on pictures of clouds and lightning every day of our trip on the weather.com forecast) hadn’t really shown their face before. But this day, it rained. And rained. But we were prepared with our umbrellas and didn’t mind a momentary easing of the heat. When we got to the restaurant they were just reopening. We sat down to order and were told that it was fine if we didn’t order anything if we just wanted to get out of the rain. We protested immediately that we were there to eat! So we ordered the weekend special goat biryani. Goat wasn’t ready. Mutton? Nope. Chicken Biryani was all they had and we were disappointed but happy to have anything. And when that dish came out it was like nothing we’d ever tasted. The rice was so fragrant. Almost citrusy. And the chicken fell off the bone. Now THIS was the best thing we’d had so far (and B still thinks so 2 days later). We didn’t leave one piece of rice on the plate. And got a pistachio kulfi to go as a little treat.

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biryani of the gods

We went home, had a quick rest and then made our way to our one dinner reservation at Long Beach Seafood (1018 East Coast Parkway), recommended by B’s student and our airbnb host as the place to eat yet another signature dish of Singapore, chili crab. We had a version of this at home at Go4Food in Chinatown and found it delicious. The restaurant was a decent walk from our apartment, about 25 minutes away according to our host. Seemed like a straight shot to the ocean but Google maps gave us some complicated walking directions to get under the highway that runs along the beach.  It took us about twice as long as it should have (there are underpasses all over but Google seems to not know that) and we arrived late, drenched in sweat–to the only place we have been all trip that had white tablecloths. And napkins – first time we’ve seen those at all. So we ordered one chili crab, two Chinese buns to wipe up the sauce, and a side dish of a green called kang kong that we had seen at the supermarket earlier. We hate to say it, but chili crab was one dish we really could live without. The crab was nowhere near as sweet as the dungeness we’re used to in Oregon and the sauce was gelatinous and not really spicy. We just didn’t get it. The buns were sweet, like Chinese bao dough, and really didn’t work for us. The greens were the saving grace as they were stir fried with a good, umami fish paste. So, sorry Singapore, but we will just skip this signature dish next time around.  You can’t win ’em all.

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kang kong, chili crab, buns

 

Running total of dishes: 14