Hyderabadi Cuisine: Tracing its History through Culinary Texts

in Article
Published on: 08 April 2020

Amanda Marie Lanzillo

Amanda Lanzillo is a PhD Candidate in South Asian History at Indiana University in the United States. Her research focuses on migration and professional cultures between colonial India and Muslim-led princely states. She is the recipient of the dissertation research fellowships from the American Institute of Indian Studies and the Fulbright Hays Dissertation Research Abroad programme.

This article, through a study of Hyderabadi recipe books, analyses three aspects of the evolution of the city’s food culture. First, it examines the spread of the many elements of Hyderabadi cuisine beyond the city’s noble kitchens and its adaptation among the city’s consolidating middle classes in the nineteenth century. Second, it considers chefs and cooks in Hyderabad under the Nizams, and especially the influence of cooks from across India who migrated to the state in search of work after the consolidation of the British Raj in the wake of the Uprising of 1857. Finally, it looks at the recipes themselves, analysing how the ingredients and styles of preparation reflected social change in the Hyderabad State in the late nineteenth century.

Cooking Publics: Recipe Books and the Popularisation of Cuisines
Published at a lithographic press in Hyderabad, Khwān Neʿmat-e Āafiya (The Beneficent Table of the Asafiya Dynasty) [Fig.1], subtitled Tufat ul-Lazat-e Mabūbiya (The Gift of Taste of Mahbub), is a massive cookbook containing 680 recipes compiled by Ghulām Mabūb yderābādī, the manager of the kitchens of Nawab Sir Āsmān Jāh Bahādur, the prime minister of Hyderabad State from 1887 to 1894 and a member of the noble Paigah family.[1] Both its publication and language of composition set it apart from many earlier and contemporary recipe books, which were often preserved in Persian manuscript form in the private libraries of the state’s nobles. One such text, also titled Khwān Neʿmat (The Beneficent Table) [Fig. 2], which was a common name for Persian and Urdu-language cookbooks of the era, was compiled as a manuscript in Persian, likely in the early nineteenth century. It is held today in the Salar Jung Library. Like its later counterpart, it includes recipes for dals, kababs, kitcharis, biriyanis, samosas, sweets, paans and a variety of other dishes served in Hyderabad during the period.[2] Both texts reflect the staggering diversity of culinary practices in the city, especially within the kitchens of the city’s elites.

However, this earlier text was never issued in a printed edition, even after the arrival and popularisation of lithographic print in Hyderabad around the mid-nineteenth century. Thus, while the earlier recipe book was likely aimed at private or limited use within a household, court, or set of households, the Khwān Neʿmat-e Āafiya had a larger intended public. The publication of the Khwān Neʿmat-e Āafiya indicates an expanded interest in the culinary traditions practiced in the kitchens of Hyderabad’s nobles, and perhaps a consolidation of a shared food culture beyond these limited spaces. Of course, it is difficult to assess how accessible many of these recipes were outside of the kitchens of the wealthiest Hyderabadis, given that numerous recipes called for the use of large quantities of a variety of meats, alongside the liberal use of relatively expensive spices like saffron.

A coverpage for the Khwān Neʿmat-e Āṣafiya that explains the background and prestige of the author, Ghulām Maḥbūb Ḥyderābādī. Courtesy: Amanda Lanzillo
Fig. 1. A cover page for the Khwān Neʿmat-e Āṣafiya that explains the background and prestige of the author, Ghulām Maḥbūb Ḥyderābādī (Courtesy: Amanda Lanzillo)
Fig.2. The early nineteenth-century recipe book, the Khwān Neʿmat was preserved only as a manuscript and was written in Persian. It is held today at the Salar Jung Museum Library. Courtesy: Amanda Lanzillo
Fig. 2. The early nineteenth century recipe book, the Khwān Neʿmat was preserved only as a manuscript and was written in Persian. It is held today at the Salar Jung Museum Library (Courtesy: Amanda Lanzillo)

Again, the emergence of cookbooks and recipe compilations in mid-nineteenth century Hyderabad is tied to the rise of print culture in South Asia, which allowed for the spread of relatively inexpensive books. Publishing in Urdu’s nastaʿlīq script in particular was a mid-nineteenth century phenomenon, because the arrival and popularisation of lithography allowed publishers to preserve nastaʿlīq’s lines and slopes. At the same time, the publication of recipe books points to a reading public that was aware of and interested in expanding its knowledge of culinary practices of the city’s elites. The public for such a text was likely the emerging Hyderabadi middle class, a consolidating group of individuals often educated either in British Indian institutions or in Hyderabad state’s relatively new elite and technical schools. Comprised of both migrants to the state and locals, but with an especially large proportion of the former, this class often served in administrative and professional positions associated with the state government.[3] Highly literate, and wealthy enough to employ chefs and purchase both fine ingredients and recipe books, members of this class likely aspired to model their own kitchens on the practices of the nobles’ kitchens. Thus, regardless of whether their cooks regularly prepared the dishes found in texts like Khwān Neʿmat-e Āafiya, the publication of the recipe book points to the circulation of ideas about fine cooking beyond palace walls and into the homes of middle-class Hyderabadis.

Migration and Culinary Practices
It was not only members of the administrative middle classes who migrated to Hyderabad city in the wake of the consolidation of the British Raj in most of India, but also chefs and cooks who found themselves out of work in former centers of Indian royal patronage, like Delhi and Lucknow. During the reign of Wājid ‘Alī Shāh, the last Nawab of Awadh, Pīr ‘Alī was among the most prominent of many chefs and cooks who worked in the court kitchens of the Awadhi capital of Lucknow. Pīr ‘Alī’s renown allowed him to escape the economic and social upheaval that struck Lucknow and Awadh in the wake of the British annexation of that state in 1856. His fame for elaborate dishes that were both expertly prepared and intricately decorated or designed meant that he was easily able to secure a position working in the kitchens of the Nizam of Hyderabad.[4]

Pīr ‘Alī’s experiences as an elite migrant able to relatively easily navigate the process of securing Nizami patronage in Hyderabad are not necessarily reflective of the experiences of most chefs who migrated into Hyderabad state in the second half of the nineteenth century. However, they are indicative of a broader trend, in which chefs from former sites of Indo-Islamic prestige and courtly culture sought out the remaining quasi-autonomous princely state courts as sites of potential employment in the post-1857 period. In doing so, they joined intellectuals, artists, musicians, literati, and others who were displaced by colonial policies of urban destruction, reorganisation, and economic reorientation. For members of these groups, Hyderabad provided an ideal site for migration, as it was home to a prominent and wealthy court, whose nobles were able to offer patronage to a wide variety of courtly migrants.

The migration of chefs and cooks from former sites of royal courts to India’s remaining princely states was not limited to Hyderabad. The relatively small North Indian princely state of Rampur, located approximately equidistant from Lucknow and Delhi, was a major culinary beneficiary of the annexation of Awadh in 1856 and the fall of the Mughal court in Delhi in 1857. Moradabadi biryani, popular in Delhi stalls today, was likely influenced by the Rampuri court biryanis that evolved as a result of the migration of courtly chefs from across the region to Rampur, and the later migration of their children and students to other regional cities.[5] Once ensconced in princely state kitchens, these migrant chefs seem to have taken on a variety of both local and migrant apprentices, leading to the merging of different regional food practices.

The questions that arise here are: How did migrant chefs navigate existing food practices in Hyderabad? To what degree did the migration of chefs into the princely state court and noble households shape what we think of today as Hyderabadi cuisine?

Hyderabadi cuisine is often spoken of as a hybrid cuisine, which combines earlier Deccani food practices, many of which evolved under the Bahmani and Qutb Shahi dynasties, with Mughali cuisines brought to the region around the seventeenth century.[6] The role of migrants in the evolution of this food culture has never been in doubt, but much writing on the food of the city emphasises the contributions of Iranian and other trans-regional migrants who moved into the city in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The fact that many Hyderabadi dishes consolidated and evolved in part as a result of mid- and late nineteenth century migrant movements within the Indian subcontinent is only rarely discussed.

Nonetheless, the Khwān Neʿmat-e Āafiya reflects the cross-regional influences in Hyderabadi noble kitchens in the late nineteenth century. It and other recipe books and treatises on cooking produced for noble families offer insight into what dishes were prepared, by whom, and for what occasions. The Khwān Neʿmat-e Āafiya is particularly notable because it mentions the origins or sources of popularity of many of the dishes. For instance, several dishes are noted as having been developed or perfected at the courts of specific Mughal emperors, including Muhammad Shah (r. 1702–1748) and Jahangir (r. 1605–1627).[7] The author cites an Asaf Jahi origin for some dishes, and notes the regional origins of other dishes.[8] Finally, he marks some dishes as ‘bazaari’, indicating the possible popularity of these dishes in public spaces, and the familiarity of non-elite and non-courtly groups with these cuisines.[9] [Fig. 3]

Fig,3 A publishers note at the conclusion of the Khwān Neʿmat-e Āṣafiya praises the author, his work, and his patrons, and highlights the fact that the text was intended for purchase among a relatively broad swath of Hyderabadi society. Courtesy: Amanda Lanzillo
Fig. 3. A publishers note at the conclusion of the Khwān Neʿmat-e Āṣafiya praises the author, his work, and his patrons, and highlights the fact that the text was intended for purchase among a relatively broad swath of Hyderabadi society (Courtesy: Amanda Lanzillo)

The frequent references to place of origin are largely missing in the early nineteenth century Khwān Neʿmat. This does not indicate that Hyderabadi food of that period was less influenced by regional or trans-regional exchange, but rather that the author devoted less attention to the question of culinary influence and exchange. It also points to the fact that by the time of the composition of the Khwān Neʿmat-e Āafiya compilers of recipe books were more aware of, or thought their readership should be made aware of the regional influences within Hyderabad cuisine. This emphasis on sites of origin reflects the fact that late nineteenth century Hyderabadi cuisine was emerging from a period of flux following the arrival of new chefs and culinary traditions at the court.

Writing Cuisine: Recipe Books and Shifting Food Practices
Many recipes in these recipe books are representative of both the influence of migrant chefs and cooks, and the shifting food practices of Hyderabad city more broadly. The following recipe is for nān-e tāftān, and may have been drawn from either Persian practices, or from a chef who migrated from the region of Awadh, where the style was most common in India:

Nān-e Tāftān

Gather your ingredients: 1.25 kg of maida flour, 750 grams of ghee, 12 eggs, 75 grams of almonds, 3 grams of sesame seeds, 1 gram of cumin, 2 grams of saffron, 10 grams of poppy seeds, 20 grams of salt, 1.25 liters of fresh milk, 10 ml of kewra extract, 2 grams of cardamom.

Prepare the naan: First, warm the milk and keep aside. Mix together maida with the ghee and eggs, gradually adding in the milk, and rapidly knead the dough. Mix in the almonds, salt, kewra and cardamom to the dough, and continue to knead well. Let the dough sit for a while, and when you return to it after a while, flatten into a roundel, and then dust the top of the naan with half of the saffron, sesame seeds, cumin and poppy seeds; cook this side on the griddle, and then flip the naan and prepare the other side with the spices on the griddle.[10]

This recipe, and others like it, in the Khwān Neʿmat-e Āafiya indicate of the growing cosmopolitanism in Hyderabadi cuisine, and the diverse regional input that shaped it. Beyond its materiality and increased references to regional variations, the Khwān Neʿmat-e Āafiya differs from the manuscript-based Khwān Neʿmat in the amount of details it offers about the preparation of each dish. While still somewhat challenging for a twenty-first century amateur cook to follow, the recipes listed in the Khwān Neʿmat-e Āafiya offer specific advice about the order in which ingredients should be prepared. The Khwān Neʿmat, on the other hand, assumes a higher level of knowledge on the part of its readers, and is organised more as a treatise, with the author often using the first person to describe his own experimentation with different recipes and styles of preparation. He offers descriptions of the differences between dishes, and describes and compares the uses of ingredients and practices from different regions, comparing, for instance, Iranian kashk-based stews with haleem.[11]

Tracing the development and evolution of Hyderabadi cuisine through recipe books is challenging, in part because foods that developed at the court has multiple culinary inputs, as chefs and cooks from various backgrounds collaborated or exchanged ideas. Nonetheless, the recipes and background information available in these texts may shed light on the regional and local influences in late nineteenth century Hyderabadi cuisine, as well as the changes that occurred within culinary customs as a result of regional migration to the princely state.

Even a cursory glance at the Khwān Neʿmat-e Āafiya draws our attention to several crucial and shifting aspects of late nineteenth century Hyderabadi culinary practice. First among them is the extreme diversity of styles of preparations which today might be grouped together under the tag ‘Hyderabadi’. For instance, the fourth chapter of the text is devoted to biriyanis. Stretching over 26 pages, the chapter includes descriptions of a dizzying array of biryani preparations including ‘rumī’ (Ottoman) biryani, two types of chicken biryani, sheep’s head biryani, sheep’s shoulder biryani, narges biryani, Aʿam Shāhī biryani, fish biryani, Amīr Khwānī biryani, kofta biryani, two types of dum pukhta biryani, Shikampuri biryani, hazār āfrīn biryani, and so on. Other sections are even more extensive; the text lists approximately 30 types of kitcharis, including almond kitchari, Jahāngīrī kitchari, mustard kitchari, pistachio kitchari, Āaf Jāhī kitchari, as well as kitcharis made with toor dal, mung dal, masur dal, and mash dal.

Hazār Āfrīn Biryani

Gather your ingredients: 2.5 kg of mutton, two chickens, one kg of rice for the mutton and one kg of rice of the chicken, 400 grams of ghee, 55 grams of ginger, 45 grams of garlic, 400 grams of chopped onions, 100 grams salt, 500 ml of curd, 500 ml of fresh milk, 250 ml of cream, 10 grams of poppy seed, 6 grams white cumin, 1/2 gram of cinnamon, 1 gram of black cumin, 3 grams of cloves, 10 grams of cardamom, 75 grams of potatoes (cooked and prepared as aloo banjara), 3 grams of saffron.

To prepare the biryani: First, mince half of the mutton. Prepare the minced mutton in the style of kofta: marinate it, and then add milk, cream, and cardamom to it. Grind the spices and finely chop up two of the onions. Take the other portion of the mutton, and fry it together with the onion, cardamom and garlic in ghee. Prepare your cauldron for cooking by applying ghee and saffron to the bottom. Then prepare the potatoes as aloo banjara: peel the potatoes, and soak them in water, then take some of the ginger, cumin, garlic, salt, and cloves and add them along with the potatoes in the cauldron with the remaining ghee, saffron, and the mutton.

Prepare the rest of the recipe as you would prepare a mahari dum-pukht biryani. This means that you should first pre-cook the chicken in boiling salt water and remove the bones, and then marinate it with the spice mix, curd and salt. Boil the rice in water until it is partially cooked. Add these layers to the cauldron that you have prepared, creating layers of, chicken, aloo banjara, rice and mutton. Seal the cauldron to prepare the biryani in the dum-pukht style. Allow it to cook, and enjoy.

In addition to drawing our attention to the diversity of preparations of dishes commonly prepared as parts of main meals, the text also illustrates the importance and diversity of desserts, breakfasts and side dishes, as well as chutneys and pickles. It includes a large section devoted to different types of egg-based khagina, commonly eaten for breakfast.

Tamarind Flower Khagina

Gather your ingredients: 12 eggs, 375 grams of ghee, 375 grams of chopped onions, 30 grams of salt, 30 grams of ginger, 20 grams of garlic, 20 grams of red pepper, 20 grams of coriander, 3 grams of turmeric, 30 grams of green pepper, 125 ml cream, handful mint leaves, 2 grams of cardamom, 125 grams of tamarind flower.

Prepare the khagina: Fry the onions in ghee till golden, then add the garlic, followed by turmeric, ginger, and cardamom to the oil. Sprinkle water if the onions start to burn. When the onions and spices are cooked, slowly begin to add in the eggs, keep stirring for five minutes. A fragrant smell should come from the dish at this point, then add the green peppers, cream, tamarind, and mint. Finally, mix in the salt, and add a bit of water if necessary.[12]

Conclusions: Cooking Hyderabadi Identities in the Late Nineteenth Century
The introduction to the Khwān Neʿmat-e Āafiya explicitly positions the Asaf Jahi princely state as a cosmopolitan centre of culinary refinement. It says that the Nizams and their nobles had gathered together both the best cooks and best cooking practices from across ‘ʿarab- o-ʿajam’, i.e. the Arab and Persianate worlds, as well as ‘elsewhere’, to create the dishes profiled in the text. Both the contents and materiality of the text, particularly when compared with its predecessors like the early nineteenth century Khwān Neʿmat, reflect shifts in late nineteenth century urban Hyderabadi social practices. Not only does the fact that the text was printed through lithography, rather than copied as a manuscript, indicate a growing interest in elite culinary practices among a wider range of residents of Hyderabad, but the practice of naming the origins of different dishes points to the growing local interest in the city’s culinary cosmopolitanism. This, however, does not mean that earlier recipes books, like the manuscript Khwān Neʿmat, were not products of the culinary exchange that characterised the formation of Hyderabadi cuisine. At a time when chefs from across India were bringing their regional practices and techniques with them in search of employment at one of the last remaining large princely state courts, this emphasis on regional origins and practices takes on a new meaning: it shows the conscious attempt on the part of Hyderabadi chefs and their patrons to incorporate new practices into their cuisine, and their heightened awareness/acknowledgement of the diverse regional influences on Hyderabadi culinary practices.


Ghulam Mahbub, Khwān Neʿmat-e Āafiya, 3.

[2] Khwān Neʿmat. Manuscript. Hyderabad. (Accessed at Salar Jung Museum Library, No. 4287/3).

[3] On the administrative classes and their positionality within Hyderabad state see Leonard, ‘Hyderabad: Mulki-Non-Mulki,’ 65–108.

[4] Halim Sharar, ‘Lucknow: The Last Phase,’ 161–163.

[5] Dash, ‘Ancient Rampuri cusine,’ and Verma, ‘Biryani Temptation.’

[6] See Mishra, ‘All about Hyderabadi cuisine.’

[7] Ghulam Mahbub, Khwān Neʿmat-e Āafiya, 86 and 272.

[8] Ibid., 93 and 308.

[9] Ibid., 252.

[10] Ibid., 18–19

[11] Khwān Neʿmat, f. 124

[12] Ghulam Mahbub, Khwān Neʿmat-e Āafiya, 238.


Dash, Madhulika. ‘The Rise and Revival of the ancient Rampuri cusine.’ The Indian Express, September 18, 2014. https://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/food-wine/the-rise-and-revival-of-the-ancient-rampuri-cuisine/

Leonard, Karen. ‘Hyderabad: Mulki-Non-Mulki Conflict in Hyderabad State.’ In Princes and Paramount Power: Society and Politics in Indian Princely States, edited by Robin Jeffrey. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Mahbub Hyderabadi, Ghulam. Khwān Neʿmat-e Āafiya. Hyderabad: Nizami Press.

Mishra, Smita. ‘All about Hyderabadi cuisine.’ Times of India, November 15, 2017. https://recipes.timesofindia.com/articles/features/all-about-hyderabadi-cuisine/articleshow/51253897.cms

Sharar, Abdul Halim. ‘Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture.’ In The Lucknow Omnibus, edited by Abdul Halim Sharar, Rosie Jones, and Veena T. Oldenburg. New Delhi, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Verma, Rahul. ‘Biryani temptation.’ The Hindu, December 3, 2012. https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-metroplus/biryani-temptation/article4158629.ece