Ratna G. Chotrani
From primal game meats to the delicate rose flavoured kheer , the Begum of Hyderabad dishes out the mystic culinary heritage of the Nizam. Khaja Begum is among the very few who have learned the art of cooking directly from the Chef of Nizam.
Even as the erstwhile Nizam and the Nawabs of Hyderabad deal with the loss of their privileges and life of luxury, their tables laden with succulent meats, Khaja Begum of Hyderabad has kept the culinary legacy of the erstwhile royals alive.
Cooking succulent meats, food flavoured with freshly ground spices and the untranslatable tehzeeb remains with her as she carries on like the last soldier standing in the line.
Khaja Begum lives in Somajiguda locality. Though everyone around knows her, one can also locate her house for the flavours wafting from it at any given time. Today it could be the flavours of saffron Biryani and tomorrow delicately flavoured Taj Kebab, the last one is a recipe almost at the brink of getting lost.
Middle-aged Khaja Begum was always passionate about cooking and today she caters to the who’s who of Hyderabad. At one time, Khaja Begum even catered to a five-star hotel that offered her authentic Biryani, to their guests.
Her passion started when she was young. Those days women from the household of the Nizam (Abdullah Pasha’s wife) related to the Nizam and Matin Bibi, grandmother of Asadullah Pasha made young girls including Khaja Begum learn embroidery.
However, Khaja Begum’s interest in food made her ask the Royal Woman to allow her to learn from the chef of Nizam, Osman Ali Khan. The Chef of Nizam Osman Ali Khan, a Hindu by religion, was initially reluctant to share his recipes and secret tips. However, he had to submit to the requests of the young girl and he let Khaja Begum under his wings and trained her in the art of Hyderabadi royal cooking.
Today everything she creates is part of the traditional Hyderabadi cuisine. From Murgh Dum to Fish Dum to the Taj Kebab -a delicacy flavoured with Almonds, khoya, and saffron - and even the lost lesser-known dishes, for instance, the Muttabaka gosht created by using cashew, curd, khoya, saffron, etc. Sufiyan Biryani, a delicacy also known as Noormahali Biryani is cooked with milk saffron and lots of choicest cuts of mutton and is highly patronized by connoisseurs.
Food though was just a passion Khaja Begum continued with the embroidery on silk saris even after her marriage to take care of her family. While her embroidery business was on, her passion for food was so strong that she started catering in a small way.
Appreciated it by many and a chance meeting with a friend, she embarked on setting up with her catering company. There were times when she had to make ends meet. She not only had her in-laws, her parents but her eight kids to look after.
On some days, she would get barely a few hours of sleep. Her dedication paid off; today Khaja Begum’s kitchen on weekends is busier than other restaurants’.
Supported by her family, this almost insider into the cuisines of the Nizam, there are well-guarded recipes with her which she learned from the chef like the Pasinde Hara masala (chunks of meat slivers marinated with green masala to give it the green colour and flavor and cooked on stone till tender ) or the chicken roast, Keema Biryani, Nizam Jahi Keema , Fish fry salan are some of the popular delicacies.
Khaja Begum makes several types of Biryanis and has curated at least 135 dishes on her own. There are delicacies for the vegetarians too, whether it is Hara masala gobi, aloo cutlet, Dahi ki kadi cooked with coconut milk, mixed vegetables cooked with milk, cream, and saffron, and many more.
Her Husband Syed Asif Ali says that Khaja Begum has certain etiquette in her cuisine that embraces all nawabi culture. It’s not so much about the ingredients or dishes but the way she prepares the food serves it and hosts her guests (Customers) that is in tune with the spirit of the nawabi cuisine.
Khaja Begum’s daughters Shahnaaz Begum, Shazadi Begum, daughter-in-law Juveriya Begum and her son Wajed Ali who are working with her says “nothing is considered too extravagant when it comes to her cuisine –use of silver foil, saffron, nutmeg, mace, season’s most meals and the finest cuts of meat are used.
Her dishes are cooked on dum (where food is cooked in closed vessels with its own steam) and smoked dishes are where she uses a piece of burning coal placed within the dish to give it a flavor. For many in the city including celebrity families like Asad Ullah Pasha, the Mishras, Dr. Kalpana Alexander, Gayathri Aggarwal no party is complete without Khaja Begum’s dishes be it non-vegetarian or vegetarian.
Not only in Hyderabad, but her food is also much sought after by many people outside the state and country. She sends parcels even to far-off places like America, London, Dubai, etc. In India, her food is famous with some known families in Mumbai, Bangalore, Lucknow, and Delhi to name a few.
She says her spices help the dishes retain not only the flavor but keeps the food fresh for four to five days.
For someone who cooks such delicious cuisine, Khaja Begum’s favourite is a Dal-Chawal. Her warmness is visible from the fact that anyone visiting her house does not go without savouring her delicacies.
She has the widest range of Biryanis , koftas, haleem, dalcha, kebabs like shikampur, Taaj kebab muthia kebab, chicken dishes , vegetarian dishes, veg biryani , bagara rice and curries, and of course the mouth-watering desserts Double ka meetha, or kadu ki kheer and many more to order from.