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An outside view of Mataam Al-Arabi restaurant in Barkas. The restaurant is a success story of an Arab food entrepreneur. Image Credit: Mohammad Siddique, Gulf News

Barkas in Hyderabad is home to a large population of Arab origin, mainly from Yemen. Following years of migration that began in the 17th century, they have assimilated into the local population, yet retained their distinctive culture.

In the third of a three-part series, we look at how food has played a big role in the popularity of Barkas, with Yemen’s famed mandi cooking attracting people from around the country.

Hyderabad: Clad in a maroon lungi and printed dark blue shirt, Adbullah Bin Masood Bashadi stands in a corner keenly watching an army of waiters and helpers serving the customers at his multi-storeyed Yemeni restaurant Mataam Al-Arabi.

From his simple appearance and humble demeanor the former national football player turned businessman in his forties hardly looks like the man who added a new chapter to the already rich and diverse food map of Hyderabad.

Meet the person behind the fast growing craze for mandi, the famous Yemeni dish, which is slowly overshadowing the Biryani, symbol of the renowned Hyderabadi or Dakkani cuisine.

His 10-year old Mataam Al-Arabi restaurant in Barkas, an enclave of the Yemeni and other Arab tribes, has become the destination of all Arabic food lovers.

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The man who started it all - Abdullah Bin Masood Bashadi, a former National Football player was the first to introduce mandi in Hyderabad at a commercial level. Today his 10-year-old Mataam Al-Arabi is the most popular destination for Arabic food lovers in Hyderabad. Image Credit: Mohammad Siddique, Gulf News

The increasing popularity of mandi, reflected in a large number of Arabic restaurants springing up on the road from Barkas towards the shrine of Baba Sharfuddin on the southern tip of Hyderabad, has brought into focus the deep impact that the Arab and Yemeni diaspora has had on the city of minarets.

The chain of mandi restaurants with glitzy exteriors and facade in Arabic architectural style have given a nickname to the road, ‘Shahrah-e-Mandi’ (Mandi Highway). Hundreds of people with families throng them from early evening till midnight.

“Though Arabic food and cuisine brought by our ancestors when they migrated to Hyderabad during the Nizam’s era always remained part of our existence and we used to cook them at home, this is the first time that its popularity has gone far beyond, winning the hearts of even non-Arabs,” said Masood Bin Abdullah Bashadi, a fourth generation Yemeni Arab.

Abdullah, whose great grandfather from the Bashadi tribe migrated from Hadarmaut to Hyderabad, got the idea of introducing mandi back home during his Haj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in 2008. It was during this journey that he met many of his kinsmen, got to taste genuine mandi and experienced Yemeni culture closely.

Abdullah alias Abu Bhai said his interest in the business of food was also ignited when he saw a dream in Haram-e-Shareef in Mecca. “I saw myself selling fish on a roadside in Hyderabad. It was a sign that I would get into the food business,” said Abdullah, who was passing through financial difficulties at that time.

One of the shops in Barkas catering to the peculiar tastes and needs of the Arab origin residents. Image Credit: Mohammad Siddique, Gulf News

Like thousands of others in Barkas, Abdullah Bin Masood Badshadi too has his roots in Hadarmaut in Yemen. However, unlike many others who came as soldiers, Abdullah’s great grandfather Abdullah Bin Ahmad Bashadi had migrated to Hyderabad in search of greener pastures and gradually became a rich landlord with hundreds of acres in Kalwakurthy, about 100kms away from Hyderabad.

Abdullah’s father Masood Bin Abdullah Bashadi was a national hockey player and also worked as a teacher in Madarsa-e-Ilahiya school in Barkas, apart from serving in the Nizam’s government.

After his father’s demise Abdullah Bin Masood and his siblings fell on hard times.

“I had to work from my younger days and tried my hand at many things, including real estate and even selling fish. But my life took a turn for the better only in 2010 after I found success in the mandi business,” he told Gulf News.

Not far from the Mataam Al-Arabi restaurant is Qasr Al-Mandi (Palace of Mandi), among the five or six major Mandi makers. Khalid Jameel Barziq, one of the partners of Qasr Al-Mandi said: “Your success in satisfying the connoisseurs of a dish depends on how genuine and authentic you are in its preparation”.

He said that mandi earned popular approval for many reasons. “Unlike biryani it is not spice-heavy or oily but the stress is more on aroma and the meat. People don’t feel heavy after eating mandi. Secondly it has genuine Yemeni roots as Yemeni and Arab descendants here feel emotionally attached to it. They say ‘This is our own dish’”.

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Family and friends meet at a home in Barkas. Image Credit: Mohammad Siddique, Gulf News

“The people who come to our restaurant for mandi from far off places say ‘Today we felt like we had mandi’”, adds Al-Barziq’s partner Ahmed Khan in a typical Deccani lingo. “Now its popularity is spreading even outside Hyderabad and people are coming from as far away as Mumbai and Bangalore for this dish”.

Most of the mandi restaurant owners agree that the credit of introducing the Yemeni dish goes to Abdullah Bin Masood and Mataam Al-Arabi.

“It was my mother who taught me how to cook mandi’,” reveals Masood. “When I told her I want to start a mandi hotel she first taught me to cook it at home. Believe it or not, before mandi I had never cooked anything in my life. When I started a small eatery in a single room, my mother came there on the first day and made it. It was all trial and error since then.”

The journey was not easy for Abdullah Bin Masood. “Initially I used to cook in a small vessel and sometimes even that remained unsold as it was not perfect. At the end of the day I would distribute it among the poor. I would sit outside my tiny hotel and call passersby and friends to come and eat and they would run away fearing it will not taste good. I ran into debt of Rs 100,000 and would cry while returning home in the night.”

“But I decided to persist as I felt that some spiritual power wanted me to do this work and succeed,” Masood said.

Narrating the story of how he finally found the magic formula and started winning hearts, Masood said: “Different people came from different corners to help me as if some spiritual force was driving them towards me. The secret of our mandi is that it is the result of the work of five people,” he said, narrating how his elder brother’s friend, a cook, and a Haleem (another Hyderabadi dish) maker worked with him at different stages and taught him how to improve the dish.

“I never saw mandi as a businessman but as a host to serve my guests and make them happy and satisfied. I was always generous in my servings. I think this earned me Allah’s grace and beneficence”, he says philosophically, as he directs people to a section meant exclusively for families.

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“On the weekends our restaurant is packed with customers though the Yemeni families in Barkas also cook the dish specially on Fridays when relatives and friends get together”, said Masood.

What started from a tiny kiosk in Barkas has now taken the entire city by storm with restaurants springing up everywhere, including upmarket areas of Hyderabad like Jubilee Hills, Hitech city and Mehdipatnam, with Arabic sounding names and billboards displaying pictures.

However, the Barkasians say many of them are not genuine and one has to come to the Arabs in Barkas to enjoy the real delicacy.

These restaurants also serve other Arabic dishes such as Bukhari, Qabsa and Majboos, and the sweet dish Aseed.

Though mandi is available in almost all the Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE with distinctly different tastes, it has a special connection with Yemen.

The popularity of mandi as a dish and the mushrooming of Arabic restaurants as a business tells the story of the profound impact that Arabs continue to have centuries after their migration to Hyderabad.

What is mandi?

Mandi, or Laham Mandi to be precise, is a typical Yemeni dish. In Arabic it means dew, underlining the fact that a perfect mandi has a very aromatic and tasty appeal to it.

It is dish of meat and rice and has various versions of beef, mutton, chicken, fish and even quail. What decides its quality and taste are the spices, which are an integral part of the delicacy. Apart from a particular style of cooking the mix of rice and meat, expensive spices like saffron, pine nut, nutmeg, cinnamon and dry fruits such as cashew, almonds and raisins make mandi what it is.

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Mandi, the famous Yemeni dish, is served by the Arab owned restaurants in Hyderabad. The city is witnessing an unprecedented revival of interest in Arabic cuisine more than two centuries after the Arabs, especially the Yemenis from Hadarmaut, migrated to Hyderabad. Image Credit: Mohammad Siddique, Gulf News

“In the beginning we used to source the spices from Saudi Araba as they were of high quality and genuine. However, lately they are being sourced locally after ensuring that they are of the same quality,” says Abdullah.

Mandi is prepared by cooking specially chosen aromatic rice in meat stock adding moisture to the dish.

In many Arab countries the dish is cooked in a pot buried in a pit and the big pieces of meat are hung over the rice separated by a rack or mesh. Mandi in a sealed pot is cooked on a slow, wood fire overnight with the fat of suspended meat dripping into the rice and adding to the taste. “This method is called Madfoon or buried,” says Khalid Jameel Barzikh.

Unlike biryani where the spices or masala is the name of the game, mandi has typical aroma and flavor with spices giving a particular taste to it.

While some of the restaurants in Barkas like Mataam Al-Arabi and Qasr Al-Mandi try to give an authentic touch to the dish, in most places the dish is cooked in a tandoor or earthen oven. In many of the restaurants mandi has assumed local colour with the cooks giving a Hyderabadi touch with excessive chilly and other spices.

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Mandi, the famous Yemeni dish, is served by the Arab owned restaurants in Hyderabad. Image Credit: Mohammad Siddique, Gulf News

Mataam Al-Arabi is one genuine place where the dish is cooked and served in distinct Arabic style with customers sitting crossed legged on the floor and eating from the same large steel plate on a small chowki (small table).

Such is the popularity of the dish that it has started appearing on the tables of the famed dinner tables of weddings in Hyderabad.

Business of food

Over the centuries Arab cuisine has become an integral part of Hyderabad culinary culture. The growing demand for the cuisines of other countries, including Turkish, Iranian, Lebanese and Afghan, has opened new doors for enterprising businessmen.

Once the mandi craze started, the gen next of Barkas was quick to grab the opportunity and open exclusive Arabic restaurants. Al-Saud Baital-Mandi, Qaswa and Abood Mandi are examples of how descendants of Arab diaspora turned to the food business in a big way as their traditional businesses faced setbacks.

The young generation now looks to the future confidently, hoping for new pastures to expand their business, thanks to the legacy of cuisine left behind by their ancestors.