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.
Hyderabad: ‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar’.
With the first signs of daybreak and the call of the muezzin from the tall minarets of mosques, people in traditional Arab attire - kandoras (flowing robes), and colourful ghutras and amamas - start streaming out of their homes to offer Fajr prayers.
Shops and markets around the mosques are still shut, lanes and by-lanes sleepy, and homes with Arabic nameplates hung on iron gates are wrapped in silence.
Workers at the ‘Harees Al-Hadhrami Restaurant’ famous for its typical Arabic breakfast dish ‘harees’ are busy at their kiln preparing to welcome customers.
Nearby, tea stalls serving Qahwa or typical Arabic tea sans milk have started doing business as the people on their way back from mosques gather for their morning cuppa and gossip. “Shai”, (Chai or tea in Arabic), beckons a customer, as the young man at the counter Omer Al-Yafai greets him with a smile.
As the morning gets warmer, a group of women clad in black burqas with their faces covered in the hijab heads towards the sprawling playground for their daily walk. “Only ladies allowed till 8 am,” proclaims a board at the entrance.
A short distance away a neon sign of ‘Dubai Souq’ shines outside a shop.
Welcome to Barkas, a bustling township where every sight and scent makes you feel like you are in an Arab country. Welcome to a place that Arabs from numerous tribes and countries made their home more than a couple of centuries ago - far away from their original homes.
The road heading south from the historic Charminar – the four-century-old icon of Hyderabad - takes you to the Barkas, an Arab oasis surrounded by the unique Deccan rocks.
The community mostly migrated to this part of India in the 17th and 18th century from Hadarmaut in Yemen and other parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Still, the distinct stamp of Arab culture, civilisation and lifestyle is visible all around.
Of the nearly 150 Yemeni and other tribes who made this region their home centuries ago, the Lahmadi tribe was among the first to come.
Barkas is now a part of the lexicon of everyday Hyderabadi lingo, although essentially it was a corruption of Barracks or the settlement of Arab soldiers brought during the reign of the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Mahboob Ali Khan.
The migration of Arab tribes, especially the Hadrami tribes, was part of a plan of the Muslim ruler of the Deccan to raise organised army units comprising of soldiers from different backgrounds, including Pathans from Afghanistan and Habshis or Siddis from Africa. So, in addition to the Arab and Pathan Regiments, the Asaf Jahi dynasty, as the Nizams were called, also had an African Cavalry. Their descendants, too, are still around.
According to historical records, Yemeni tribesmen started reaching the rich and prosperous state of Hyderabad as early as the 17th century, but their organised migration with the encouragement from the Nizams gained momentum around 1875.
Origin of Barkas
Obaid Saleh Abulail Al-Salmi, the first commander of the Arab Regiment of the 6th Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan, is revered by the community as the founder of Barkas.
Abulail had the respect and trust of the 6th Nizam as the Arab commander had saved his life in an assassination attempt. The Nizam gave him the title Janisar Yar Jung (a noble ready to lay down his life).
It was on his request that Barkas was established for the Arab army men.
When the Arab Regiment was created it was initially based at Maisaram or Maheshwaram, 19km away from Hyderabad. But as the Arabs were deployed for the security of the Palace of the Nizam, they had to travel a long distance those days.
To solve the problem, in 1880 a sprawling area was identified to settle the Arab regiment by building barracks for the soldiers and houses for their families.
This was the origin of the Barkas. Initially, a few hundred soldiers and families settled there. But today it is home to about 200,000 Arab-descendants of about 150 different tribes, mostly from Yemen.
The Arab tradition and custom of preserving the family tree (Shajra) and sticking steadfastly to the tribal surnames like Al-Qureshi, Al-Amoodi, Al-Qarmooshi and Al-Hashmi have gone a long way in keeping the identity and culture of the people alive.
Continuity with change is visible in Barkas at every step.
Till 1948, when the curtain fell on the Asaf Jahi dynasty after Hyderabad state merged into the Indian union through military action, the Arabs were mainly employed in the Hyderabadi army. But there were many others who had started exploring other avenues like agriculture and business.
As every home had fruit orchards, horticulture and fruit business had also become a major source of income. “It was like Man wa Salwa (Manna) or heavenly food,” says Habeeb Abdul Azeez Bin Abdurrahman Baghdadi with a smile, recalling the days when every household used to grow fruits like papaya, mulberry and guava.
When the Nizam’s army was disbanded throwing Arab soldiers, like thousands of others, out on the streets without any job, the future suddenly became bleak. While a few chose to return to the lands from where they had come, a vast majority decided to stay back and start their lives afresh with meagre resources.
There was no objection from any quarter as they were accepted wholeheartedly by the local communities. “Our forefathers had come from Yemen but now we have a fifth generation living here. Though we are from Arab and Yemeni origin, India is our country. We were born here and it is our home for which we have laid down our lives and will do so again if necessary. There is no question about it,” asserted Mahmood Bin Ali Bilhawal of Salalah and Barkas Welfare Association.
After the Nizam
With the Nizam’s era coming to an end more than seven decades ago and without any formal higher education and degrees, finding employment for the younger generation of Arabs in Hyderabad was a struggle.
Despite all the challenges and difficulties one thing was clear for them: India was their home and they were here to stay.
Their struggle for education and jobs continued until the oil boom in the Gulf threw open new doors of opportunity. This brought prosperity and revived the long-forgotten links with their kin in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other places.
Saleh Ahmad bin Abdat of Jamiatul Yemeniyya bil Hind Association of Yemenis in India underlines the importance of reviving contacts, thanks to migration for jobs as well as the internet and social media.
“Most of us had lost contact with our relatives in Yemen. Finding work in the Gulf not only helped us get back on our feet, it also gave our community better access to education. We also reconnected with our roots. Members of the Yemeni diaspora live in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries. We traced them through our tribe names. The internet played its part as we found many relatives online”.
On how the contacts and relations between the Arab clans settled in Barkas and their kin in Yemen and other places were restored after a long gap, Salam Bin Abdullah Al Aseeri, a real estate developer and businessman shared a very interesting anecdote. “It is all about the tribal surname and identity,” he said.
“When we went for the Haj in December 2007, a gold jewellery shop manager refused to accept money from us saying he was also an Al Aseeri and wanted us to be his guest. He invited me and my family to visit Saudi Arabia as his personal guest,” said Salam Al-Aseeri. “A major general in the Saudi Arabia army is also an Al-Aseeri,” he proudly proclaims.
The new generation of Barkasians value these renewed contacts and the opportunities they brought.
“I am very grateful to the Gulf countries for providing good opportunities for me and countless other youth of Barkas,” says Mohammed Bin Wahlan, who works in a Pharmacy in Qatar.
“Despite lots of changes, our traditional culture back home has been preserved 50 per cent, as even the new generation continues to abide by it,” said Mohammed, in his late 20s.
Ahmad Ba Wazeer, enjoying his daily morning harees at the Hadrami Restaurant, was nostalgic about the old times.
“Earlier there was more love, affection and friendliness and many more people used to be seen in Arab and traditional attire like the lungi and shirt, a rumaal (towel) on the shoulder. This was so different from other local cultures giving a distinct touch to the Barkas,” said Ba Wazeer.
Recalling his childhood days, Ba Wazeer, in his early 60s, said: “We used to earn pocket money by just plucking the fruits hanging from trees outside homes. This harees, which now costs Rs70 per plate, costed just a few pennies in those days.”
The Hadrami Restaurant, started almost a century ago by the grandfather of Qaiser Haftoor, is a popular destination for its unique variety of Arabic harees - sweet and salty. “It is like a symbol of Barkas. No visit to Barkas will be complete without tasting our dish,” he says.
In the nearby tea stall serving Qahwa, Sulaimani tea and other varieties of the warm brew, Omar Bin Askari Al Yafai was all smiles as his customer sat chatting about the day to day affairs.
Mohammed Abdullah Hussain Al Hamid Al Hashmi, now in his 70s, remains a die-hard optimist. His great grandfather, Mohammed Bin Hussain Al Hamdi Al Hashmi, migrated to Hyderabad from Hadarmaut more than century ago. During the time of his father, Abdullah Bin Hussain Alhamdi Al Hashmi, the family roots spread further. His family was witness to the ups and downs the Yemeni community encountered. He is closely related to General Habeeb Ahmad bin Mahdar Al Eidroos, the last chief of the Nizam of Hyderabad, and experienced both prosperity and hardship.
As the family was from Aden in Yemen, which was under the British at the time, Mohammed Abdullah Hussain was issued a British passport and moved to the UAE in 1965.
“Yes, there is a lot of change in the lifestyle ever since our people started going to the Gulf for employment and it has brought plenty of prosperity. While our community progressed economically, regrettably our traditional fraternal ties and love for each other have waned. Earlier, people used to stop by to enquire about the wellbeing of their neighbours who were treated like relatives. But today nobody has time for others. Sometimes, people don’t even know who is in the neighbourhood,” said Al-Hamid who is on an annual visit to spend time with his relatives.
As their population grew and space in Barkas came under pressure, the Arabs staying there moved to new areas, including Salala. They also settled down in clusters in other parts of Hyderabad, like King Kothi area where their ancestors were responsible for security at the Nizam’s residential palace, as well as the AC Guards, Golconda Fort Area.
The Fruit Auction Market, where growers would sell their produce to retailers, has been the heart of Barkas. Once, the economy of the Arab community used to revolve around this business and buyers would come from all over the city for high quality fruits. But today the market is past its prime.
Abdul Azeez Bin Hasan Al Masri Al Amoodi from Hadarmaut continues the tradition of his forefathers by conducting the auction every morning as the other elders observe keenly. But today the markets have few sellers and buyers as the number of orchards in the area has shrunk.
“This is a result of pressure on the land because of growing population. Trees have been replaced by houses and buildings,” says Habeeb Abdul Azeez Baghdadi.
Young Abdullah Bin Khalifa vows that there was nothing better than the fruits grown in the area. “We have many unique fruits and herbs which are not available anywhere else”.
Salam Bin Abdullah Al Aseeri, a real estate developer and businessman, however, regrets the decline of traditional business of Barkas. His great grandfather, Salam Bin Abdullah Bin Salam, came to Hyderabad from Al-Aseer in Saudi Arabia, bordering Yemen. His grandfather Salam Bin Abdullah Aseeri was Subedar Major in the Nizam’s army, and his father was an engineer.
He rues the loss of traditional businesses of Barkas over the decades. “Our forefathers built the fruit and dairy businesses with honesty and integrity. But the young generation gave these principles up and the businesses moved to other areas and into the hands of other people. Today Barkas has lost the unique nature of its traditional business. Very few people bring their produce to the Barkas market for auction.”
On the other hand, there has been an educational revolution. It was rare to see a college going student from the area about three decades ago. But not any more.
“We still love our traditions and culture. Most of the people have retained their cultural identity. People wear lungi and amama (Arab traditional headscarf), especially on Fridays,” says Aseeri. “Every Friday our people visit the graveyard to pray for their departed loved ones. This is followed by a family get-together where Arabic dishes like Mandi, Qabas, Majboos and Muzbih are savoured,” he says.
Keeping the cultural identity alive through the centuries is a story in itself.
Leif Manger sums up the struggle in the book The Hadrami Diaspora: Community Building of the Indian Ocean Rim.
“The maintenance of everyday Hadrami identities in Barkas in Hyderabad happens through many processes. One such process is through the staging of different traditional practices on the occasion of birth, marriage and death, as well as an adherence to culinary varieties, tastes, and preferences in dress, music, dance and so on. All of these cultural traits or practices differentiate Hadramis from other groups”.
Charity remains a hallmark of life of the Arab community as reflected in the work of numerous organisations such as Majlis-e-Sabeel Al Khair, Baitul Maal, Barkas and Welfare Association.
While conducting a funeral in other parts of Hyderabad is a costly affair as one has to pay a hefty price for the piece of land, in Barkas everything is free thanks to Majlis-e-Sabeel Al Khair.
“As soon as we receive information about the demise of a person, our volunteers take over all the arrangements of the funeral and the family members don’t have to worry about anything,” said Aseeri. “We even have Qabrastan Party (graveyard party) or volunteer group which digs graves free of cost. This has been the tradition for many decades”.
Founded by Shaikh Saleh Ba Khattab and once headed by the likes of Sayeed Ba Oum, Majlis also provides pension to the poor, widows and destitute so they don’t have to beg in public. They issue scholarships to the students and take care of other needs. They also run schools and colleges.
Another major cultural difference between the Arab community of Barkas and other local Muslims is in the way marriages are solemnised.
While marriages of local Muslims are extravagant and expensive affairs where the cost runs into millions of rupees, Arab families of Barkas are known to keep weddings simple and low key. Dowry has become a social curse among the locals as it puts a huge burden on the families of the bride. But it is abhorred among the Arabs and the girl’s family is not burdened with unnecessary rituals and customs. “There is no custom of demanding dowry from the bride’s family,” says Yunus Bin Abdullah Bin Haid.
Traditional medicine for jaundice, a concoction of herbs, is distributed free. It was started by Hussain Qureshi and is now being done by his son Mohsin Qureshi. Thousands of people throng their house on fixed days in a week for the medicine.
“We feel so happy and honoured to serve the humanity this way,” said Mohsin Qureshi.
Al-Aseeri says that gradually Arabic was replaced by Urdu and later by English as the medium of education. Arabic was confined to learning and reading the Holy Quran.
“Earlier there was a lot of stress on children learning and speaking in Arabic. That is why we are still able to speak in Arabic so well.”
There was an institution called Mahad Al-Lughat Al-Arabia to teach Arabic but it is not there anymore and the younger generation has also lost interest. Their knowledge of Arabic language is now mostly confined to learn and read the Holy Quran,” he says.
Sayeed Bin Ali Qureshi, who runs a flour business, says: “Changes are inevitable with passing generations and changing times. The earlier generation was not so well educated because of lack of resources and facilities. But now more and more children are getting higher education. Now there is no family in Barkas without a graduate or a professional degree holder, including doctors, engineers, dentists and chartered accountants. Our elders were against the education of girls, but now they are studying in colleges and getting good jobs in the private sector. People have understood that education is a must.”
For Arabs the significance of the family lineage and identity can never be underestimated. They proudly preserve it and maintain a written record of the same. In fact, an institution by Jamiatul-Yemenia Bil Hind started by Ba Osman used to issue the certificate of family lineage to Yemeni descendants. Ba Osman’s sons Khalid Ba Osman and Ahmad Ba Osman are continuing to do this.”
Love for Football
Like tradition, culture and language, another common link among the people of Arab countries and the citizens of Barkas is the love for football.
Sprawling playgrounds in the area produced many top-notch footballers who played at the national level as part of well-known teams like Mohammedan Sporting and Indian Railways.
Habeeb Khan was a prominent footballer for Mohammedan Sporting. “We have produced so many big sportspersons, including Hind-Kesari, Andhra Kesari and Telangana Kesari pehelwans (wrestlers). Our players played for Mohammadan Sporting, East Bengal and many other national football teams and earned laurels,” points out Abdul Azeez Al-Baghdadi.
Initially there was an aversion to marriages between the Arabs and non-Arab local communities. “But gradually the taboos ended and we now marry girls from local communities and also give our girls to them in marriage. I also married off my daughter into a Pathan family of Barkas,” said Salam Hussain Bin Hajab, a businessman.
Barkas Arabs relish anecdotes that the Nizam had full trust in the Arab and Pathan soldiers. “Pathans were the guards of the Haram-e-Nizam and Arabs guarded the treasure of the Nizam”, recalled on old timer.
“Such was the liking and emotional bond of the ruling family and the Arabs that the entire arrangement of the funeral of the last Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan were made by Arabs. His Namaz-e-Janazah (last prayers) was led by Habeeb Al-Eidroos,” recalled Ali.
Friends and guests
Like their kin in Arab countries, the Barkas Arabs also love the company of their friends and guests.
One such traditional get-together was at the Ba Oum family home deep inside Barkas where a group of friends going back almost five generations gathered to enjoy post-Friday-prayer food.
Over the warm lunch, hosted by the Ba Oum brothers - Saud and Faisal - there was animated discussion over how Barkas was always shown in a negative light by a section of the media. “Even a minor incident is exaggerated to raise a controversy and show us in a bad light. We feel very unhappy about it. The fact is that the crime rate in the area is far, far less than other parts of Hyderabad,” says Faisal. “We are a peace-loving community”.
“You will not find any youngster of our community loitering around or smoking, leave alone other bad habits. There is a special emphasis on proper upbringing of children. A child in the locality is looked after by the entire neighbourhood. This social pressure works very well even today,” says Yunus Bin Abdullah Bin Haid.
“Our culture is alive even today. We have the blood of our ancestors in us. Arab culture and traditions are alive in our lifestyle and conduct”, said Habeeb Abdurrahman.
The Arab community has also made its presence felt in politics. Ahmad Bin Abdullah Balala is a member of the Telangana state Legislative Council from Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and Fahad Bin Samad Abdat is a member of Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation.
Ahmad Bin Abdul Quader Kasadi, an elected member of Municipal Council of Jalpally near Barkas, sees a big transformation in the young generation of Barkas as far as education is concerned.
“There is a wrong impression that Barkas does not have any non-Muslim population. This is the cradle of communal harmony and unity. Many Hindu families live here. Even at the worst of times, we did not allow any Hindu family to move out of this area. They also don’t want to leave this area as they feel safe and secure,” says Saud Bin Sayeed Ba Oum.
“We have no history or instance of any communal trouble”.
“Our people have always been interested in education and our elders emphasised it. But earlier the stress was on Islamic religious education and they established many educational institutions and madrassas like Shoba-e-Deeniyat. At the same time, we produced many highly educated personalities. One of us, Ahmad Bin Abdullah Osman Ba Osman became a professor in America,” says Kasadi.
“Today our new generation is more into modern education and building their careers in the field of medicine, law, engineering and information technology, and pursuing their careers in the Gulf and other developed countries. They are respected for their work ethic,” he adds.
Emphasis on girls’ education has begun to bear fruit. Many women have become graduates and post graduates, and are pursuing professional careers. An interesting example is of the Ba Hamied family where one sister Ayesha is an Aalimah (religious scholar), while the other is a medical doctor.
In fact, Barkas had very few educational institutions in the beginning. Today the area has a large number of schools, junior and degree colleges and other professional institutions.
Abbe Bakoban started a private hospital in the area and today it is an example of the changing face of Barkas.
Abdullah Bin Ahmad Al Qarmooshi, a revered elderly figure of Barkas, started a business management college in the area and it is running successfully even after his death.
New era, new opportunities
Arab migrants showed their enterprising traits from the beginning. Sabir Jameel Ba Haziq was the first importer and exporter of textiles. “He used to bring his wares from Singapore and other countries to sell in the local market. They were very popular and he expanded his business to other Indian cities,” his son Ali Sher Barziq recalls.
While some of the Arabs entered the real estate and construction business, the increasing love and demand for Arab cuisine has spawned new and exciting opportunities for the Generation Z Arab entrepreneurs of Hyderabad.
As Arabic cuisine caught the attention of food lovers, Arab, Yemeni and other similar restaurants have sprung up not only in and around Barkas but all over Hyderabad, especially serving the traditional Mandi dish. Today, Barkas is the destination of food lovers not only from around Hyderabad but also from other states too.
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.
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.
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’”.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.