Guest Blog by: Rahul Panchal
After spending my spring semester in Denmark, my desire to be a globetrotter pushed me into pursuing a summer research internship in Hyderabad, India. It was there, in the bustling metropolis of Hyderabad, that I worked at a diagnostics lab for three months. Unfortunately, the vision of India that was formed during a glorious odyssey throughout Europe was far from the actual reality, and being a student afforded a much different culture shock than being a working adult.
The first week was stressful to say the least. Being all alone, living in cramped accommodations, and struggling to fit in amongst far older coworkers, I felt very out of place in this alien environment. All those previous trips to India meant nothing, and at one point, I did not see myself as being as “Indian” as I thought I was. These types of challenges are just a part of the package when you go abroad, and you are either empowered to overcome them, or you learn to live calmly in spite of them. For me, while in India, it was a little of both. So, is it weird to say, now that I’m back, that I miss almost everything about Hyderabad, even these cultural nuances that seemed to challenge me every day??
I miss those rain splattered walks through work along Abid Road, through the full blown sensory assault that would greet me everyday. The incessant sound of cars, trucks, busses, and motorcycles honking their horns, the endless flow of humanity spilling onto the streets, the smell of the frying oil wafting away in the mornings from little vada and dosa stalls, the uncomfortable splashes of mucky water, swept up from roadside puddles, seeping into my shoes. I miss the lab, all cramped up in that small and windowless space, full of the incessant chitter-chatter of my coworkers in rapid Telugu. I miss my initially feeble, but eventually triumphant attempts at speaking Hindi and trying to be more “Indian”.
For obvious reasons, I miss the food the most: waking up to an arrangement of fried goodies and peppery hot masala chai, gulab jamuns and puffy-hot pooris every Tuesday at the workplace cafeteria, spending the weekends at Lakshmi Aunty’s house, where I was reacquainted with her simple, yet heavily satisfying cuisine after so many years, and the biryani, oh, oh, oh do I miss that biryani. Juicy chunks (or legs) of chicken or mutton (goat) layered between intensely aromatic basmati rice and served with a peanut and coconut gravy known as salan, I could probably go on for posts about its uniqueness and how I will never be able to replicate this true Hyderabadi delicacy in my home. That makes me sad because most biryanis found here in the States or really anywhere outside Hyderabad for that matter, just cannot compare. What’s Andhra stays Andhra.
Fortunately, there are some Hyderabadi treats which I can prepare within the confines of my small, apartment kitchen, and you can now too. Best of all, this little dish is chock full of one my all time favorite snack foods, dried apricots. Where my love affair with these bright orange gems began is not hard to trace. I would go through almost a bag a day back in Denmark, for they were both cheap and a good way to hold over the hunger until the next meal. When I learned that one of Hyderabad’s trademark sweets features dried apricots as the key ingredient, it became imperative that there was going to be no way that I would be leaving the city without having bowls aplenty, all to be licked down to the last bit of golden and sticky apricot goo.
Qubani ka Meetha, which translates to “apricot-sweet” in Urdu, the language of Hyderabad’s Muslim community, is a dessert straight out of the kitchens of the Nizams (old Muslim rulers) of Hyderabad, who would have most likely sourced the dried beauties from the eastern lands of Afghanistan and Iran. Today a staple at most Hyderabadi weddings, qubani ka meetha is enjoyed by all Indians alike, but if you want a truly authentic taste, you still have to venture into the old Muslim quarter of the city, across the dried up river bank, to grab a taste at famous eateries such as Shadaab, where I was able to grab a delicious mouthful.
Simplicity is the essence of this dish, for the simplest recipes only require a boiling down of dried apricots, water, and sugar, finished with apricot kernels and a spoon of malai (clotted cream). Thus the quality and more so type of product, specifically the apricot, really factors into the final taste of this dish. In India most, if not all dried apricots, are unsulphured, meaning that they are not treated with sulfur dioxide to give them that bright orange color. They have a different taste, one that is often sweeter and earthier. Furthermore, the pits are left in, and the utilization of the kernels within, little seeds that resemble almonds, both in terms of taste and appearance, provide the element of crunch. As sweets in India are usually only reserved for special occasions, Indian cooks typically show no restraint with the sugar, so during both instances in which I had Qubani in Hyderabad, they were cloyingly sweet, a taste that was only tempered by stirring in some of the malai.
While I loved the Qubani ka Meetha with all its realness at Shadaab, this became one of the few dishes where I felt that I could actually make it, dare I say better, with the usage of American ingredients back home. There were naturally some big changes I had to make. Firstly, that the dried apricots we get in the US are the more familiar brightly orange-tinted Turkish varieties, which for me, have oddly enough always burst with a fruity reminiscence of the fresh fruit. Secondly, as these apricots come without the pits, I decided to substitute this textural element by stirring in some toasted almonds. Also, as making malai usually requires long hours spent over the stove, boiling milk down and stirring it continuously, I opted for serving with vanilla ice cream instead because as a busy and overworked college student, I ain’t got time to replicate all of my ancestral ways. The change I am the most proud of though, is the addition of crushed cardamom seeds.
A key flavor in almost all Indian desserts, cardamom is used as often in India as vanilla is in the US, but the two don’t taste anything the same, save for their floral aromas. Lusty, jammy, and full of the warm aromas of an Indian childhood (thanks to my buddy cardamom), the flavors of Qubani ka Meetha will have you missing it as soon as you finish your first bowl. Good thing, I made it again last weekend.
Recipe: Qubani ka Meetha
- 1 cup dried apricots, packed
- 2 tablespoons sugar, adjust to taste
- 6 crushed cardamom pods, optional
- 1/4 cup whole almonds, toasted
- vanilla ice cream, for serving
- Soak the apricots in warm water overnight, till they have plumped up fully.
- Pour the apricots with the water (it should have a nice orange color) into a heavy bottom sauce pan with the crushed cardamom pods. Bring the mixture to a boil.
- Simmer the mixture for 20-25 minutes, mashing intermittently, until the apricots are softened and falling apart.
- Stir in the sugar and toasted almonds, cook for another 5 minutes.
- Serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or dollop of whipped cream.
- If you want your Qubani to mimic both the taste and appearance of the Hyderabadi original, try using unsulphured apricots instead of the conventional Turkish kind. Also there are a good deal of Indian grocery stores that carry Indian apricots as well. These may be complete with the pits and will naturally lend you the most authentic flavor.
- Qubani ka Meehta can also be served with a vanilla custard, creme anglaise, unsweetened whipped cream, or Greek yogurt.
My new favorite way to use Qubani ka Meetha is by featuring it as a cake filling. Use your favorite yellow cake recipe, place a thick layer of the Qubani between the layers, and frost with a cardamom whipped cream. It is guaranteed to blow the minds of your guests. It sure did for mine :)!
Note: Rahul has plenty of other foodie reflections on his own personal blog here: http://cookingfever.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/how-hyderabad-stole-my-heart-qubani-ka-meetha-dried-apricot-sweet/