A few weeks ago, a branch of the Subbayya Gari Hotel (SGH hereafter) opened right next to the place where I spend my day working in Hyderabad. We’d already heard of this place and had planned to visit as soon as possible. My friend Sathyan, always a ready partner in crime, especially of the culinary variety, rescheduled everything and we made a beeline for the tastiest food East of the Godavari. This place has been serving food since 1955 (definitely black and white days) and counts celebrities like Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao and Chief Minister and literal screen God NTR among their patrons. All this is mere garnish - and shows off that I read their website - what really took us there were tales of legendary food and hospitality (on their website they claim they treat us like their relatives - more on that later).
Our first experience of the place itself was heartening - there was a crowd of people milling about to get tokens, after which you wait around for them to call your token number. This part of the experience, usually the most mismanaged in many restaurants, is handled really well in SGH. They have a comfortable waiting area large enough to hold everyone who is waiting, and have a visual and audible signal to let you know when your table is ready. We had a short wait after which our number came up and we were courteously greeted and taken to our table.
The dining hall is a large, well-air conditioned space with seating for about 150 diners, and we were ushered to a table for four that we shared with two strangers - a typical meals-hotel scenario. The feast then began with the laying of the banana leaf before us. We were served sweets first, a trio spearheaded by the venerable boore (pronounced boo-ray, plural boo-ray-lu - very important as you will want to ask for several of them at one go). Now this is a sweet that looks deceptively like a potato bonda - except that inside, instead of the potato is a sweet filling that is without a doubt stolen from the kitchens of the gods and smuggled into East Godavari. It is called poornam in Tamil, and Sathyan tells me the same sweet is called susiyam in Trichy and Madurai and I have no reason to doubt him.
The pro way of eating a boore is to punch a hole in it with your finger and wait - the server will magically appear at your side and pour a spoonful of melted ghee into it. Then you take the boore and pop it in your mouth and savour it slowly and thoroughly. It’s not overly sweet, which is dangerous as you end up gobbling a few of them before realising you have 29 more dishes to go.
I shall be merciful and not subject you to a War and Peace type megabook - which is what will ensue if I proceed to describe all 30 dishes in the meal. Instead, I will cut straight to the chase, go to the heart of the matter, quit beating around the bush, get straight to the point, stop chewing the boore and swallow it - you get what I mean.
The key part of the meal I want to talk about is the course after the fries and curries and before the sambar and rasam and majjiga saru. Here we enter the magical twilight zone of the kandi podi. This is where the first part of the meal, the light part where you merely whet your appetite and gear up for the main business viz. eating a veritable mountain of rice, ends. In the interlude between the first part and the main part - eating the aforementioned mountain of rice with sambar, rasam and majjiga saru along with assorted curries and fries - comes the kandi podi part.
It is a beautiful interlude, necessarily brief in a traditional setting, but prolonged for the pleasure of avant garde gourmands who chuckle in the face of traditionalism (like me, I would like to add, but refrain out of respect for all the traditionalists out there. Really!). Like the bewitching orange of a monsoon twilight, the beautiful colour of hot rice mixed with kandi podi and ghee is a sight to behold. The aroma of ghee rises and fills your nostrils, bringing along a bit of the bite of the kandi podi along, like Yudhishtra bringing along his dog-friend to heaven, only this time the dog does not turn into Dharma but wags its tail uncontrollably and joyously leaps into heaven.
As this dual assault on your senses, along with the feel of the rice against your fingers and the sounds of your fellow diners oohing, aahing and slurping, makes your mouth water, you cannot help but be transported into the magical world of the kandi podi. As you can see, I clearly like kandi podi with hot rice and ghee.
There is one other part of the meal I have to mention - the penultimate part where you have already secretly loosened your belt, but motion to the server to give you “koncham” rice, holding your thumb in the first joint of your middle and ring fingers and holding it up between your face and his, hoping that that gesture will somehow magically create some extra space in your already-at-120% full stomach. This is because the server has been totally selling you the perugu, or curd, for the past several courses.
This is because you have watched, mesmerised, as he served your neighbour thickly set curd from a giant earthen pot, carving off chunks like an Antarctic glacier calving off icebergs. This is because by now, your willpower has bid you farewell and gone sulking back to wherever it skulks off to. And so it happens - the “koncham” rice is topped with two, no three, massive chunks of curd (because the server is trained to serve you once more after you wave your hands frantically and say “Chaala” in the best Telugu accent you can muster), and left to you to handle.
And handle it you do - you eat the curd, you eat the curd mixed with rice, and you eat a little bit of it mixed with the little bit of poornam that fell out of the boore a while ago. And thus endeth the perugu course. The curd is thick enough to cut with a knife and is easily the best I have tasted.
The whole meal passed in a kind of blissed out blur of taste, emotion and a complete eclipsing of any other meal I had eaten before. It was like Sri Lanka piling up a 756 in response to South Africa’s paltry 169 in Colombo - completely and totally obliterating any other food memory I had.
It took a couple of days for the haze to pass, and by then, it was time to go back. And then we went back again, and again. Now the reason for these repeated visits were two-fold: 1) The food, the absolutely awesome food, and 2) the service. They treated us like we were guests at a wedding - everyone was unfailingly polite and pleasant, they were attentive and respectful and responsive. And they were kind - something that I’ve never experienced in a commercial eating place before. The staff was not merely well-trained, but they seem to have been hired for their ability to empathise with their guests, and this came across in every interaction I had with them. So yes, they treat you like relatives.
Between the kandi podi, the boore and the perugu, the SGH meal is currently on top of my favourites list. And at a mere Rs. 225 a pop, it is without a doubt the best value for money food I currently have access to.