In old Hyderabad, a fourth-generation establishment whips up the well-loved Munshi Naan
The square-shaped munshi naan has a legacy of 167 years and was created by a man who served as a 'munshi' in the administration of the fourth Nizam of Hyderabad
Two men are completely engrossed in transferring delicate pieces of dough into a smoldering tandoor bhatti, completely oblivious to the trauma of the traffic surrounding them. Few would realise, on first glance, that this dinghy establishment is where Hyderabad’s famous char koni naan, better known as Munshi Naan, originated and has been its fastidious flag bearer for more than a century.
Charting the naan's history
The local lore of Naan Munshi Saheb, which has been well documented, traces its origin to 1851. The fourth-generation owner Khaja Abdul Hameed shares, “My great-grandfather and founder of the naan, Mohammed Hussain Saheb, used to work as a munshi in one of the offices under the fourth Nizam of Hyderabad, Naseer-ud-Dowla. On a visit to Delhi, he learnt the recipe of the naan and started it in Hyderabad.”
The shop got its name from the profession of its owner, and though the same stretch boasts of at least a dozen stalls selling similar naan, none is half as popular as its primogenitor.
Its location in the densely populated Purani Haveli area in the Old City (known as Haveli Khadeem in the past) ensured that it was a big hit, and local legend has it that it counted the Nizam as one of its patrons, ensuing in its dizzying rise to fame.
The square-shaped naan became an instant hit because of its ability to cater to a wide base of patrons. Crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, it became a poor man’s breakfast, as vegetarians paired it with milk or tea while non-vegetarians could have it as an accompaniment with many traditional old-city dishes, from nihaari and paya to maraq, the clear lamb soup — a favorite of the working class.
While the establishment makes five different kinds of naan, the square-shaped one came into being as it was easier to hold it while on the move. Hameed says, “The Purani Haveli area wasn’t as affluent as the Charminar neighborhood and the clientele consisted mostly of workers. The bigger base made it easier for them to stand and eat it with a soup. It might also have been a trick of the trade to ensure that the product stood out from regular naans during its inception. The size remains the same over the years.”
Apart from the square-shaped naans made daily, the other four other varieties made (usually on order) are: paan naan (thicker at 140 grams per piece), taare ki naan or the star-shaped naan (popular for events involving children), sheermal or the round naan and finally the lambi roti or the bada naan which is preferred for big family gatherings or festivities.
Sticklers for tradition
While machinery has more or less invaded every aspect of modern life, at Munshi Naan’s, it hasn’t been allowed to cross the threshold. The ingredients remain the same (maida, oil, curd, salt, a smattering of elaichi and a secret ingredient in some seasons, which Hameed mentions as an afterthought, with a smile).
Nearly 1400 naans are made on a regular day from two quintals of flour, with eight employees making fresh batches at 7:30 am, 1:30 pm and 7 pm. A cardinal sin in Hyderabadi cuisine is to serve the naan cold, so most of it is devoured hot, while some are reheated before consuming — a practice Hameed strongly disapproves of.
They still use the traditional underground tandoor bhatti (a large structure consisting of a cooking pot built inside an insulating mud oven), which uses charcoal and gives a unique, smoke-y texture to the naan. While most modern baking uses yeast, Munshi Naan sticks to the time-honored Indian method of ‘proving’, where the dough is allowed to rest for 12-14 hours, giving it time to ‘rise’ and achieve a wholesome favor. So each evening the mixture for the next day is hung from a cloth and retrieved in the morning.
Simple precautions have helped achieve its cult status. Four small holes are punctured on its surface so that air is circulated within the dough while baking to ensure that it isn’t burnt. Just as the naan is ready to be tossed into the bhatti, it is placed on a small coir bundle covered with cloth (the cushion is called rafeeda) where it is treated with a mixture of jaggery and water which is then stuck on the walls of the tandoor bhatti (36 in each batch, baked for five to seven minutes). Retrieved from the bhatti using two long steel ladles collectively called jodiyaan and individually named kaata and haraa, the naans emerge with a gingery reddish hue on one side, and though thick, they aren't too bulky.
Relevance in today’s cuisine
While Munshi Naan has always had its devoted clientele in the old city of Hyderabad, it has been resurrected in popular parlance in the recent past, thanks to the increasing number of food walks being conducted in the city. These heritage food walks have introduced the gastronomical riches of an old cuisine to a tech-savvy generation of bloggers and Instagrammers, who have taken a fancy to its rich history and legacy apart from its unique taste.
Executive chef at The Park, Hyderabad, Thimma Reddy reels off a multitude of reasons to decipher its continuous popularity. He says, “It is softer and thicker than other naans and takes more time to bake in the tandoor as it is thicker than regular varieties. They got it right and succeeded in creating a unique flavor.”
Reddy, who has recreated similar naans at The Park’s fine dining Indian restaurant Aish, feels that it goes well with flavorful gravies as it gets softer when dipped into a liquid base. However, he feels that it is an acquired taste, “I do not see it coming out of the confines of Old City, as it is not very refined. Hence unlike haleem or other traditional dishes, it hasn’t really caught on in the IT belt or with the techies coming in from other cities.”
Whether or not it curries flavour with a new clientele, Munshi Naan occupies a place at the top echelons of old Hyderabadi cuisine. Hameed, who sticks with the practices started by his great-grandfather, is in no mood to tamper with any part of the routine. He says, “We are labour-intensive and have no intention of bringing out instant food like every other eatery in time. A delicacy is always enjoyed by a section of people, not everyone.”
Few foods can boast of having a 167-year-old legacy, and Munshi Naan has transcended from being just another Hyderabadi delicacy into a institution of its own. Content in its kingdom, the naan symbolises a well-preserved cultural legacy of a city which is struggling to retain its rich heritage, as the claws of modernity tighten their grasp.
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