Monday, August 11, 2008

The CSR Biryani


In search of Paradise

The authentic Hyderabadi Biriyani (1)continues to elude me. Not that I know what it’s like – but I’m sure I would be able to make it out once I have the real stuff (not AB’s Cheeni Kum variety , but one straight from a Nizami handi). But I just haven’t been able to find a place that makes it to perfection.

Somehow, in the past all my trips to Hyderabad have been truncated for one reason or the other – leaving no time for any culinary expedition. So, each time I had to come back content with the assembly line ‘base-kitchen’ preparation of Hyderabad House. This time round, therefore, I had gone armed with research on the net and tips from friends to embark on the Biriyani trail.

I was told Shadab on the way to Charminar was the place for the adventurous, but for those who are faint at heart the more up-market Paradise was, perhaps, a better bet. So, on the very first night after landing in the swanky new SHAMSHABAD airport - looking even more glittering in pouring rain - I rushed to drop my bags at the hotel and head out straight for Paradise Circle in Secundrabad for, what is touted as, the “World Famous Hyderabadi Biryani” – leaving Shadab for a more leisurely hunt the next evening.

I was probably expecting Hyderabad’s equivalent of Karim’s (near Jama Masjid in Delhi ) both in ambience and taste. I was immediately turned off by the garishly lit building, complete with artificial palms that made it look like it had been airlifted from the side-lanes of Dubai. An intriguing neon sign read “ Take Away Indian Chinese Kebabs” ( which later, after a careful inspection of the menu-card, I figured out were 3 distinct words and not an Indian variant of the Uyghur specialty from Xinjiang as I had first suspected). In my purist food lexicon, no honest and self-respecting Biriyani restaurant can by definition ever be multi-cuisine - with Punjabi, Chinese and Continental to boot, on their menu.

But, to be fair, I must admit that the Biriyani was good if not great – ( tho’ the Hyderabadi Chicken was a disaster – which was a mistake ordering in the first place). It was light and non-greasy, the mutton soft and succulent, with just the right amount of dum to leave the rice separate without getting soggy or sticky. But, it was still not a patch on Karim’s or for that matter – Arsalan, Zeeshan, Shiraz and the original Royal Hotel ( Chitpur Road ) in good ol’ Calcutta. So, I was left wanting more and looked forward to the expedition to the Charminar in my quest for the real Nizami Biryani.

Paradise Lost

Day 2 turned out to be a washout with the rains playing spoilsport. Our journey back from Gulbarga, where I had gone on work, took over 6 hours (it’s normally around 4 hours ). By the time, I reached the hotel it was well past mid-night and a nocturnal foray to the old city through waterlogged alleys was certainly not a good idea. So, reluctantly I had to settle for boring room service and call it a day – hoping that I might still be able to have a taste of the ‘real thing’ for lunch before leaving for the airport the next afternoon.

But, Hyderabad – even in its new Hi-Tech avatar - is not geared to take 6.5 cms of rain in one evening ( of which, it got 4 cms in one hour ). With the showers continuing through the night – in the morning the roads were clogged with traffic, which put paid to my hope of making it to Shadab for lunch.

Paradise Regained

That’s when Venkat ( of Eenadu fame ) came to my rescue. Hearing my sorry plight for a plate of Biryani – Venkat invited me for lunch to the ITC Kakatiya. He said that, instead of me going all over the city in heavy rain – he would get me a good Kacchi Biriyani at the hotel itself.

Venkat was obviously a regular at the Kakatiya – although Hyderabadi Biryani (2) was not on their menu ( they only served the Dum Pukht variety ) – Chef Riyaz at the Kebabs & Curries offered to dish out one specially for us. Notwithstanding that it was obviously cooked and improvised in a hurry, it was delectable – and with due apologies to the die-hard loyalists of Paradise – better than what I had the other night. The Mirch ka Salan ( this one part of their regular menu ) was outstanding and so was the raita with just the right touch of garlic.

As we dug into the Chicken Tawa Kebabs that preceded the Biryani – Venkat and I discovered that we had more in common than our taste in food. Both of us had spent time in media ( Venkat much longer and much more successful – he was till recently Director and the Marketing face of the Eenadu Group) and we both haven’t been able to get media out of our system (Venkat, understandably, even less than me having spent over 35 years in the business). But what was more interesting, co-incidentally or otherwise, both of us had drifted – by default or design - towards the social sector. Venkat is now working for a Hyderabad based NGO that looked after the CSR activities of VANPIC (Vodarevu and Nizampatnam Ports and Industrial Corridor) project, as I do for Lafarge in India.

The future of Paradise

As we savoured the Biryani – with laccha piyaz on the side – we talked of how suddenly the social sector seems to be on the verge of an explosion. A new breed of professionals were moving into the space, different from the traditional jholawallahs who once populated the NGOs; just as the NGOs themselves were turning a new leaf – seeing themselves more as Social Entrepreneurs ( a la – Md Yunus' Grameen Bank ) and thereby trying to be instruments of lasting and sustainable social change – rather than working on the fringes as their precursors were wont to do.

Just before coming for lunch, I was interviewing a young man – a graduate from the Loyola Institute - working in the Arakku Valley as the CSR Manager of a leading corporate trying to set up a steel plant there. I was thoroughly impressed by the passion he displayed – committed to making a difference in the lives of tribals in the region, in the face of threats from extremist groups and motivated NGOs who are opposing the project.

It was interesting to see how so many corporate professionals were making a willing shift from front-line business roles to the softer areas of CSR or Social Non-Profit outfits to make a living and spend their time in a more soul-satisfying way. Specialist search firms (such as the Third Sector partners ) are facilitating such transitions at very senior (CxO) levels, which poses challenges on both sides – viz for the executives making the cultural change and the NGOs ability to accept them. New web portals like http://www.jobsforgood.com/ are becoming increasingly popular.


The concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR ) itself is undergoing an evolution. From being mere token charity or philanthropy, to ‘nice to talk about’ stuff at AGMs and company annual reports , it’s being seen as an essential condition for a ‘license to operate’. It’s true that, many companies still do ‘lip-service’ and see CSR as a convenient instrument of “green-wash” and “blue-wash”. Therefore, I have always been suspicious about the motives of a tobacco company like ITC hyping up its CSR achievements ( just as others may be skeptical about Cement companies talking about their “sustainability” initiatives ). But, the real test of CSR, I believe, is when the companies no longer see it as an add-on activity but build it into the very fabric of their business operations. And, what can be a better example of that than preserving the great culinary traditions of a city you operate in and delighting your customers with the best Hyderabadi Biryani(3)in town.

(Note: For Biryani (3) & Salan recipes click on underscored links above )