Under a creaky fan that whirrs noisily and a bit ineffectively, I wait for my lunch of chicken curry and rice. The chicken, which comes in the large aluminium vessel in which it was cooked, is a reddish-yellow curry with sprigs of coriander floating upon a fine film of oil.
The aroma is a blend of ground cumin, coriander seed and some other spices I cannot immediately place. The meat is neither chewy nor melt-in-the-mouth. There is no lard. A few mouthfuls later, my tongue is on fire. I start sweating profusely, my scalp is wet and I have a runny nose. But I can’t stop eating. Neither can those around me: some of them are even whistling to cool down their tongue. I join in.
I am at an eatery on NH 44 in Telangana’s Ankapur village. It is one of at least a dozen restaurants on the highway, adorned with colourful images of country roosters, and inviting customers to sample ‘Ankapur Chicken Curry’ the fiery new calling card for Telangana’s cuisine.
People drive down from Hyderabad, 150 km away, to savour this fearsomely spicy dish. Many come by bus. As they disembark at Ankapur village, the first stop is at a pushcart vendor who has famously teamed the chicken curry with vadas. “Here, try this first,” she says. “You can eat it with rice later.”
A short walk from here takes you to the village square, full of neem trees and its air pungent with the odour of crushed ginger and garlic. Two dozen chickens cluck noisily in a cage under one of the trees. “There is Bhumesh anna’s shop,” says Hari Goud, a villager who works in the local electricity department, pointing to a two-room building. “He is considered the pioneer of the dish.”
I spot a dark, stout man in a checked tee with a salt-and-pepper beard. His phone rings constantly, and he keeps passing on strings of words that sound like code. By 1 p.m., rows of cars are parked in front of his shop and men walk in to inquire about their orders.
Kola Bhumesh steps into his tiny, sweltering kitchen to show me around. The 4×10-ft hot room has three stoves and a water tank. It looks unimpressive and disorganised, but Bhumesh trusts nobody but himself to run the kitchen. “I can say my father created this dish about 30 years ago using home-ground ingredients and country chicken. The secret lies in the masala, which I pound at home and bring to the shop,” he says. His father Boranna’s home-style chicken was so popular that people wanted him to cook it for them. That’s how it all started.
“People now come from all over Telangana, they sit under the trees and eat. Some even take it back for friends in Dubai,” says Bhumesh, juggling between taking orders, cooking, instructing delivery boys and sweet-talking customers. A whole chicken is priced at ₹550. “When my father started it, the dish sold for ₹30,” he recalls.
Some customers have cases of beer in their cars, clearly in picnic mood. “We plan a visit every month; we like the place. It’s like home-cooked food without the hassle and it has a unique taste,” says Kiran Reddy, an irrigation department employee who has come with four friends all the way from Kamareddy, about 60 km away.
Another neem tree, another group, this one of village elders sitting on plastic chairs and discussing how the chicken curry business has changed Ankapur. “This is an agricultural village. What can we do after the farming is done? Nothing. Now, the chicken curry business is a year-long affair, and good for the village,” says Bhooma Reddy, a wizened old farmer who has seen it all.
Some 150 km away, in Hyderabad, dozens of eateries have Ankapur Chicken on their menu. And Satish Reddy, from Nizamabad, is among those trying to turn the curry into a brand. “I have a catering business and decided to add it to my menu and there is big demand,” he says. He now has a number of eateries from where the dish can be ordered. And his story about the origin of the dish is a little different.
“Ankapur was a very fertile place. About 30 years ago, when big seed companies sent their executives to train farmers, some of them had to stay back for lunch. They loved the chicken the villagers cooked for their valued guests, and that’s how the dish became popular,” says Reddy, who gets his spices from Ankapur to ensure authenticity.
So what makes Ankapur chicken so uniquely delectable? The unique amalgam of spices might be responsible for that sharp flavour, but much of the magic owes to the star ingredient: chicken. “We use country chicken; free ranging birds that take over six months to a year to reach full size. They don’t have much fat,” says Bhumesh.
The meat is not marinated, but, uniquely, the skin is burnt. Then it’s all dunked into a pot on high flame, and covered with a deep lid filled with water. “It takes half an hour to cook completely,” says Bhumesh.
As I walk away, I notice dozens of cars and bikes parked under trees on either side of the road and the laughter and camaraderie created by a humble chicken curry. #KhabarLive