Even in a country with no dearth of exceptional cuisines, Hyderabadi food stands out. Its marag and lukhmi are mouth-wateringly delicious, its breakfast of khichdi-keema can stir the soul, and its biryani is debatably the best in India. But perhaps few dishes from the historic city stoke the imagination as its pathar ka gosht.

Pathar ka gosht translates to stone meat. Slender escalopes of goat or beef are first marinated with a robust mix of aromatic spices, green chillies and often minced raw papaya (to tenderise the meat), and then grilled on unpolished granite over a wood or charcoal fire. As the meat furiously hisses on the searing slab of stone, swirls of smoke mingle with the spices to deliver olfactory rapture. The result is melt-in-the-mouth flavourful meat that, many believe, gets its distinctive taste from the minerals in the stone.

Although a street food now, pathar ka gosht’s origin is traced by some to the royal kitchens of Hyderabad in the 19th century. According to an oft-told story, the sixth Nizam, Mahbub Ali Khan Siddiqui Bayafandi, was on a tiger hunt in the wilderness when he felt a craving for kabab. A message was promptly sent to the bawarchi to get working, but to his horror, he found his skewers missing from the victuals. Without losing composure, the cook improvised by using a flat slab of stone to grill the meat. The Nizam is said to have liked the stone-grilled kabab so much that it became a recurrent feature on the royal menu.

The tale of the hungry Nizam has all the elements of a good food story: conflict in the kitchen, culinary ingenuity, satisfactory resolution, and perhaps more than a dash of fiction.

Pathar ka gosht. Credit: Shaharbano/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International Licence].

Uncovering history

Cooking on stone has been a familiar technique right from the time of the early humans. Across the world, cultures have developed ways that employ hot stones to boil, grill, roast and bake. The two-stone griddle of the Yahgans, for instance, uses two flat stones scorched in fire: one acts as a griddle on which the meat (or other food) is laid and the second the weight with which it is pressed down. The Arabs have roasted meat on stones in pits called malla for centuries. The Japanese grill meat on a hot stone in a cooking tradition called Ishiyaki, while the Peruvians steam the famous pachamanca in an underground oven with red-hot volcanic rocks.

At home in India, centuries before the Nizams, the sultans of Malwa were savouring the virtues of stone-cooked meat. Ni’matnamah, the 15th-century book of recipes of sultan Ghiyath Shah and his son sultan Nasir Shah, mentions a dish quite like the Hyderabadi pathar ka gosht. According to the recipe, meat is cut into tiny pieces, smeared with an assortment of potherbs and cooked on hot stone. The book also features recipes for cooking meat in underground pits, with the aid of stones. Food historian Charmaine O’Brien points out in The Penguin Food Guide to India that the Rajputs too cooked meat on stones – “when they headed out to fight”.

Stone cooking has been particularly common among India’s indigenous forest communities. In 1832, Henry Harkness, a captain in the Madras Army and secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society, in his report on life in the Nilgiris, documented how members of the Irula tribe parched grains on large stones or rock fragments they first heated by kindling a fire on top. The parched grains would then be ground and kneaded with water to make cakes that were once again baked on heated stones. If a concave stone was found, Harkness informed, the tribe would heat it and fill it with water before adding the ground flour to make porridge.

Bread basket

More recently, on his travels around Kerala, chef Regi Matthews of Kappa Chakka Kandhari met a tribal settlement in Agasthiyar Forest near Thiruvananthapuram that cooks fish on hot stone slabs sourced from riverbeds. The fish is marinated with local ingredients – wild gooseberries, chillies, among others – and cooked on hot stones between layers of leaves. “Finally three stones are strategically placed on top and a little water is poured in through holes made in the leaves,” said Mathew. “This helps create steam that cooks the fish to moist, flaky perfection. Once the fish is cooked through, the stones turn brittle and crumble to the touch.” Another tradition Mathew found on his travels was the technique of curing meat by sun drying it on sun-scorched rock.

Some tribes on the Andaman Islands are known to barbecue meat in a Khidiru, which is an earth oven lined with smouldering stones, write JC Dagar and HC Dagar in Ethnobotany of Aborigines of Andaman-Nicobar Islands. The tribes dig a pit and inside it place stones on burning firewood. When the stones are hot, some of them are removed along with pieces of charcoal. Big leaves (usually of Planchonella Longipetiolatum) are spread out, on which is placed meat (pork or dugong meat), followed by more leaves and heated stones.

Up north, the Punjab District Gazetteer of 1883 mentions a unique bread called kak that was baked by the Biloches of Dera Ghazi Khan district in undivided Punjab. The dough, made of jowar or bajra, was wrapped around glowing hot stones, kept near a fire and turned from time to time. Another way of making the bread was by rolling the stone-stuffed dough balls on heated stone slabs, cooking it inside out.

Baking bread on hot stones is also a tradition among the country’s mountain communities. Ladakh’s sourdough bread, Khambir, was traditionally cooked on a heated stone slab before being roasted in an open fire. Himachal’s Askali, typically made during festivals like Diwali, is prepared by pouring a batter of rice flour, or mixed grains, on a disc-shaped slab of stone propped up on a wood-fire. The batter slides into the depressions carved in the stone and cooks in the steam that builds after a lid is placed on top.

In Sikkim, the Lepchas make bread on hot stones called Khuzom. A thin batter of buckwheat, millet and corn or wheat is poured on flat stones sourced from river banks, heated and placed in an oven. The Lepchas also favour a meat dish called suzom that is cooked in sealed pits lined with banana leaves and covered with smouldering stones. In Arunachal Pradesh, fish marinated with indigenous spices and herbs, is packed into banana leaves along with a scorching hot stone and left to cook under ashes and glowing embers.

Right stone

It is not wholly unknown for a hot stone to be added to a dish to give it a distinct smoky flavour and cook it in the heat released from the stone. The Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, 1884, documents a whey curry eaten by the Rajput settlers of Bijapur that would sometimes be cooked by dropping a red-hot stone in it. In Karnataka, travel writers Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy found the technique being used in an heirloom recipe called Kalbuthi at the home of Indira Phadke in Banavasi, the ancient capital of the Kadamba dynasty that is home to the Konkani community of Padkis. To prepare Kalbuthi, a glowing hot flintstone is topped with ghee, curry leaves and mustard seeds, and then buried in a mound of curd rice. “The stone gives the dish a distinct smoky aroma,” said Mallick, with Ganapathy adding, “The dish is prepared individually for every member of the family. Everyone wants their own stone, Mrs Phadke told us.”

Getting the right stone, then, is the key to getting the right flavours. In Gujarat, connoisseurs source stones from Patan for preparing mudbi, a simple Arabic dish (seasoned meat roasted on searing stone) that has taken a different form in the state (balls of spiced minced meat grilled on stone discs or mudbi stone). A similar fervour for flavour can be seen in Kolkata. Minakshie Das Gupta’s The Calcutta Cookbook mentions one of the oldest Bohra families in the city, the Pathreyas, who would import stone slates all the way from Karbala for their pathar ka gosht. Talk about going great lengths for good food.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.