A dear friend’s grandfather was alleged to have said “Aaj kal Ramzan mein log roza kam aur khaatey zyaada hain (These days, during Ramzan, people fast less and feast more).” I am not sure whether he actually said it, but it is one of those quips that everyone in my friend’s family religiously remembers to mention during their iftaar parties. It’s true, though. Restaurants have Ramzan special menus, iftaar parties and iftaar buffets. Musalman areas, famous for their food alleys (like Md. Ali Road in Mumbai and Zakaria Street and Park Circus in Kolkata) spill over with people, mostly damp or drenched (the humidity; also it tends to rain incessantly in most parts of the country during this period), shuffling for tables or just standing around gigantic cauldrons and open tandoors, stuffing their faces with paaya and nihari, biryani and kebabs, khiri-kaleji with roomali rotis, butter-y bheja masala and beef rolls, tablecloth-sized malpuas with rabdi, sheer qurma and phirni, pooris with orange greasy-fudgy halwa and, of course, haleem and khichra.
What is Haleem?
I find it very difficult to believe that there are people who don’t know what haleem is, but given our expansive vegetarian population, I will avoid any judgment and explain. Haleem is traditionally a slow-cooked porridge made of broken wheat and various kinds of lentils, along with meat (beef and mutton or, unfortunately, sometimes chicken) and spices. The wheat and lentils are soaked overnight and boiled till soft. The meat is cooked with the spices to form a thick gravy or qurma. The meat’s gravy is then added to the boiled wheat-lentil mix in a large cauldron (degh) and pounded by hand with long wooden paddles (ghotnis) till it forms a smooth, luscious paste. The process of cooking haleem takes about 6-7 hours. It is served with a simple garnishing of lemon and fried onions.
It Begun With Harees
Harees, an Arabic dish, is the mother of the modern haleem. Its first documentation is in Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq’s 10th-century cookbook Kitab Al Tabikh, as well as other popular books later. The traditional preparation required the wheat to be soaked overnight and then simmered in water, along with meat and butter or sheep-tail fat. The remaining liquid is strained and the mixture is pounded and seasoned. It can be garnished with cinnamon, sugar and ghee. Harees, like haleem, has always been a celebratory dish, served during weddings and Eid.
When Yemeni and Arab traders came to India, they brought the dish along with them. While on one hand, the Mappila community (generations of Malayali Musalmans born of Indo-Arabic relationships) popularized harees, the sixth and seventh nawabs of Hyderabad Indianised it, creating what we today know as Hyderabadi haleem. One must credit Sultan Saif Nawaz Jung Bahadur, an Arab chief from Hadhramaut, Yemen, who was a member of the court of the seventh Nawab, Mir Osman Ali Khan, for the popularity of haleem. In the Barkas neighbourhood of Hyderabad (the heartland of the original Chaush community — these were Yemeni Arabs who were brought to join the Nawab’s army) the harees still lives on in its original form even today. It has two varieties — the khari (savoury) and the meethi (sweet). These options are now available in Hyderabadi haleem too. Most of us will find the khari harees too bland, which is when the sweeter version comes to the rescue.
What is the big deal about Hyderabadi Haleem?
For starters, Hyderabad is the epicentre of haleem in India. Hence, there is a sense of ownership that Hyderabadis have over haleem, deeming their version the most authentic. Hyderabadi haleem is a gastronomically challenging concoction — after the meat and lentils are pounded to a paste with ghee and spices, it is topped with a ghee-based gravy, dry fruits and sliced boiled eggs. So, while its cultural importance and popularity led to a Geographical Indication Status (GIS) in 2010 (the first meat dish from India to achieve this status), various attempts have been made to make the dish healthier and more digestible. Chicken haleem has become popular, as has emu haleem (known for its health benefits and low cholesterol levels). The Hyderabadis have also taken it a step further and — blasphemously — have a vegetarian version now. Whoever came up with that deserves to only eat boiled vegetables for a year.
The Khichra Debate
Purists will wrinkle their noses at khichra, a poorer relative of haleem, but it is difficult to ignore the popularity of the dish. You can understand why khichra is not deemed highbrow enough, when you read about its origin story. The dish was born out of the need for a famine relief measure in Lucknow. The then Nawab of Oudh, Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, commenced the building of the Bara Imambara and announced that whoever participated in the construction would be given free food. This “free food” was a mish-mash of slow-cooked rice, meat and lentils. The khichra saved a lot of famine-stricken families and survived even after the calamity was over. Commonly known as the meat version of the khichuri, it found favour in Bengal and Bangladesh, with chicken and meat versions. The principal differences between khichra and haleem are: 1) khichra has a less arduous cooking process and does not require as fine (or prolonged) a pounding as haleem 2) the meat is left in chunks and not paddled into a paste in khichra. It is understandable why khichra has travelled places (it became really famous as the meat kedgeree in Europe) — who would say no to easier cooking instructions?
How To Make Haleem At Home (Or Guide To A Good Forearm Workout)
For cooking mutton (these ingredients are needed for step 1 in the instructions)
- 1 kg meat of choice
- 12-15 green chillies
- 1 tbsp ginger-garlic paste
- ½ tsp turmeric powder
- 1 medium-sized cinnamon stick
- 4 cloves
- 3-4 green cardamoms
- ½ tsp caraway seeds
- 5-6 black pepper corns
- 200 ml water
For cooking dals (these ingredients are needed for step 2 in the instructions)
- 150 gm broken wheat
- 1 tbsp split black gram
- 1 tbsp pigeon peas
- 1 tbsp Bengal gram
- 1 tbsp yellow moong dal
- 2 glasses of water
Other ingredients needed while mixing mutton and dals (these ingredients are needed for step 4 in the instructions)
- 3 tbsp oil
- 3 medium-sized onions, finely sliced
- 1 tbsp ginger-garlic paste
- Chopped coriander leaves
- Chopped mint leaves
- 5-6 slit green chillies
- 1 tsp black pepper corn powder
- ½ tsp turmeric powder
- 200 ml yogurt
- 7-8 medium-size onions, crushed, deep fried
- 5-6 tbsp ghee
Ingredients for garnishing
- Freshly chopped coriander leaves
- Deep fried onions
- 5-6 lemons cut into 4 halves
Step 1 – cook the mutton: Pressure cook the meat till tender with salt, turmeric powder, green chillies, ginger-garlic paste and whole spices, with a little water.
Step 2 – cook the dals: Pressure cook the lentils with two glasses of water, till soft.
Step 3 – blend the mutton and dals: This is traditionally done with a wooden pounder, or ghotni, which is easily available. The lazy ones can use a blender. Blend the cooked mutton into a fine paste and keep aside. Do the same with the cooked lentils.
Step 4 – mix the cooked mutton and dals: In a cooking pot, add oil and fry 3 medium-sized sliced onions till golden brown. Add ginger-garlic paste and sauté. Add coriander leaves, mint leaves, green chillies and mix well. Add the yogurt and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add black pepper corn powder, turmeric powder and mix well.
Then, add the blended paste of mutton and lentils, mix well and keep stirring continuously. Add ghee and cook for 10 minutes on low flame while stirring. Add crushed, deep fried onions and some fresh coriander leaves and mix well before you turn off the flame. While serving, garnish with fried onions, coriander leaves and lemon slices.