The ninth month of the Islamic calendar is the time of fasting for Muslims all over the world. It is the month preceding the festival of Eid-ul-Fitr. Ramzan, or Ramadan, as it’s also called, is a period of obedient response to a command from God; according to the Holy Quran, during this time “the Quran was sent down as a guidance for the people.”
The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to cleanse the soul by freeing it from harmful impurities. The fast begins at sunrise and ends at sunset. Each day, before dawn, Muslims observe a pre-fast meal called suhur, and at sunset, families hasten for the fast-breaking meal called iftar.
As the body gets no food during the day, whatever food has to be had after sunset should be nutritious. Among other foods, a very popular food is haleem. Haleem is a porridge-like soup made of wheat, barley, lentils and meat, savoury and beautifully balanced in flavour. The meat could be chicken, goat, lamb or beef.
Hyderabadi haleem (chaibisket.com)
A short history
Margaret Shaida, in The Legendary Cuisine of Persia, has written that the creation of haleem is attributed to the 6th-century Persian King Khosrow. When the Muslims conquered Persia in the 7th century, it became a firm favourite of the Prophet, thus guaranteeing its spread all over the Middle East. Further according to her book, in many Arab countries it is called harissa and is considered one of the finest winter foods.
According to Pratibha Karan, in A Princely Legacy – Hyderabadi Cuisine and Biryani, “In the late 7th century, Caliph Mu'awiya of Damascus, received a delegation of Arabian Yemenis. According to medieval historians who wrote about the encounter, the Caliph's first question to his visitors addressed something more urgent than political matters. Years earlier, on a journey to Arabia, he had eaten an exquisite dish, a porridge of meat and wheat. Did they know how to make it? They did.”
Modern Persian haleem (lucidfood.com)
Claudia Roden, in her book, A New Book of Middle Eastern Food, also emphasizes the fact that haleem is not merely a Muslim delicacy. She says that harissa, the parent of the haleem, is an ‘ancestral soup’ symbolising the diet of the mountain Kurds. It was also eaten by medieval Andalusian Jews on Saturdays, a day of Sabbath for them. The Lebanese and Syrian Christians make harissa to celebrate the Feast of Assumption Day. It is eaten as a breakfast dish in northern Iraq. In Iraq, Lebanon and the Indian subcontinent, Shias make haleem to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, Prophet Mohammed's grandson, at Karbala in the month of Muharram.
Anissa Helou in Lebanese Cuisine observes that in Lebanon, h’reesseh or harissa (that is, haleem) is an alms dish, traditionally made in large quantity and distributed to the poor in churchyards.
The famous traveller Ibn Battuta, in his 14th-century travelogue, wrote that as per Persian hospitality, it is a custom to serve every visitor, whoever the person may be, harissa (haleem) made from meat, wheat and ghee.
The first written recipe that we know of for harissa dates from the 10th century, when a scribe named Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq compiled a cookbook of the dishes favored by the caliphs of Islam's so-called golden age, titled Kitab al-Tabikh (‘Book of Dishes’). The harissa describe in the book is strikingly similar to the haleem eaten today. Haleem and harissa have many commonalities, besides being the obvious grain and meat porridge. Interestingly, the word ‘haleem’ means 'patient' in Arabic, advising one to stay the same during the long, slow cooking process.
Armenian harissa, also known as keshkeg (left); Tunisian harissa (sbs.com.au)
Arrival in India
As far as the subcontinent goes, some say it was introduced during the reign of Humanyun but became popular in the times of Akbar. Ain-e-Akbari documents the recipe of harissa, haleem and kashk (a variation of the haleem). Some historians believe harissa came to the subcontinental coast of Malabar with the arrival of Arab traders.
Soon, the Arabs married into the local population of the subcontinent and hence the lentils and spices were added to suit the subcontinental taste. But interestingly, the preparation of haleem does not require the use of strong spices, and relies more on the mild use of aromatic garam masala; the flavour of the seven grains and meat porridge is enhanced due to the slow cooking and the extensive use of garnish.
The spicier haleem evolved when cooks at the royal courts of Hyderabad and Lucknow slow-cooked cracked wheat, meat and pulses in a sealed pot on low flame overnight. At the break of dawn, the porridge was cooled and pounded to get the right texture.
The harissa even made its way to Kashmir from Persia, where rice harissa is a popular winter dish. There, some call harissa, mutton halwa, as mutton kebab is added to the spicy rice concoction.
Kashmiri harissa being prepared; prepared harissa (Salman Nizami/merinews.com; tribune.com.pk)
Sultan Saif Nawaz Jung, a ruler of the principality of Hadhramaut (now in Yemen), was a noble of the Nizam state. It is believed that he loved haleem so much that he had it served (the original Arabic delicacy – harissa) at all hosted events. It was he who was responsible for haleem becoming popular in Hyderabad in the 1930s.
Apparently, the city's Irani hotels first started serving harees to the public. Harees is a culinary variant of haleem. It was only in the 1950s that haleem came to be served in restaurants.
There are basically three types of haleem available in Hyderabad, as far as ingredients go. In one variety, there is just wheat, barley and spices along with the meat. The second variety uses three to four varieties of lentils as well. Traditionally, the meat would be ground into a fine paste, but these days many places leave shreds of meat so that the customers know that they are not being taken for a ride.
Hyderabadi haleem; ingredients used (indileak.com; Wikipedia)
Hyderabadi haleem is distinguished by its spiciness. It is flavoured with lime juice and garam masala, and garnished with mint, red chillies and fried onions. Whereas on the Malabar coast, where harissa, the parent of the heleem, first arrived with the Arab traders, it is flavoured only with ghee.
There is a third type, called meethi (‘sweet’) haleem. It is available in the Barkas area of the old city, that has many Arab settlers. It is consumed during breakfast at Arab diaspora homes in the Barkas area. The Arabs eat haleem as the main course, but the Hyderabadis eat it as a starter.
Meethi haleem of Hyderabad (thefluegges.com)
In Kolkata, haleem is very popular during the month of Ramzan, not just among Muslims, but among all sections of the population. The longest haleem queues are at Shiraz, Arsalan, Aminia, Zeeshan, Royal Indian Hotel, Sabir's (Chandni Chowk), Islamia, Aliah and Sufia, to name a few. They all claim theirs is special, thanks to zealously-guarded ‘secret ingredients’.
There are costlier versions as well as cheap ones, from around Rs 30 going up to five to six times that, depending on the quality as well as the quantity.
Some of the most well-known haleem joints of Kolkata are as follows:
Aminia on Zakaria Street
Islamia on Colootola Street
Arsalan at Park Circus
Aliah on Waterloo Street
Sufia on Zakaria Street
Firdous Golden Café in Esplanade
Zeeshan at Park Circus
Mutton haleem at Dustarkhwan, Kolkata (presentedbyp.blogspot.in)
For those of you who want to make haleem at home, here is a comprehensive video
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