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The history of haleem: How a bland iftar dish from Yemen got Indianised

Ramzan may be about fasting, but the holy month has become as much about the feasting. Shoaib Daniyal takes a canter through the history of everyone’s favourite iftari dish, haleem, and explains how it has survived into the modern age, before being redefined by the subcontinent.

Shoaib Daniyal  23rd Jul 2014

Haleem-making contest at Hyderabad’s Pista House | PHOTO: PISTA HOUSE, HYDERABAD

aj-kal Ramzan main rozedar roza kam aur khate zyada hain (Nowadays, people care more about eating than fasting during Ramzan)," my ever-irritable grandmother suddenly complained one day about no one in particular. She usually manages to find fault with most things, but she may have a point here.

On paper, Ramzan is about abstinence. But the holy month has become as much about dusk-to-dawn feasting as it is about the dawn-to-dusk fasting, iftari in particular being the scene of some impressive gastronomic action. There are pakodas and samosas, jalebis, Rooh Afza, lemonade and, of course, fresh fruit. The uncrowned king of the iftar in South Asia, though, is the haleem.

Haleem is a porridge of dalia (broken wheat), various dals and meat (traditionally lamb, but also goat, buff/beef or, sadly, chicken). And while a lot of Mughlai food does claim foreign origins, this is largely apocryphal. Mughlai cuisine's (and maybe India's) most popular dish, the biryani, seems to have no existence outside South Asia. Neither do any of our qormas, qalias or saalans, at least not in the way we make them. Haleem is an exception, one of the few dishes to which a definite foreign origin can be ascribed.

It was to dig a bit deeper into this origin story that I made my way one morning to a locality called Barkas in Hyderabad. Today, Barkas is a typical lower-middle class Muslim neighbourhood. Carcasses of animals are hung up blithely outside butcher shops, swaying in the breeze, as men, in their hitched-up, patterned lungis, enjoy their Suleimani chai, a black tea spiked with lemon juice (Barkas is probably the only place in India where the default chai comes without milk).

I asked my chaiwallah why this is so. "Arre, Yaman main aise-ee chai sab peete na. Wahan ghahva boltein. Ham logan wahin se ate hain so doodh nahin daltein (Oh, they drink tea like this in Yemen, where it's called ghahva. We come from there, so we don't add milk)," he explained as I had to stifle a smirk. Thanks to the Bollywood stereotype, I automatically find Dakhini, the Hindi-Urdu dialect spoken by native Hyderabadis, funny, a fairly dangerous prejudice to have in Hyderabad.

While my chaiwallah might have been wrong about the link between ghahva (or qahwa: Arabic coffee) and Suleimani chai, he was correct about the origins of Barkas. More than 150 years old, the neighbourhood once housed the barracks of the Nizam's army, thus providing one clue to the etymology for the name "Barkas" — a corrupted form of "barracks". Barkas' distinctive character comes from the Chaush community, descended from the Arab soldiers of fortune who migrated to India to serve in the Nizam's army. Hailing mostly from the Hadhramaut region of what is now Yemen, the Chaush were highly prized for both their skills and loyalty and were, as a result, often recruited to serve in the Nizam's personal bodyguard. Apart from their combat skills, though, the Yemenis also bought with them harees — a name suspiciously familiar to haleem, you might think. You'd be on to something.

After my chai, I stepped into Al-Hadrami, Barkas' premier harees restaurant. It's a small place, a concrete platform fitted with a massive degh (pot) taking centre stage. All around were plastic chairs (no tables) on which customer sat, slurping on their breakfast.

The gentleman manning the degh was kept terribly busy as customers kept pouring in, ladling out the harees as fast as he could. Once in a while, a person would come in to take some to go and then our degh operator would scoop out huge quantities (maybe for a large joint family) into the container (made of stainless steel, which was used to carry milk back from the dairy, before plastic pouches became the norm).

There were two kinds of harees up on offer: the khari (savoury) and the meethi (sweet). If you asked for the khari — which I did at first, sceptical as to how meat and sugar would go together — he'd serve the harees on a melamine saucer, top it up with some shorwa (gravy), and you'd be good to go. The meethi was served mixed with sugar, much like a regular porridge. As it turned out, the meethi was better, adding at least some flavour to what was a fairly bland dish.

waited until rush hour was over before trying to have a chat with my server. Abdul Rehman bin Tariq was his name, it turned out, the Arab "bin" being fairly unique in the context of South Asian Muslim names. This was his family's shop, which they'd run since his grandfather established it in the 1960s. Harees is a simple dish, Abdul explained. All it contains are meat, wheat, cinnamon and ghee, thus explaining its blandness to my Indian tongue. Image 2nd

This is, incidentally, pretty much the same recipe that the 10th-century Arab scribe Abu Muhammad al-Muzaffar ibn Sayyar penned down for hareesah in the Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Recipes). The Kitab was a collection of recipes from the kitchens of the "kings and caliphs and lords and leaders" of Baghdad. It mentions a number of meat and wheat porridges and says that "if the wheat was beaten to a smooth paste", it was to be called hareesah.

Hareesah survived from the medieval to the modern age, and is still popular in the Middle East today as an iftar staple. The Arab soldiers of the Nizam's army bought it along with them — after all, what better way to remember home than to have some hareesah cooked just the way mom used to make it? Sometime in the 1930s, Sultan Saif Nawaz Jung, a Chaush noble in the Nizam's court, popularised harees by having it served in his feasts.

Like most foreign cultural imports, harees was eventually Indianised. A variety of dals were added to make it less thick, more stewy than porridgy. And, of course, masalas, India's secret weapon, soon found their way into the dish.

This modified dish took the name "haleem", which Jill Tilsley-Benham informs us is nothing but the Persian name for harees, the dish having travelled across greater Persia along a parallel route, even making its way to Kashmir, where a rice harees is a popular winter dish. In Hyderabad, by the 1950s, haleem was being sold in restaurants, taking its first steps on the road to iftar domination.

Two days later, as I dug into a bowl of haleem from Pista House, and felt the dal-wheat-meat-masala broth create little explosions of pure pleasure in my mouth, I thanked the Arabs. But then just after, I said a more heartfelt prayer to the Hyderabadis. Harees was fine, but what we've done to it with our dals and masalas is nothing short of high art.

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