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.