Haleem is a popular tradition in Hyderabad, India, especially during Ramadan: NPR


Workers pound the steaming mixture of meat, lentils, wheat and spices with long wooden paddles to give the haleem its characteristic creamy texture.

Sushmita Pathak/NPR


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Haleem is a popular tradition in Hyderabad, India, especially during Ramadan: NPR

Workers pound the steaming mixture of meat, lentils, wheat and spices with long wooden paddles to give the haleem its characteristic creamy texture.

Sushmita Pathak/NPR

HYDERABAD, India – It’s the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Royal Hyatt Convention Center, which usually hosts wedding receptions, has been transformed into the kitchen for Pista House, one of the best restaurants in this southern city of India. A huge room is filled with dozens of workers dressed in yellow shirts and hairnets, busy crushing cardamom pods, peeling onions and stemming small piles of fresh green chilies.

But there is only one dish on the menu.

It’s haleem – a thick stew of meat and lentils, cooked for hours, reduced to a paste and flavored with rose petals, cinnamon and cardamom, among other spices.

Around the world, the dawn-to-dusk fast of Ramadan is usually followed by a feast. And in Hyderabad, this holiday is dominated by haleem.

Pista House alone makes thousands of pounds every day during Ramadan, says Mohammed Mohddis Ali, whose family owns the chain of more than two dozen restaurants. With goat meat, coarsely ground wheat and lentils, haleem makes the perfect meal between fasts, says Pista House media coordinator Fayaz Farooqui.

“It’s like an energy food. I bet I could fast for two days in a row if I ate a bowl of haleem,” he laughs.

With its pasty, cardboard-colored appearance, haleem might not look as tempting as biryani, Hyderabad’s other famous delicacy. But what it lacks in looks, it more than makes up for in taste – as evidenced by the crowds that throng haleem stalls each Ramadan.

“It’s delicious, delicious. You can’t compare this dish to anything else,” says Sai Mudhiraj, who stopped on his way home from work to enjoy some haleem at a Pista House outlet.

“It hits your palate,” says historian Sajjad Shahid, originally from Hyderabad. “It’s a pretty satisfying meal.”

The dish is also popular among non-Muslim Indians, although Hindu nationalists who consider the meat unclean continue to politicize it and attempt to dictate the foods Indians eat.

Haleem is a popular tradition in Hyderabad, India, especially during Ramadan: NPR

A lentil stew with meat, haleem has become a cherished Ramadan tradition in Hyderabad, and not just for Muslims. It is served with a sprinkle of ghee, a garnish of coriander, crispy fried onions and a wedge of lemon.

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Doing haleem is physically demanding

The cooking starts in the wee hours of the morning, says Ali. In an open space behind the Royal Hyatt lobby, chunks of goat meat and green chilies boiled for almost eight hours. With about 20 giant wood-fired ovens burning, the temperature in this part of the kitchen can exceed 150 degrees Fahrenheit, workers say, as they come in to check the meat from time to time.

“[Haleem] it’s very easy to eat but it’s very difficult to cook,” Ali says, as his eyes start to water from the smoke. Wood burning oven is a requirement for Hyderabadi haleem.

Once the meat is tender, the cooks add the other ingredients – wheat, three varieties of lentils, ginger and garlic paste and a bunch of spices, including cinnamon, rose petals, pepper noir, cumin, cardamom and caraway seeds.

Next comes the most physically difficult part of the recipe. Teams of two cooks, armed with long sticks with wooden plates at the ends, tackle each pot and pound the steaming mixture, sending chunks of meat flying. Pounding gives haleem its smooth, soft texture, Ali says.

After about half an hour of smashing, the contents of the jars come together to form a pale beige paste that workers empty into buckets and empty into pre-greased containers that are shipped to more than two dozen Pista House restaurants and temporary stands. Through the city. Before being served to the hungry Hyderabadis, each dish of haleem is garnished with a generous helping of ghee, a sprinkle of coriander, crispy fried onions and a wedge of lemon on the side.

Haleem’s origins are in the Middle East

Haleem came to India from the Arab world. From the 17th century, Muslim rulers in pre-independence Hyderabad, called nizams, hired men from Yemen as mercenaries, Shahid says.

“The ruler’s personal bodyguards were mostly Arabs,” he said. These men serving in the Deccan, the region of south-central India where Hyderabad is located, would prepare hares, a meat and lentil dish from their home country. The modern-day haleem is a version of the hares.

“When they’re on the go, they can’t have a four or six course meal, it has to be something convenient, something that’s made in one go, served in one go and eaten in one go” , explains Shahid.

Haleem is a popular tradition in Hyderabad, India, especially during Ramadan: NPR

Hours before the Ramadan fast is broken, a new batch of haleem is ready to be served. A worker fills takeout containers with piping hot haleem topped with clarified butter and fried onions.

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The humble porridge even returns in the literature of the time. A 17th-century poem in the Dakhni language extolling the might of a Deccan ruler’s army describes the deghthe container in which the hares were cooked, “as big as the ears of elephants”, says Shahid.

Hares, still sold in parts of Hyderabad, are sweeter than haleem and also come in a sweet variant.

Shahid, 62, says his family has been making haleem for Ramadan for as long as he can remember, but only recently has it become popular in a commercial sense.

“The craze you see now, it happened sometimes in the 80s or 90s,” he says, when Iranian cafes in Hyderabad started selling it.

Locals modified it by adding Indian elements such as crushed ginger and garlic. In the early 2000s, the Pista House version, which uses a plethora of masalas and ghee, or clarified butter, instead of oil, began to gain popularity. Thus, a separate dish was born.

In 2010, the Indian government granted it geographical indication status, recognizing it as an authentic Hyderabadi haleem.

“To qualify as authentic, it must be made with goat meat; the meat to wheat ratio must be 10:4; the ghee must be lab-certified as completely pure, and the dish must be cooked in a pot. copper over firewood for twelve hours.” writes culinary author Colleen Taylor Sen in her book Festivals and fasts: a history of food in India.

Today, haleem is available in several Indian cities, as well as Pakistan and Bangladesh, but Hyderabadis claim their version is superior.

For the most part, you can distinguish Hyderabadi haleem from the rest, Shahid says. “The number of different types of grains that are put in, the amount of meat that goes in. I think it all makes a difference,” he says. The Hyderabadi version is also more of a paste – the haleem from other cities is bigger.

Haleem’s popularity transcends religions

Today, Hyderabadi haleem enjoys worship, especially during Ramadan.

“Once you have haleem in Hyderabad, you won’t get it anywhere else,” boasts Kamal Kant, as he shares a bowl with his wife Anita, who tastes and enjoys it for the first time.

Shahid, the historian, isn’t too fond of the famous haleems, however, and thinks restaurants have gone too far with the spices. He prefers to have his haleem at a small restaurant called Cafe Diamond, which sells a relatively mild version of the dish.

Vaishak Damodar, a restaurant that enjoys classic goat meat haleem, says it eats haleem almost every day during Ramadan. “I walk around town and try haleem in different places,” he says. He’s even tried some unorthodox varieties, like the emu haleem that a restaurant offered a few years ago, and the fish haleem — which tasted weird, he says.

At the roadside stall where Damodar eats, most of the customers, including him, are Hindus.

Haleem’s popularity transcends religions. But in recent years, meat has become politicized in India, as religious polarization increases. Some Hindus do not eat meat. Earlier this month, the mayor of South Delhi, along with the ruling Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Janata, called for the closure of butcher shops for nine days during the Hindu festival of Navratri when some worshipers do not eat meat or vegetables. eggs. Violence has also erupted on a university campus in the capital over the meat served in its hostels during Navratri.

Damodar says it’s politics. It won’t change his love for haleem.

“For me, haleem is a feel-good factor. You come, you eat, you go,” he says.

Food, he says, brings a lot of people together.


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