When Aurangzeb undertook the conquest of the Deccan, while his army was busy conquering the lands and subduing the Qutb Shahis, it was a customised Arab dish that travelled out from the cantonments, won the hearts of the people of Hyderabad and lived on a living legacy. It was called Harisah, Harissa or Harees.
Even today most popular anecdotes in Hyderabad credit the haleem or the harissa to the Alamgir, though history points to the Yemenis in the army of Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat in the 16th century, for first serving it to Hyderabad Nizams. Either way, it was a pure-play soldier dish.
The alchemy started with the slaughter of lambs – the skull and breasts were cooked as nihari, while the meat, mixed with wheat, lentils or cereals and sometimes sweetened with jaggery, was cooked for eight-odd hours. What magic got produced was eaten together as a community. Already a heavy dish, it was made richer over time by adding dry fruits and ghee.
That’s the creation we also see today. Unlike today, however, it was not a traditional Ramzan dish.
Camel, emu variants
“It was a dish that was consumed during Muharram,” said Ashar Farhan, cultural curator of Lamakaan, whose family has been in Hyderabad for generations. “It was a dish created to serve the energy needs of the soldier-like fiery mourners. It was cooked for hours, often for seven to eight, and hence the dish took the name of Haleem – Persian for patience – but close to the Arabic Harissa. Since it was never a domestic dish, it was cooked for large numbers of people, it was a dish associated with a special occasion.”
“It is a tough dish, though a delicacy,” Farhan further explained. “The richness of the dish and its appeal lies in it being cooked for hours, and beaten and mashed. It becomes like a rich paste, the spices and herbs used are thoroughly mixed with the wheat-flour and meat. It takes a tough stomach to digest it. It was also used as a starter in some wedding dawats over the decades.”
Despite being traditional fare in a city which reveres both tradition and food, it has evolved, and its appeal has grown beyond the faithful. In Hyderabad’s Arab quarters of Barkas, where the descendants of the African-Arabian tribes live, it is consumed with beef and retains the original name of harissa or harees. A few restaurants prepare a chicken variation called hareez, but the chicken biryani loving city has never really taken to it in a big way.
Some variations have also used the camel, while emu meat has become the most recent experiment. But most people don’t like anything except lamb.
The haleem as a Ramzan dish is not really an old tradition, says Farhan – it has been there only for a couple of decades. It was the changing lifestyle and economic growth of the city that put pressure on the city’s Irani cafes and they went searching for alternatives. And so the haleem moved from Muharram to Ramzan, giving the outlets a month of assured business.
The most famous innovations came from Pista House, now a brand available globally. Its proprietor, MA Majeed, has built a cult status for a dish which is available during the month of Ramzan in different variations in over 3,500 outlets – big and small. “My mother created our recipe, we kept it a secret,” he said, “but using best of business and technology practices, we took to spreading it.”
Majeed was the first to have packaged haleem for parcels. While most outlets stuck to one option, he began innovating. Pista House was the first to create a vegetarian option, and it now boasts of a Jain version. He has applied for a Geographical Indication status for their trademarked bestseller. Pista House has also tied up with the US Postal Department to make haleem available across Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas and St. Johns in the US.
The Pista House haleem is made from the best-of-breed goats, wheat, ghee, dry fruits and spices like dalchini, elachi, laung and shahzeera. Their success prompted other famous Hyderabadi brands like Paradise and Hyderabad House to convert a traditional fare into a big viable business. As a result, Hyderabadi Haleem is also available across the Middle East.
Which is the best?
Building on the strength that Hyderabadi haleem is unique – because most break fast with softer food like fruits, dates and rice dishes like pulao and biryani – they began packing haleem and made it available at bus stations, railways stations and the airport for people to take it outstation.
With the growth of the city, Indians from all states who came and settled in Hyderabad began having the dish. Come Ramzan, Hyderabadis of all religions and states await the start of the haleem season.
While they wait, before the holy month begins, outlets set up ovens of clay and mud, stock wood and goats besides herbs and dry fruits. Cooking happens over 12 hours, often pre-sunrise, and haleem starts getting served after Iftar prayers in the evening.
“It is amazing how it can be so different in different parts of the city and outlets,” said Rohit Lingineni, a Hyderabadi who is studying in Melbourne. “It is impossible to ascertain which is the best – and each one boasts of being number one. The only thing that can be claimed with certainty is that after biryani, Hyderabad’s biggest contribution to the culinary world is the haleem. And it is worth waiting for a year.”