Hyderabadi haleem: Tracing the history and hype over the city's favourite Ramzan dish
Ramzan in Hyderabad is synonymous with haleem
It’s Ramzan (or Ramadan) and the streets of Hyderabad have sprung alive with thronging crowds spreading gaiety and festivity. A major contributor to the general air of bonhomie is the availability of haleem once the sun sets — which, simply put, is the Baahubali of street-eats during the holy month. With shops spruced up, LED lights hung outside eateries and even cricket matches screened live at these joints, few dishes would have inspired such clientele, craze and continued following as this quintessential Hyderabadi one. Brick kilns or bhattis dot every nukkad (and are dismantled soon after) and food trails are held by foodie groups till the wee hours to allow people to sample it.
There is haleem and then there is the Hyderabadi haleem. The latter — topped with a bit of desi jugaad — has taken the original dish and turned it on its head, using the best of what the local cuisine has to offer, and making it a wholly unique creation. In the times we live in, it is noteworthy that haleem hopping is done by both Muslims and Hindus alike and since the base is mutton, there is no risk of gau rakshaks making an appearance in this story!
Traditionally made only during Ramzan (though it is available all year at some places in the city), haleem is preferred to break the day long fast as it is very filling, rich in protein and easily digestible. Canter through its gastronomical journey and while debate rages whether it made its debut in the 7th or 10th century, its first recorded appearance in India was in the 16th century, as it was mentioned in the Ain-i-Akbari.
Mehboob Alam Khan, food historian of Hyderabad, says that while the exact origins are difficult to locate, haleem is of Muslim origin from the Middle East or Central Asia. He says, “Across the Middle East it is known as harees, In India the dish is called haleem and an offshoot of the same basic recipe is also called the khichda. All of them follow the basic important principal of having wheat and meat in 1:2 ratio.”
The major difference between the harees found elsewhere in the world and haleem is the Hyderabad-isation of the dish. Several tweaks were administered to the original recipe to create the current dish. A marriage between the basic recipe and spices (elaichi, dalchini, black pepper, ginger/garlic paste among others) with dals from the arid Telangana region, have resulted in the creation of this lip-smacking broth.
Hyderabadi haleem which has the prized GI tag as its crowning glory was the first non-vegetarian dish to be given the label. The haleem cooked here needs to adhere to stringent stipulations to qualify as Hyderabadi haleem, which include the time needed to cook, quality of mutton used and the usage of tamarind wood (for uniform texture) being only some of the criterion needed.
It’s difficult to ascertain when exactly this delicacy first made its appearance in the bazaars of the old city, apart from being served at weddings or during festivities. While some say it was in the 1930s, Mehboob Alam Khan disagrees and adds, “The concept of going to hotels was not in Hyderabadi ethos and culture. The practice was to eat at home or receive hospitality from one’s relatives in their houses hence, one cannot point out when the dish was commercialised. It was always a part of Hyderabadi cuisine.”
Say Hyderabadi haleem and the words are intertwined with one restaurant, Pista House. Truth be told, it was this very restaurant located in the heart of Old city which contributed to the legend of haleem in Hyderabad and made it the city’s most popular export, displacing biryani and bangles. Started in 1997, it was the owner MA Majeed’s genius for marketing which made it a staple during the month of Ramzan. From a small bakery, it has grown leaps and bounds into a massive empire with multiple outlets in the city and six branches in the US (Silicon Valley and San Francisco included). The eatery also counts Bollywood stars such as Salman Khan and Govinda as patrons and couriers from the eatery are sent daily to Mumbai, Delhi and Middle East.
Majeed, also the head of Haleem Makers Association of Hyderabad is the pioneer in the publicity blitzkrieg which happens around haleem. The entrepreneur says that a lot of hard work went into creating an aura around the dish. He explains, “We did a lot of research to get the final recipe. We had tasters in three age groups, 20-35, 35-50 and above 50 years old who told us what worked and what did not. Another thing we revolutionised was the packing. In the '90s, people used to get vessels for takeaways. We introduced vacuum packs while keeping the traditional methods of cooking intact.”
Pista House was even the subject of a case study by students of ISB and Majid admits that the turning point was their tie up with postal department which ensued that piping hot haleem could be devoured by expats from the city across Middle East and other parts of India hours after it was prepared, keeping both homesickness and hunger pangs at bay. Pista House was also invited by the European Union Intellectual Property Office to present Hyderabadi haleem at the Thailand Food Exhibition 'THAIFEX 2017' in Bangkok.
Indeed, one spoonful of haleem at Pista House is a kaleidoscope of flavours. The taste, smell and feel of the dish is certainly unique here. The wheat and mutton are in the right mix, desi ghee and spices topped with coriander and lime make it nothing short of a masterpiece. It gets the two tricky parameters used to judge haleem right — texture and flavor. Majeed reveals that the porridge-y like texture comes from slow cooking using a traditional kiln over 10-12 hours and hand pounding the wheat and mutton while the unique flavour is due to the correct mix of ingredients and masala ground by the women of his house!
The correct preparation of the dish can't be emphasised enough. Bawarchis in the 220 registered places in old city are known to be fussy about all things minor and major — right from the consistency of the mutton and the width of the ghotni (a wooden hand masher) used to pound the meat, to the length of the wooden ladle used for continuous stirring. While earlier, the haleem joints were restricted to old city, now even luxury hotels and newer areas like Hi-tech City and Gachibowli are swept away in the haleem craze, with makeshift stalls springing up dime a dozen around the IT offices.
This year saw the introduction of organic and diet varieties, the later regarded as a farce by many as ghee is indispensible in the making of the dish. Nothing though, divides the old and new generations like the topic of introducing newer varieties in haleem. Chicken, fish, emu, lamb are still acceptable but mention vegetarian haleem and the old guard scoffs disdainfully. Mehboob Alam Khan is a purist who speaks vociferously against the newer innovations in this age old treat. He says, “How can a dish whose very basis is meat become vegetarian? Even chicken is not the same, as one cannot pound it the way you can with mutton.”
While the variation is to satiate and add newer customers, even the toppings become a point of debate. While the accepted ones range from the regular to the bizarre — nuts, egg, goat tongue and chicken — the unacceptable ones to the old guard, are toppings like fries and pineapple! Another thing frowned upon is the availability of the dish throughout the year by some restaurants, which many feel reduces its mystique.
Rough estimates put the sale of haleem during Ramzan last year at Rs 500 crore. That apart, it’s the unique connection the dish has with the Hyderabadi psyche and palate which makes it both indispensable and lucrative to the food Industry. Changes in recipes and ingredients apart, the haleem magic is here to stay and one nods in agreement when Majeed wryly says, “This is the perfect Make in India dish. We took it from the Middle East and are sending it back with a bit of our country.”
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