Lounge Loves | Haleem

Darjeeling tea, Tirupati ladoo, Goa’s feni. Last week, Hyderabadi haleem joined the list of these protected species when the Haleem Makers’ Association of Hyderabad was granted a Geographical Indication (GI) certification. The certificate ensures that haleem makers outside, and even within the city, will not be able to tag the dish “Hyderabadi" unless they meet strict quality and production standards.

Toiling away: Cooks pound the dish at a haleem-making contest in Hyderabad on Wednesday. Bharath Sai/Mint

It all sounds very scientific, but that’s not why we love haleem. The certificate, we think, is a mere endorsement of its lovability. We love the haleem for its wholesome, melt-in-the-mouth richness—of history, cross-cultural mingling, nostalgic memories of shared meals, and, of course, taste.

It was a pastoral West Asian dish, primarily Persian, that travelled across continent and time to finally find fame and sophistication in Hyderabad. As food historian Pushpesh Pant explains, “Haleem is prepared with char ghaf—gehu, gosht, ghee, gur (four Gs—wheat, meat, ghee and jaggery). The gur is the typically Hyderabadi addition. They like their food sweet and sour."

Given the Persian origin, haleem is eaten during Muharram and Ramzan by Shias—a reason, Pant says, why it didn’t gain popularity in places with predominantly Afghan or Burrani influence, such as Delhi, Rampur, Bhopal. It’s probably why a degh (cauldron) of haleem remains a rare sight in Delhi to this day (among the notable exceptions is Purani Dilli, a restaurant on the main road in Zakir Nagar, near Jamia Millia Islamia, which serves a must-try haleem all year).

In its robust rusticity, haleem is much like the other Ramzan dish, nihari, which was lashkari khana (cantonment food) before being adapted for more refined tables. Haleem too began life as an unsophisticated, one-dish meal prepared by soldiers and sailors. Its popularity in the Barkas area near the Charminar in Hyderabad, where the Nizam’s barracks were, is probably testimony to its military past.

Later, as it started being served in the finest homes of Lucknow and Hyderabad, two royal courts with a larger congregation of Shias, the recipe evolved. According to Pratibha Karan, author of A Princely Legacy—Hyderabadi Cuisine and Biryani, cracked wheat, meat and pulses are cooked together in a sealed pot on a slow fire overnight, cooled, and then pounded to get a thick, porridge-like consistency.

On the Malabar Coast, where harees, as it is known in West Asia, first arrived with the Arab traders, it is flavoured only with ghee, says Karan. The spicier Hyderabad version is flavoured with lime juice and garam masala, and garnished with mint, red chillies and fried onions.

What makes the haleem such a memorable dish is its association with celebratory meals—the half-a-day-long, labour-intensive cooking process rules it out as an item on the daily menu. It has come to stand for community dining and cherished memories—at iftaar, during weddings.