Haleem – A Subcontinental Delight

14 Oct

The advent of Muharram every year was a period of excitement for all the young ones who were fairly oblivious to the religious significance of the occasion but eagerly anticipated the food adventures that awaited them.

Muharram, for the unacquainted, marks the commencement of a period of mourning for Shia Muslims to mark the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, Muhammad’s grandson in the epic Battle of Karbala (modern day Iraq). In Karachi, where I grew up, the first ten days of Muharram witnessed a series of gatherings eulogizing this historical event. At the end of these gatherings, tabarruk, which literally translates as a token of blessing would be given to all attendees. It included an assortment of food items both sweet and savoury including haleem. 

Haleem – words can’t do it justice but at best it can be described as a combination of cracked wheat, lentils and shredded meat (usually beef or mutton) cooked tirelessly over slow heat for hours preferably even overnight and pounded to reach a thick consistency. It is then decorated with caramelized onions, slivers of ginger, finely cut green chillies, and sprinkled with lemon juice and served with naan.

I can’t remember a time in my life where I haven’t craved eating plate after plate after plate of haleem. Partly because of childhood memories and partly because it’s the most satiating dish I have ever tasted – the ultimate comfort food.

It remains unclear why haleem came to be associated with Muharram. A tradition, though unverified, reveals that a member of Hussain’s family ordered the dish to be cooked after the tragedy of Karbala. Even to this day, amongst Shia Muslims in the Subcontinent haleem is associated with Muharram.

The origins of Haleem, however, may not necessarily have been subcontinental:

“According to food historians haleem was a pastoral West Asian dish, primarily Persian, that travelled across continents and time to finally find fame and sophistication in Hyderabad. Given the Persian origin, haleem is eaten during Muharram and Ramzan by Shias, which explains why it didn’t gain popularity in places with predominantly Afghan or Burrani influence, such as Delhi, Rampur, Bhopal.

In its robust rusticity, haleem is much like the other Ramzan dish, nihari, 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.

(Source: The original ‘slow food’ staple – http://bit.ly/qHvluK )

What is fascinating to me is the inherent contradiction in when the dish is cooked and served. It is associated with celebratory occasions such as weddings and iftaars (the ritual of opening the fast at sundown) in Ramazan but equally with periods of mourning such as Muharram. Yet, no matter what time of the year or time of the day, the narrow lanes of Burns Road in Karachi are inundated with haleem vendors serving plate after plate from ladles dipped in large pots. The hygienic standards may be questionable but the taste never is.

Advertisements

One Response to “Haleem – A Subcontinental Delight”

  1. Kamini October 24, 2011 at 2:31 PM #

    A Pakistani friend of mine once cooked me a vegetarian haleem – with tofu in place of the meat – and oh, was it divine! What took the dish over the top were the garnishes – the fried onions, lemon wedges, ginger strips and cilantro sprigs….my mouth is watering as I write this!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: