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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 – )

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.


Of Coffee and Post-Modernism

22 Sep

One of my earliest memories of coffee was recognizing the aura surrounding this drink that my mother proclaimed was meant strictly for adults. As an undergrad in frigid Boston I consumed copious amounts of double espresso shots for the caffeine fix to fuel much dreaded all-nighters and then as a young adult, drinking coffee became more of a lifestyle choice and an essential ingredient in awkward first dates. Evidently, my associations with coffee have shifted in each successive phase of my life.

Apart from the continually evolving relationship between our personal histories and the products we consume, food and beverages have social histories that can shape the economies and histories of unlikely places.

Recently, I revisited a fascinating essay I read several years ago by William Roseberry titled The Rise of Yuppie Coffees and Reimagination of Class in the United States, where he notes that the coffee market “provides a window through which we can view a range of relationships and social transformations.” In the 1800s, coffee was the beverage of choice among the elite but by the early 1900s it had transformed into a relatively inexpensive drink consumed in working class households and factory canteens. The focus of Roseberry’s essay is on the expansion of specialty coffees in the 1980s that marked a departure from the past characterized by standardized mass production and consumption. In the following excerpt he makes the case for coffee as the beverage of postmodernism:

Might we, in turn, now consider coffee to be the beverage of postmodernism? That is, can an examination of shifts in the marketing and consumption of one commodity provide an angle of vision on a wider set of social and cultural formations and the brave new world of which they are a part? That I can walk across the street and choose among a seemingly endless variety of cheeses, beers, waters, teas, and coffees places me in a new relationship to the world: I can consume a bit of Sumatra, Darjeeling, France, and Mexico in my home, perhaps at the same meal. Such variety stands in stark contrast to the stolid, boring array of goods available two decades ago. We live now in an emerging era of variety and choice, and the revolution in consumption seems to indicate, and in some ways initiate, a revolution in production. As with coffee, so with other food products: the moves toward product diversification often came not from the established and dominant corporations but from independents whose initiatives have undercut and undermined the established practices and market share of those corporations.

So is the world’s second most traded commodity really emblematic of the post-modern world we live in as Roseberry claims? Ethical consumption such as FairTrade coffee is a good example of reflexive consumption that articulates a seemingly closer relationship between producers and consumers who are part of a complex global supply chain. In that sense, yes, coffee does lend itself to being a beverage that signifies late modernity but I remain unsure that it is ‘the’ beverage of post-modernism.

Photo Credit: Rodela Khan | NYC 2011


Roseberry, William. 1996. The Rise of Yuppie Coffees and the Recognition of Class in the United States. American Anthropologist 98(4):762- 75

Can Good Food Lead to An Existential Crisis?

20 Jan

“I would like a large carafe of ennui with some angst on the side” – Bourdain

In the Rome episode of “No Reservations” (aired in Summer 2010), food and travel writer and critic, Anthony Bourdain ponders over the question “can good food lead to an existential crisis?” His beguiling culinary experience in Rome leads him to question why he hadn’t been born there, why he hadn’t visited it before and why he didn’t speak the language (Italian in this case). While many regard Bourdain’s opinions and critiques as self-indulgent there are some including myself who may not even buy into this existential crap. Let’s just eat our food and get on with it. Why intellectualize the experience of eating food?

What we perhaps don’t realize is that it’s not even really about intellectualizing – we are subconsciously asking ourselves or are at least faced with similar questions as the ones Bourdain poses when we travel to different cities.

Bourdain in Rome - Source:

Existentialism per se not withstanding, after watching this episode, which by the way I did enjoy, I was motivated to think of experiences in my own life where I visited a place and asked myself the same questions. While I have certainly enjoyed foods in most places I have visited, I have, quite truthfully, not been overcome with a strong sense of why I had not been there before with food being the stimulus. Yet I can relate to the transformational quality of food not because food magically changes the way we perceive things but because it embodies traditions and relationships. Can I really claim to have enjoyed food in Italy in its essence without acknowledging the contributions of countless mothers and grandmothers who have perfected recipes over generations. Can we ever really appreciate and understand something including food without knowing the story it tells? Moreover, can we understand that story without being from that society?

For tourists it’s common not to have much knowledge of the local cuisine of flavours and feel a sense  of alienation with something as basic as food. The sense of isolation that food may create is not a product of taste or flavour being different to what we are used to but rather a result of food being a cultural symbol. Indeed, food can be equally isolating as a language you don’t comprehend, a religion whose beliefs and traditions you are unfamiliar with and a land whose geography and history you are unaware of. At the same time food can also serve as a wonderful cultural icon that you fall in love with, that you can be nostalgic about, whose aftertaste tingles your taste buds even months and weeks later. It depends entirely on the perspective.

Another aspect I have often wondered about is the medium of language and whether it can ease or exacerbate the sense of isolation that food itself can create. Language can be a huge barrier to understanding local menus as well as communicating what you would like to eat. I realized over multiple trips to Latin America where although Spanish is the language widely spoken, there are local variations that extend particularly to food and drink often making it difficult  even for those who do speak Spanish to decipher the ingredients and ultimately decide what to eat. I recall that during a trip to Istanbul the best meal we had was with my friend and her parents who ordered exactly what we would have wanted to eat without us even letting them know our choice. We had constantly tried to order similar dishes when we would go out ourselves but would either end up ordering what we were familiar with based on dishes from Turkish restaurants in New York or the ones in which the ingredients were seemingly familiar. The language barrier limited our ability to try the best that Turkish cuisine had to offer.

Has the food in a certain country inspired you to ask yourself similar questions or created a sense of “IwishIwasfromhere”? Please do share your experiences and thoughts!

Coca-Cola: A Meta Symbol?

26 Dec

In Andy Warhol’s words:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

If there is a food or beverage I truly cannot live without, it is Coca Cola. I won’t delve deeper into my infatuation (read addiction) with the drink but what I do find worth exploring is how an object of mass consumption that I simply enjoy as a consumer sitting in London has undoubtedly evolved into a commodity that has varied connotations across the globe. Warhol’s statement above embodies the pervasiveness of Coca Cola in cutting across socio-economic groups  as well as pays homage to the fizzy drink as a symbol of capitalism and Americanization.

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