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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 – 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.

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From Bombay to London: Irani Cafes & “Dishoom”

12 Mar

On the several walks from my apartment to the hustle bustle of Soho and Leicester Square I had frequently walked past  the restaurant “Dishoom” – somewhat intrigued by the 1970s ‘Bollywoodish’ title. On the recommendation of my cousin, I finally paid a visit last month and wondered why it had taken me so long to make this first move. There are countless reviews on the blogosphere that have discovered “Dishoom” much before I did  so I am, clearly, tardy to that party and hence don’t intend on simply “reviewing” the restaurant.

What struck me as the most charming and defining feature of Dishoom” was the concept that it pays homage to, that of, Irani cafes in mid-20th century Bombay. Irani cafes appeared in Bombay and Karachi after their Zoroastrian-Iranian owners came to India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries following earlier settlers from Persia.

An Irani Cafe in Bombay - Photo Credit: Expressindia.com

In the last few years, such cafes have either been converted into pubs and restaurants or are simply closing down mainly due to fierce competition from other market players and the economic migration of younger generation of Parsis outside of India. Poignantly, the dwindling number of Irani cafes in Bombay and Karachi mirrors the shrinking of the Parsi community itself that has barely 70,000 members living in Bombay and only 2,000 in Karachi.

A fringe religious community in both India and Pakistan, Parsis  have made immense contributions in various spheres of life in both countries. The Irani cafes or restaurants were set up predominantly by Irani Zoroastrians who fled persecution from the Iranian provinces of Yazd and Kerman. Since they lacked the capital to establish themselves in shipping, banking and industry as had the earlier Zoroastrian settlers, the Irani Zoroastrians established modest cafes.

Irani cafes gradually became iconic institutions in themselves attracting clientele from students, struggling artists, tourists and Parsi families. They were also seen as very welcoming and were touted as being a microcosm that was “classless and casteless” where religious boundaries and societal divisions were blurred.

While there is ample material to be found on Irani cafes in Bombay, I was also curious to explore their roots in my birthplace, Karachi.

My father who was has spent 4 decades in the city recollects his experience of these cafes:

Irani cafes were dotted all over Karachi in yesteryears and were known for providing quality food on a budget. The cafes were owned by Bahai community people who were living in mostly coastal cities like Bombay and Karachi but somehow in local parlance they were called “Iran Kay Hotel”. The bun muska (crusty bun with butter) and ovaltine chai (milky tea with sprinkled ovaltine) was the meal for many office goers and students. These cafes also used to be political centres of Karachi where student and political activist used to rendezvous for hours. They used to bring a full glass of water before any serving while the fingers were dipped inside the glass. Some of them were centrally located  like one at Regal Cinema in Saddar and Khairabad on I .I.Chundrigar Road which was in those days the Fleet Street of Karachi where all newspapers offices were located. Outside these cafes were paan shops where people used to buy one cigarette of Wills or Capstan and lit their cigarette after a hearty meal by rope made of jute (jute used to come from East Pakistan). Irani cafes were institutions which have unfortunately faded out from the cultural scene of Karachi and more synthetic and fast food chains have replaced them. Anybody who has lived in Karachi in the 50s, 60s, 70s can recall all such cafes.

Now on to “Dishoom”

“Dishoom” opened its doors to Londoners last July. Adorned with sepia toned portraiture and popular imagery from the 50s and 60s against the backdrop of powder blue walls, it is obvious that much thought and effort has gone into the decor and cultural referencing. The attention to detail in the interior was for me a highlight since eating out is equally about the experience as it is about the food itself.

I admit to this bias but given the plethora of Pakistani restaurants in London that serve food exactly how I would enjoy it back home, I rarely venture to Indian restaurants. However, Dishoom has changed that for me. During multiple visits I have enjoyed the simple, clean flavours and moderately spiced food. The stellar item on the menu is, undoubtedly, the chai. Sacrilegious as this may sound, I’m not at all a chai drinker but this has me hooked. It’s traditional milky tea with a lingering aftertaste of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and a hint of ginger. The pau bhaji and dishoom calamari are excellent as starters as is the accompaniment of velvety roomali roti, which I had the last time at the iconic Karim’s in Delhi (that was a meal not to be forgotten).

Pau Bhaji

I always order the grilled items, which are amongst the best I have had in London. In particular, the spicy lamb chops and dishoom chicken tikka are perfectly seasoned and flavoured. The lamb biryani is also worth mentioning. They also serve a chicken berry biryani, which I have not tried as yet but it’s a signature Parsi dish. The rose and cardamom lassi is delicious and refreshing. The samosas and fish fingers were standard and not particular stand-outs. The chilli omelette and the breakfast bake are worth getting up early on a Saturday morning for.

While, I would not term this as a meal on a budget, the items are fairly priced. They have a no reservation policy so expect a long wait for tables during peak meal times on weekends.

Recently, Dishoom has started hosting events such as book readings and musical performances, which one can follow on their social media outlets (Twitter and Facebook).

Oh, and they also serve Thums Up 🙂

Dishoom

12 Upper St Martins Lane
WC2H 9FB, London
020 7420 9320

Sources:

Naomi Lobo (May 20 2007). “Irani cafés: Inheritance of loss”. India Express.

http://heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/irani/cafe.htm

http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/JK27Df01.html

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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Soup from the East

18 Oct

Growing up in Pakistan one of my favorite soups was “Mulligatawny” soup – a thick, mustard-hued tangy lentil soup garnished with fried onions and lemon slices with a hint of fine chicken pieces and rice.

Not a very common item on menus, the best variation of this soup was found mostly in luxury hotels or country clubs. Over time though, this soup from the East is becoming more ubiquitous in South Asia. My earliest memories of having this soup were in the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. One of the multiple occasions I had this soup happened to be a dinner with my mother’s American colleague who was of South Indian descent. When the Mulligatawny soup arrived on the table and we began to dig in her colleague pointed out that what we were consuming was not in fact the authentic version of this distinctive soup.He explained that the literal translation of Mulligatawny from Tamil is “pepper water” (‘Millagu’ is pepper and ‘Thanni’ is water). The “real” Mulligatawny soup is traditionally a clear curry flavored soup containing vegetables and occasionally rice or noodles. Upon research I realized there are multiple versions of this soups with ingredients ranging from almonds, coconut milk, eggs to lamb!

My favorite version remains the hearty lemony thick yellow soup I have grown up eating – which is the most common version of this soup in South Asia.

Not very commonly found on menus in the U.S or Europe, I recently rediscovered this soup in Sri Lanka where it is a staple item on the menu in most hotels or restaurants. I have probably tried 5 or 6 different restaurants here serving Mulligatawny soup, each one being different from the other. The common factor between all of them is the mustard color, thick texture and hearty flavor. If you ever happen to be visiting South Asia and find this on a menu make sure to try it!

– F

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