With boatloads of meat now stockpiled in the freezer post Qurbani, all sorts of recipes now fight for attention in my mind. This brainstorming took me down the road of 'haleem' craving and I set a goal of finding out the origin of this popular dish and the result was extremely interesting.
Of all the things that come up, the most important finding I had was that haleem has an ancestor called 'hareesa', which is an Arab delicacy and the medieval Andalusian Jews ate it on Saturday, a day of Sabbath for them.
The Lebanese and Syrian Christians make hareesa to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption. In Iraq, Lebanon and the subcontinent, Shias make it in the month of Muharram to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain at Karbala.
The Arabic word 'Harasa' and another older word 'Harasu' gives birth to the word 'Hareesa' which refers to pounding of meat with barley or shelled whole grains of wheat. Often, the bone-in meat is cooked separately and then de-boned before mixing it to the wheat mixture, and finally, it is pounded hard to make a smooth paste. This laborious bicep building dish is a popular food for the month of Ramadan in many countries.
From the 10th century book, 'Kitabh al Tabikh' (Book of Dishes) by Ibn Sayaar Al Warraq, which is revered as one of the earliest cookbooks to be discovered, narrated numerous variations of porridge which can provide a fully balanced, calorific and communal meal that replenishes your family's reserves after a day of fasting.
Interestingly, the word haleem means 'patient' in Arabic, advising one to stay home and to remain patient through the long, slow cooking process.
During months of fasting or during long journeys in-between battles, it was a one-dish sailor and soldier food and that is how, some historians believe, harisa came to the sub-continental coast of Malabar with the arrival of Arab traders.
Harees is undoubtedly one of the most ancient and popular iftar dish across the Gulf countries during Ramadan. Its gluey, fatty consistency coupled with minimal spicing attributes to its popularity.
The litmus test for good homemade or commercially prepared harees is that it should possess tender threads of meat or chicken running through the porridge.
Most Muslim cultures prepare some version of harees, especially since many believe that the Prophet Mohammad favoured this dish. Evliya Efendi wrote that the Prophet himself ate haressa, and called it "the Lord of dishes."
Turkey often showcases their version, known as Keshkek, which has been their national dish since Central Asia has been linked with Turkish culture. Keshkek, which is usually made from mutton or chicken and coarsely ground meat, is an essential dish for ceremonies such as weddings, religious chants, and seeing-off youngsters for their military service. Salt is not added to keshkek in the beginning; it is added when the desired consistency is achieved. If it is well cooked, they either remove the container from the fire or carry the fire away. The proper consistency of keshkek, the amount of salt and the taste, depend on the mastery of the cook.
As keshkek is an indispensable dish for weddings, religious chants, feasts for the soldiers-to-be and circumcisions, that is sent to the guests in trays. Powdered pepper sauce fried in butter is poured over the plates to make it look more attractive and tastier.
The Iranians prepare their own version of hareesa, or 'haleem,' topped with cinnamon, confectioner's sugar and melted butter for a savoury porridge. An ancient dish, originally prepared in Iran with barley, travelled to Armenia, Anatolia, Northern Iraq, and finally to the Indian subcontinent. In Pakistan, it is prepared on religious holidays.
In a nut shell, Harees or Harissa, the meat to wheat ratio is 1:1 and the wheat is boiled before its added, soaked overnight or sometimes the wheat is beaten to a paste/pulp form. The spices used are cinnamon, cumin, cardamom and few others
If you travel to Hyderabad in India, in the midst of Ramadan, you would be courted by countless signs for the Hyderabadi version of Haleem. In comparison to the subtle, classical flavour of the traditional Arabian harees, haleem throws itself onto centre stage like a heavy metal band on fire. Purists would argue that this haleem is really 'kichda,' a meat-wheat porridge that is enriched with pulses. Personally, I find the traditional bowl of harees a notch too bland and the commercial Hyderabadi Haleem is too spicy, often leaving my taste buds in a pile of smouldering ashes!
When I tried to trace the history of Harees coming to Hyderabad, I found the Arab soldiers (mostly from Yemen) who migrated to India to serve in Nizam's Army stayed in the barracks. Similar to soldiers in Arabic countries, haleem used to be served as breakfast and lunch for the people who used to go to battle so that they have strength throughout the day. This gradually found its way to being served at Iftar's and feasts.
Variants: Hyderabad has two versions of harees, the khari (plain) and the meethi (spiced) available. Khari, true to its name, is bland by Hyderabadi standards and available at a majority of the outlets and meethi actually has sugar mixed with it and not so commonly available. Kashmir and a few other places also have rice used instead of wheat in making it.
How harees became haleem: The bland version of harees had a few additions made to it, such as garam masala, onions, garlic, ginger, red chilli, coriander, turmeric etc in the spices section, gram lentils along with a 1:3 ratio of wheat to meat i.e. 1kg wheat to 3kg meat which gives the haleem its thickness and uniqueness.
Difference between harees and haleem in layman's terms:
Ratio of wheat to meat: 1:1 vs. 1:3
Taste: Bland vs. spicy
Consistency: Semi liquid vs. thick porridge
The process of making haleem is lengthy and tiresome and there is an explosion of haleem in the city every Ramadan. With an increasing demand for the succulent meat stew, more and more restaurants are now serving it and stalls come up across city, catering to long lines of haleem enthusiasts.
Bangladesh's recipe stays true to the wholesome, nourishing nature of the traditional Arabian porridge, yet with the fistfuls of lentils and spices to complement rather than overpower the base meat and wheat flavour and served with crisp fried onions, grated raw ginger and a spritz of lime.
A common misconception is that if chicken is used for preparation of the dish, it is called harees. However, chicken was actually used in harees because it was cheaper in price, making it affordable for all and lamb became the rich man's option. Rest assured that all three types of meat can be used in preparation of both harees and haleem.
If reading all about haleem has you salivating for some, then here are three most referred dishes which you can easily prepare at home
HALEEM (HYDERABAD, INDIA)
1 kg mutton with bones
4 tbsp ginger garlic paste
2 tsp red chili powder
3/4 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp garam masala powder
11/2 tsp salt
1 medium sized onion, deep fried
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 handfuls coriander leaves
1 handful mint leaves
1 tbsp dried rose petals
4 green chilies, diced
Ingredient set 2
2 tbsp butter
1 tsp caraway seeds
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 tsp black pepper
Ingredient set 3:
1 tbsp red lentils
1 tbsp split black gram
1 tbsp Green gram
1 tbsp barley
1 tbsp basmati rice
1 tsp sesame seeds
8 chopped almonds
8 chopped cashews
Ingredient set 4:
1 tbsp clarified butter
100g broken wheat
1 to 11/2 litre water
Ingredient set 5:
2tbsp clarified butter
2 medium sized onion, deep fried
Few coriander and mint leaves
3/4 tsp black pepper powder
3/4 tsp garam masala powder
Mix the mutton well with the ingredients in set 1 and marinate for one hour.
Now, in a pressure cooker, heat clarified butter (ghee) and add to it the set 2 ingredients and sauté for 30 seconds over low flame. Add to it the marinated mutton and cook for 8 minutes over high flame. Add one and a half glass water, close the lid and cook over high flame till one whistle, then cook for 30 minutes over low flame or till mutton turns completely tender.
Take off the stove and remove the mutton bones and spices and mash it finely.
For the second stage of cooking, coarsely grind the ingredients of set 3 in a bowl.
Now take a pan, and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes the ingredients in set 4. Cook till cereals and pulses turn smooth. Now mash these dals.
Add the mashed dal to mashed mutton and add the ingredients in set 5 to the mixture, and mix and mash them well. Cook the mixture for 5 to 10 minutes and stir vigorously, the more you stir and mash, the more elasticity it gets.
Haleem is ready, garnish with clarified butter, fried onions, few coriander and mint leaves, few fried cashews and serve hot with a dash of lemon juice too.
1 kg Mutton (goat) meat
1 tbsp oil
2 glasses whole wheat (soaked overnight)
2 cups chana dal or gram dal
1 cup masoor dal, washed
1 cup moong dal, washed
1 cup tur dal
1 cup urad dal, washed
1/2 cup ginger and garlic paste
8-10 green chillis
1 tbsp red chilli powder
1 tbsp turmeric powder
1 tbsp coriander powder
5 tsp whole garam masala paste
Salt to taste
2 tbsp coriander leaf
2 tsp garam masala powder
2 tbsp ghee.
Soak wheat overnight and boil with salt, turmeric and ginger garlic paste till it becomes soft. Soak all the dals and boil with salt, turmeric and ginger garlic paste and cook till all become soft. Put a cooker on heat, add oil, mutton, all the whole garam masala (crushed), onion roughly chopped, ginger and garlic paste, salt, red chilli powder and turmeric powder. Add water and cook for 20-25 min till mutton is cooked. Take a large pan add the mutton gravy and cook for 3-4 min. Mash the mixture of boiled dal and add to the mutton. Add the wheat mixture and cook well till all ingredients blend. Put a pan on heat, add oil and chopped onion, and fry it till golden brown, now add in the mixture of dal, wheat and mutton.
Serve with fried onion, salad and lemon wedges.
830g lamb, with bones
454g pearl barley
1 tsp salt
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp black pepper (ground)
1 litre water – for cooking the meat
1 litre water – for cooking the barley
⅓ cup unsalted butter
Place the meat in a large pot, cover the meat with water and cook on high heat until it comes to a boil, skim any impurities. Lower the heat to medium and cook for two hours.
Wash the barley and soak for two hours while the meat is cooking, and add the soaked barley, salt, and cinnamon stick. Cook over low heat for two hours. Add 1 cup boiling water if you forgot to lower the heat and it dries up. Remove the cinnamon stick and the bones. Stir well.
Add freshly ground black pepper. Use an immersion blender to blend the mix. Melt the butter on medium heat and lightly brown it. When the foam subsides, turn off the heat. Do not burn the milk solids.
Serve the Harees with sugar and browned butter or ghee.
Photo courtesy: Subhabrata Maitra