Food Stories: Haleem

Published November 11, 2014
Among the original slow-cooked dishes, haleem is known for its tradition of being shared across all religions. —Photo by Fawad Ahmed
Among the original slow-cooked dishes, haleem is known for its tradition of being shared across all religions. —Photo by Fawad Ahmed

Every year the coming of Muharram meant a month of haleem eating and Nani Amma made a delicious wheat, barley, lentil and meat haleem, savory and so beautifully balanced in flavour.

My first memory of eating this delicious desi delight was as a nine year old, yes it was spicy but the ice cold 7UP and a side of naan took care of the heat.

Haleem is one of the original slow-cooked dishes and according to the Time magazine, the written recipe of the Persian and Middle Eastern harisa, the food that haleem evolved from, was written in the 10th century.

'Harisa, a mixture of meat, spices and grains, is a dish worth stampeding for. People have been savoring this slow-cooked sludge for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. Today, harisa — or its Persian and South Asian equivalent, haleem — can be found from the Mediterranean, [Pakistan and India] to Kashmir, a sizable swath of the Islamic world Ibn Battuta explored,’ says Annia Ciezadlo in her article, History on a Plate published in the Time Magazine.

Claudia Roden, a food historian and cookbook writer says that the parent of haleem, called harisa, is rather an Arab delicacy, and the medieval Andalusian Jews ate it on Saturdays, a day of Sabbath for them.

The Lebanese and Syrians Christians make harisa to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption. And in Iraq, Lebanon and the subcontinent, Shias make it to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain at Karbala in the month of Muharram.

Haleem and harisa have many commonalities, besides being the obvious grain and meat porridge, 'it’s interesting that one finds the tradition of sharing [it] across all religions,’ says Anissa Helou, a cookbook writer.

The haleem some say was introduced to the subcontinent during the reign of Humanyun but became popular in the times of Akbar. The Ain-e-Akbari documents the recipe of harisa, haleem and kashk (a variation of the haleem).

Interestingly, the word haleem means 'patient' in Arabic, advising one to stay the same during the long, slow cooking process.

Haleem, nihari and biryani are robustly rustic, and before they were refined to lavishly lay on the table of royalty in the subcontinent they were cantonment foods; fit to feed the lashkaray fauj (Army battalions).

Food Stories: Sindhi Biryani

It was a one-dish sailor and soldier food and that is how, some historians believe harisa came to the subcontinental coast of Malabar with the arrival of Arab traders.

The spicier haleem evolved when the Hyderabadi and Lucknavi cooks slow-cooked cracked wheat, meat and pulses in a sealed pot on low flame overnight. At the break of dawn, the porridge was cooled and pounded to get the right texture.

Pratibha Karan, author of A Princely Legacy — Hyderabadi Cuisine and Biryani states,

In the late 7th century, Caliph Mu'awiya of Damascus, received a delegation of Arabian Yemenis. According to medieval historians who wrote about the encounter, the Caliph's first question to his visitors addressed something more urgent than political matters. Years earlier, on a journey to Arabia, he had eaten an exquisite dish, a porridge of meat and wheat. Did they know how to make it? They did.

Ciezadlo in her article History on a Plate says,

The first written recipe of Harisa, [Haleem] dates from the 10th century, when a scribe named Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq compiled a cookbook of the dishes favored by the caliphs. The version described in his Kitab al-Tabikh (Book of Dishes), the world's oldest surviving Arabic cookbook, is strikingly similar to the one people in the Middle East eat to this day.

Hence we can safely assume that this is the same harisa that the Arab travellers brought. Famed Ibn Battuta writes in his travelogues on Persian hospitality, ‘It is their custom to serve every visitor, whoever he may be, harisa [haleem] made from flesh, wheat and ghee.

Sultan Saif Nawaz Jung, a ruler of the principality in Hadhramaut (now Yemen) was a noble of the Nizam state, it is believed that he loved haleem [harisa] and served the original Arabic delicacy at all hosted events.

Soon, the Arabs married into the local population of the subcontinent and hence the lentils and spices were added to suit the subcontinental taste. But interestingly, the preparation of haleem does not require the use of strong desi spices, and relies more on the mild use of aromatic garam masalas; the flavour of the seven grains and meat porridge is enhanced due to the slow cooking and the extensive use of garnish.

Come this Muharram, nostalgia took me down the road of haleem craving, and I set on the mission of making it myself. The research was fascinating and the cooking a real joy.

In my year of writing Food Stories, cooking both nihari and haleem have been the two most satisfying experiences. The reason for that is simple, we never give ourselves the opportunity or credit to make these fabulous cuisines from scratch, instead relying on catering or ready-made masala boxes.

Food Stories: Nihari

I made haleem for the first time with a combination of two recipes, my grandmother’s and my own, the result was that of delicious deghi haleem.

Here it is, from my kitchen to yours.

Ingredients (7 grains)

1 cup wheat
¼ cup plus 1 tbsp. barley
¼ cup white maash dal (Urud)
¼ cup moong dal
¼ cup masoor dal
¼ cup basmati rice
1 cup chana dal
½ to ¾ cup oil
2 ½ lbs (Preferably boneless veal or beef stew (without fat), mutton and chicken can be used as well.)
1 ½ cup chicken or beef stock
1 ½ heaped tbsp red chillie powder (increase or decrease to taste if needed)
Salt to taste
2 to 3 tbsp ginger garlic paste
1 tbsp (heaped) coriander powder
1 ½ tsp level turmeric powder
1 ½ large onions (sliced for frying)

Ingredients for Dum (sealed pot cooking)

1 level tsp garam masala powder
¼ tsp jayfal powder
¼ tsp javatree powder
½ tsp black cumin
½ tsp green cardamom powder

Ingredients for garish (or to be served on the side)

Lemon wedges, chopped cilantro and green chillie, fried onions, julienned ginger, chaat masala, yoghurt and naan.


Wash and soak all seven grains for 6 to 8 hours.

In a pan, fry onions until golden brown, adding meat, ginger garlic, chillie powder, turmeric, coriander powder, stock and salt. Cook until the korma is tender.

In a large separate pot, boil pre-soaked grains until tender, approximately 2 to 2 ½ hours. Eyeball the water quantity (for boiling and cooking) depending on the required consistency and thickness of the haleem.

Once boiled, put grains in blender and blend roughly, pouring the blended grains back in the pot for cooking.

Repeat the blending process with the meat korma, pouring the roughly blended korma into the cooking grains. Mix thoroughly on low to medium flame, stirring constantly.

Cook and stir until the correct consistency; tasting for salt and chillie content.

The haleem must be well blended, now add all five dum ingredients, mix well and initiate dum (sealed pot cooking) for a few minutes.

Garish and serve with a side of naan, if desired.

—Photos by Fawad Ahmed



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