Varying from region to region, this healthy dish of meat and grains boasts of a rich history and tradition and is symbolic of generosity and sharing

During my wonder years, the 10th of Muharram meant a pulao degh being made at my parents’ home, and a haleem degh at my nani’s. Needless to say the haleem was delicious — hot, spicy, flavourful and (for a child) consumable only with a few bottles of soda. However as I entered my teens, my tolerance for spice went up and my appreciation for haleem went up even further.

I have been researching South Asian foods for some years now, and my fascination for our cuisine grows with time. Our foods have travelled regions, jumped cuisines, evolved and survived the test of time, hence earning an elite status amongst the cuisines of the world, and haleem is one such dish. It is said to be one of the original “generosity dishes”, meaning it was always prepared with the intention of sharing with others. It is believed that the recipe of Middle Eastern harissa, written millennia ago, is what haleem actually evolved from. Harissa, according to food historian Claudia Roden is the parent of haleem and is believed to be an Arab specialty rather than a Muslim one.

Haleem, the healthy meat-and-grains stew, is symbolic of generosity and sharing

The medieval Andalusian Jews ate it on Saturdays, a day of Sabbath for them. The Lebanese and Syrian Christians make harissa to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption. And in Iraq, Lebanon and the subcontinent, Shia Muslims made it to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain at Karbala in the month of Muharram.

It was perhaps Mughal Emperor Humayun who brought the recipe of haleem to the subcontinent, but apparently it was his son Akbar who made it popular across the board, from troops to the throne. It is originally a slow-cooking dish and its name in Arabic even means ‘patience’.

Here is something interesting that I stumbled upon some years ago when researching the history of haleem.

Ciezadlo in her article History on a Plate, quotes in the article Food Stories, Haleem:

“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.

The first written recipe of harissa [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.”

This Muharram, I am torn between making pulao like my mother did, or haleem like my nani did. Maybe I’m going to end up making both. That’s not such a bad idea after all.



1 cup wheat
¼ cup plus 1 tbsp barley
¼ cup white maash (urud) dal
¼ cup moong dal
¼ cup masoor dal
¼ cup basmati rice
1 cup channa 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 tablespoon red chilli powder (increase or decrease according to taste if needed)

Salt to taste

2 to 3 tablespoons ginger garlic paste,
1 tablespoon heaped coriander powder
1 ½ teaspoon level turmeric powder
1 ½ large onions sliced for frying

Ingredients for sealed pot cooking

1 level teaspoon garam masala powder, ¼ teaspoon nutmeg powder,
¼ teaspoon mace powder,
½ teaspoon black cumin,
½ teaspoon green
cardamom powder

Ingredients for Garnish or served on the side

Lemon wedges, chopped cilantro and green chillies, 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, chilli powder, turmeric, coriander powder, stock and salt. Cook until korma is tender.

In a large separate pot, boil pre-soaked grains until tender, approximately for 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 chilli content. The haleem must be well blended. Now add all five sealed-pot ingredients and mix well. Seal the pot and let steam for a few minutes.

Garnish and serve with a side of naan, if desired. This one is a sure-shot hit — nothing short of a professionally made street-food deghi haleem. Enjoy.

The writer is a journalist and her debut novel Feast, With A Taste of Amir Khusro is up for release this Autumn

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 1st, 2017