Although it is sold as a popular snack on the streets of Karachi and Lahore all the way across to Delhi and Hyderabad Deccan, haleem is actually a complete high calorie meal which is packed with nutrients. Some say it is an acquired taste while others find its porridge like consistency quite comforting. Some prefer it on its own, eaten by the bowlfuls with a spoon; others devour it with soft, warm naan to make a very filling wholesome meal.

This mouth-watering mixture of lentils and meat, usually topped with crispy fried onions, chopped green chillies, chopped green coriander, julienned ginger and a twist of lemon, goes by several names — haleem, khichra or hareesa — with minor differences between the three variants.

It is basically a mixture of beef or mutton, (or sometimes chicken or minced meat), lentils, wheat and spices, cooked for seven to eight hours; the result is a well-blended smooth paste known as haleem. If it has chunks of meat, it will be called khichra while the same dish in a thinner consistency would be called hareesa.

Hareesa, believed to have originated in Qatari, found its way to Kerala, South India, when the Arabs came here for trade in the 7th century. Among the Muslim population of Malabar Region, it is known as Alsa. The wheat is crushed to make it soft and palatable after being soaked overnight, and then simmered in water along with the meat. When the meat is tender the liquid is strained, salt is added, and the entire mixture is mashed to pulp. When ready, the mixture is poured into a serving pot and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.

It is difficult to say where all the versions of haleem, hareesa and khichra originated, but they can be now be found not only all over the subcontinent but also in other Muslim countries. Haleem in Iran is known as keshkek and hareesa. There is a Moroccan version I came across in a restaurant in Abu Dhabi serving Mediterranean cuisine, but it was more on the hareesa side; thin and less spicy.

In Hyderabad Deccan, there is a sweet variant of haleem as well. Mitthi haleem is served for breakfast whereas both savoury and sweet versions are popular in Ramazan.

Haleem has a deep rooted cultural association in the subcontinent. Because of its 'one pot cooking' and convenient serving, it is a popular entrée for a large gathering.

The overnight cooking of haleem is quite an event, generally taken up as an all-night activity by young men and boys who collect funds from the neighbourhood and prepare haleem outdoors, in one or several degs (huge metal pots). The paste like consistency of haleem requires vigorous stirring with a 'ghotna,' something that resembles a baseball bat, so that it can crush the wheat grains and lentils along with the meat allowing the different flavours to combine and achieve a smooth consistency; that's where male strength comes in. Everyone takes turns at the stirring to grind and mash the grains through the night and perhaps all day as well on low heat. The slow cooking and stirring has its own rewards when platefuls of delicious, steaming hot haleem is distributed to the entire neighbourhood and given away for charity, niyaz and fateha, especially in Muharram.

While describing North Indian cuisine in her book 'Eating India', Chitrita Banerji writes, “Another sturdy meat concoction, which came to India from the Middle East and was enjoyed by both the sultans and the Mughal emperors, became a renowned delicacy in the hands of Hyderabad's chefs. Haleem (if it is made with lamb) or hareesa (if it is made with chicken) is a substantial porridge that combines meat with five kinds of dal and cracked grains of wheat, all of which are cooked in milk and then pounded to a pulp with wooden mallets. Afterwards, the mash is cooked in ghee with fried onions, chilli peppers, coriander and cream. The entire process can take a few hours. In medieval times, this was a convenient one-dish nourishment for soldiers, in the Mughal army. In modern Hyderabad, the aroma of the dish suffuses the air mostly during the abstemious days of Ramazan. After the day's arduous fast, it becomes a tasty and nourishing meal.”

A restaurant called Pioneer located at Abdullah Haroon Road in Saddar, Karachi, in the 70s was known for its mouth-watering haleem or khichra served with pappadoms and pickles as accompaniments. Today, you can get haleem on carts and roadside shops; a famous outlet in Saddar being Ghaseeta Khan who has been around for decades. There are several popular haleem outlets on Burns Road where tinned haleem is also available for travel purposes. But for those of us who prefer home-made stuff and want to be certain that what goes in the mush are good quality meat and grains with pure spices instead of carpets, newspapers or rats as rumours go, haleem can simply be cooked at home in an hour or so with the help of a blender and the ready mix packs available in the supermarket.

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