Haleem: India

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The Times of India, Jul 05 2015

Anvar Alikhan

How haleem became the new biryani

A traditional Iftari dish has gone global, thanks to smart innovations and the right marketing Haleem traces its origins back to a dish mentioned in Saif al-Dawlah Al-Hamdani's Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Recipes), written in 10th century Syria, where he describes harisa, a speciality made of wheat beaten into a paste and cooked with meat and spices. Food historian Annia Ciezadlo goes further back in time, mentioning a meeting between the 7th century Caliph Muawiyya and a Jewish delegation from Yemen, where they digressed into a discussion on this exotic dish. In fact, it's even said that the Prophet Muhammad himself had enjoyed harisa.

Harisa spread across the Middle i East, from the Mediterranean to i Afghanistan, and was considered t a delicacy by all the communities H of that region. Somewhere along i the way , the original spartan Arab l dish had come into contact with p the ancient Persian civilization, I and acquired a higher degree of d spiced refinement (as well as the I name haleem).But, significantly, H wherever it went, the dish took on emotional connotations of shar s ing and generosity . a Haleem had evidently arrived in India by the 16th century because it is mentioned in Ain-i-Akbari. But the first reference to the dish in Hyderabad was in the 1930s, when it appears to have come, more or less simultaneously , from both its parent streams, Arab as well as Irani: a nawab of Arab origin introduced harisa to his peers, and the Irani proprietor of the old Madina Hotel introduced haleem on his menu. Inevitably , both these versions intermingled with each other, and-more importantly --with lo cal tastes and ingredients. Dals and traditional Telangana spices were thus married into the recipe to bring it close to the delicacy that Hyderabad drools over today .

Yet, until twenty years ago haleem remained more or less a fringe dish -occasionally cooked at home, or served at weddings. Then, in 1998, one of those completely random incidents took place, which can sometimes alter the course of culinary history .

A businessman named M A Majeed was searching for some way to salvage his failing Pista House bakery in the Old City . He hit on the desperate idea of supplying the city with haleem during the Ramzan season, through a chain of temporary kitchens. The idea hit a consumer sweet spot, and the sales took Majeed by surprise. Sensing an opportunity , Majeed redoubled his efforts the following year -with runaway results. And since then it has been largely his entrepreneurial energy and grassroots marketing instincts that have driven the exploding popularity of Hyderabadi haleem.

A couple of years later, for ex ample, Majeed came up with the disruptive idea of marketing haleem in other cities through the post office, and then -having outgrown that -by tying up with Gati, a logistics company, which today couriers haleem everywhere, from Gurgaon to Chennai.His Pista House has since gone global, with operations in the UAE and US.

Following Pista House's success, legions of Hyderabadi eateries have since organized themselves into a Haleem Makers Association (led, unsurprisingly , by Majeed himself) which claims to set standards for its members. It has even wangled a prized GI tag for Hyderabadi Haleem (something that has so far eluded Hyderabadi Biryani, despite its best efforts).To qualify as `Hyderabadi Haleem' the product must, for example, adhere to specifications such as quality of mutton (no beef), preparation in copper vessels on tamarind-wood fires and so on (although some of the city's top haleem joints, ask just who's drawn up those specifications, and accuse the Haleem Makers Association of mafia tendencies.) Thanks to its heavy-duty marketing efforts, and an admirable series of innovations-which began with the invention of a never-before vegetarian haleem, and has moved on to, most recently , the creation of haleem stalls in IT company canteens -haleem made the critical cross-over from the niche Muslim market to the mainstream mass market, putting the MNC fast food chains to shame in the process.

Today , haleem has become a cult thing among Hyderabad's youth and `haleem-hopping' has become the trendy way to socialize and express oneself. Haleem has thus become a culinary metaphor for the cosmopolitan melting-pot that is Hyderabad. And in the process, interestingly , it has turned some haleem joints into high-potential businesses, which are attracting private equity investors.

Mark of a really good haleem?

A purist will tell you that there are two things that you should look for: texture and flavor. The combination of these two makes haleem a perfect `soul food'. First, the texture: the pounded wheat, dals and meat are slow-cooked, along with spices. And a key part of the process is the continuous stirring of the dish by hand right through, which is the hard part.The end result should be a smooth, porridgey consistency where you can't really tell where the wheat ends and the meat begins. But it's a fine balance: if it's overdone, it becomes a gluey mess. They other point is that a good haleem should have a certain `stretchable' quality, not unlike mozzarella.

As for the flavor, it's entirely a matter of personal taste. The traditional Arab harisa tends to be rather bland; the traditional Iranian haleem is flavoursome, yet subtle.Today's best selling haleems are specially created for a market where the consumer has a marked taste for chilli, and are therefore much more masala-fied in order to suit that palate.

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