Almost around the time when the sun is preparing to call it a day, fires will be lit up and gigantic aluminum cauldrons will be placed on the flame. It’s an all-male business on the sidewalks of Park Circus, Calcutta during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Soon, the cauldrons will be filled with soaked wheat and three to four different kinds of lentils, to be cooked together for hours. Men of different ages with their sleeves rolled up will be seen for the next several hours engaging in variety of cooking acts that resemble workouts, from stirring the pots with huge ladles as tall as themselves to cutting up mountains of meat into bite-sized pieces. Every time I passed by those simmering cauldrons, my nostrils were filled with mixed aroma of meat, aromatic spices and lentils. In separate cauldrons, at least ten different spices could be seen being thrown in to cook a korma which would later that evening be mixed with the simmering wheat and lentil stew and then simmered overnight to prepare the final product called haleem.
Although Hyderabad is the most famous place for its haleem, Calcutta haleem has its own fan followers too (including my husband who traveled all over the city hunting down the best vendors). Different versions of haleem are eaten in Pakistan, the Middle East and in Bangladesh. The Bohras of Gujarat call it khichda, which although very similar version to haleem is less spicy. Another haleem derivative is harees, a meat-and-wheat stew cooked with aromatic spices eaten in Middle eastern countries. The Arabic word halem/halim means gentle, forbearing, patient and slow to anger. I have never seen a food named so correctly. It requires lots and lots of patience to cook. You cannot even pound the meat like an angry person; you have to be slow and patient.
Haleem was traditionally eaten during the month of Ramadan (ninth month of Islamic calendar when Muslims meticulously fast from sunrise to sunset), but now you can buy it all winter long in many of the Muslim restaurants In Calcutta. It is believed that during the rule of the Nizams in Hyderabad, it was mainly a food for royals and their nobles. But over the centuries, haleem became a food for everybody and a symbol of sharing and community togetherness during the time of hardship and sacrifice. In hindsight, this trend towards culinary egalitarianism is not surprising, as even ordinary families could afford to buy the small amount of meat needed to cook haleem, compared to the extravagance of, say for example, sikandari raan.
As this was the first time I made haleem, I took the traditional approach of mashing the wheat and lentil mixture with a ‘daal ghotni’(wooden stirrer) but if you have a hand blender, go right ahead and use it. But remember, preparing haleem needs time and patience (although the results are well worth the effort). It can be eaten both as a main meal or as breakfast; an added bonus is that it freezes very well.
Goat meat or mutton: 1 lb/500grms. cut into bite sized pieces (with bones)
Haleem wheat (sold in the Indian/Pakistani groceries): ¾ cup
¼ cup each of mung (yellow lentils), masoor (orange/red lentils), chana (split Bengal gram lentil) and urad (split black gram lentil) daal.
Tomato: One medium, chopped
Onion: one medium, finely chopped
Ginger: 2 inch piece, grated
Garlic: 3 big clove, mashed
Ginger-garlic paste: 2 tbsp.
Red chili powder: one tbsp.. or more if you like your haleem to be spicy
Green chilies: 3-5 nos.
Turmeric: 3 tsp.
Oil: 2 tbsp.
Garam masala: 2 tsp.
Cumin powder: 1 tbsp.
Coriander powder: 1 tbsp.
Cumin seeds: ½ tbsp..
Clarified butter or ghee: 2 tbsp.
Water: 8 cups (more or less depending on the consistency you want)
Salt to taste
Handful of cilantro finely chopped
Green chilies: few, finely chopped
Roasted cumin and coriander powder: few tbsp.
Beresta/fried onions: around a cup
Lemon wedges: one per person minimum
· Wash the haleem wheat and soak them the previous night in ample water.
· Soak the daal separately in enough water for 3-4 hours the next day.
· Put a big stock pot on the stove top and fill it with around 4 cups of water. Cover it with a lid and let it come to a boil.
· Add the haleem wheat (drain them before) and let it come to a boil again. Once it comes to a boil, put the flame on medium, add one teaspoon of turmeric and let the wheat get cooked.
· Put a separate container with another 4 cups of water and let it come to a boil. Once boiling, add all the daal (drain them before adding). Let it come to a boil again. Once it comes to a boil, add one teaspoon of turmeric and put the flame on medium and let the daals get cooked.
· Put the wheat and the daals with two tea spoons of turmeric and 6-8 cups of water in a pressure cooker and cook for two whistles. Let the pressure release naturally.
· Heat up oil in a separate deep bottom kadai or wok. Once hot, add the onions and sauté them until translucent. Do not brown the onions.
· Add the meat to the kadai and keep stirring them to get rid of the moisture in the meat.
· Add the ginger-garlic, green chili, red chili powder, one teaspoon of turmeric and tomato and keep cooking. The entire thing will come together and the spice will coat the meat very well. Keep cooking until oil leaves the spice paste.
· Add salt, garam masala and cumin coriander powder. Cook for 5-10 more minutes and then add around a cup of boiling water to the meat. If you know that your meat releases a lot of water, add ½ cup water.
· Transfer the meat to a pressure cooker and cook it to one whistle. Let the steam come off naturally.
· Open the lid and taste for seasoning and see if the meat is properly cooked or not.
· Take the meats out of the gravy and let them cool down so that you can handle it. Pull the meat out of the bones and separate the muscles/threads with your fingers.
· Discard the bones and put the meat back to the gravy.
· If you do not have a pressure cooker, you can use the same pot and cook it covered until the meat is cooked. It will take longer.
· Keep stirring the daals and the wheat with the wooden stirrer or a regular ladle. Keep mashing the daals. It will reach a creamy thick consistency.
· Once the daal and the meat is ready, mix everything together. Let it cool down a little bit so that it’s safe to handle and then with a hand held blender (or any blender you have), blend everything in small batches.
· Once everything is nicely mixed and comes to a consistency you want, turn the heat to low and let it cook for 5-10 more minutes.
· Heat up the ghee in a separate pot/pan and add the whole cumin seeds. Let it come to a shade darker and then add the ghee and the cumin seeds on the haleem and cover immediately with a lid. Let the spices infuse the haleem for few more minutes.
The haleem tastes incomplete without the garnish, so please don’t skip them.
While serving, add a little bit of the garnishing ingredients on the top of the haleem except the lemon. Sprinkle a generous amount of lemon and eat. Or, you can put the haleem with the garnishing ingredients on the side. People can add it according to their taste.
Beresta or fried onions:
- Slice a red onion very finely in semi circles.
- Heat up enough oil in a deep bottom pot to deep fry the onions.
- Once the oil is hot, put the flame to medium high. Do not keep it smoking hot, the onions will burn immediately.
- Separate the rings and put a small batch on onion in the hot oil.
- Stir continuously and cook it until they are brown. Do not wait until they are deep brown. The onions will reach a shade darker after you pull them out of the oil.
- Put them on an absorbent paper to soak the excess oil.
- Fry the whole onion like this.
- The fried onion stays well in an airtight container for several days to weeks.
- If you are feeling lazy to fry them, buy them pre-fried or just add raw onions.