How Haleem Got All Hot and Heavy in Hyderabad

Vivekananda Nemana
Grist Media
Haleem. Photo by manalahmadhkan via flickr, CC by 2.0


The stalls emerge in droves, ten or fifteen days from the start of the holy month. See their big cauldrons and brick kilns at street corners, outside shoestring cafés, near bus stops, near wherever good business sense decrees. See their painted signs with pictures of goats and promises of 100 percent pure ghee. See the city dive into an epicurean frenzy, because the month of Ramzan in Hyderabad is the time for Hyderabadi haleem – that thick, mushy stew laden with meat and fat and wonderful succulence.

“The kind of euphoria that surrounds haleem in Hyderabad,” says a food critic who goes by Sankalp Thee Foodie, “you don’t see that anywhere else.”

Hyderabad’s culture of haleem mimics the city itself – steeped in myth and multiple histories, nostalgic for the past as it strives to modernize, constantly tweaked, a source of pride, a subject of heated debate. According to the Haleem Maker’s Association, it is a Rs 500 crore business this year – one that has, like Hyderabad, grown exponentially over the last two decades. And in that strange, sentimental way that food and place connect, Hyderabadi haleem evokes in its enthusiasts long memories of the city, and, sometimes, harbingers of its future.

“Seventy years ago only the Madina Hotel served haleem,” says city historian Allama Aijaz Farruq. “I was a child back then, and I remember seeing hundreds of workers in the kitchen grinding the wheat during Ramzan. A bowl of haleem cost 50 paise and gave you a full stomach.”

In fact, Hyderabadi haleem as we know it today is no older than the Ambassador car. In 1953, a man named Hussain Zabed became the first person to start commercially selling haleem in the city, using a modified recipe from his native country of Iran. The caloric, protein-rich meal from Zabed’s Madina Hotel only steps away from the 400-year-old Charminar monument caught on as a tasty addition to iftar, the evening meal with which Muslims break the Ramzan fast.

“Now you can find haleem in every nook and corner,” Farruq continues, “but you cannot find real haleem, which had natural wheat and pure ghee and none of the nonsense they’re adding today.”

Although other Charminar-area restaurants like Nayyab and Shadab started making haleem of their own during Ramzan, it would take decades for haleem to be sold outside the Old City. Until then, if you lived in the other parts of Hyderabad, you had to make the trip.

“When I was a student, we used to go to the Charminar at midnight just to eat haleem, and that was seen as a very dangerous thing,” Vijay Marur, a filmmaker and food critic who authored past editions of the Times Food Guide for Hyderabad, recalled from his college days in the 1980s – a time when the city was fraught with communal tension. “Nothing ever happened, of course, but our parents would say, ‘What? Are you crazy?’

“Then haleem went through this whole thing of street food mania.”

By the 2000s, haleem went from being a relatively obscure side dish served at Irani restaurants to a raison d’être of its own. Haleem stalls, most of them temporary set-ups for Ramzan, inundated the city with their sidewalk bhattis and eye-catching signs – there are almost 6,000 this year, which means haleem is just a short walk away from virtually anywhere in the city. People traveled to Hyderabad specifically to eat haleem. It became a talking point.

At a coffee shop in the upscale Banjara Hills, I meet a group of friends in their early 20s who share a hookah and chat about how they still haven’t tried haleem this year.

“Haleem is just the kind of food Hyderabadis like,” says Aishan Valli, a bearded 23-year-old with long hair and a neon backpack. “That is, really rich food, because we can eat biriyani every day of our lives and be happy about it.”

“The year 2007 was really the year of the haleem,” adds his friend Priya Kamath, 22. “That’s when it got a lot of coverage in the media.”

“But people prefer to explore for their favorite spots,” Valli says. “We still have competitions among friends each year to see who can find the best haleem.”

So what caused this monumental shift? Sankalp points out that for one thing, people now have the disposable income to obsess about food – and share it on Facebook, or review it on Zomato. But the credit ultimately goes to the granddaddy of Hyderabadi haleem, the business that turned a plate of meat into a globally marketable brand, exporting its name to cities as far as Delhi and Dubai.

“Pista House was the one to really push haleem, setting up kiosks across the city,” Sankalp tells me. “Today, if anybody talks about biriyani, they talk about Paradise. For haleem, it’s Pista House.”

Pista House, which opened in 1997, operates as a modest bakery on every month of the year except during Ramzan, when it aggressively tries to make itself synonymous with Hyderabad haleem. The business’ trademark idea was to ship parcels via parcel service to doorsteps around the country. MA Majeed, its founder and present owner, also successfully led a push to give Hyderabadi haleem a Geographic Identification tag, a distinction that the brand proudly advertises on its take-home containers.

I meet Majeed in the massive kitchen that Pista House rents during Ramzan, just behind its main outlet near the Charminar monument, at some godforsaken hour in the early morning. The restaurant has just closed for the night and it is time to begin the next day’s batch. A platoon of butchers sharpen knives over wooden cutting blocks, a dozen kitchen workers scrub 28 copper cauldrons, and on the floor lay neat stacks of goats, headless and skinned. Majeed sits at a lone wooden desk at the corner of the hall, dressed in a simple cotton shirt and surrounded by his (all male) staff.

“Only Pista House serves real haleem – we have no competition,” he says, showing me around. “Haleem is Hyderabad. And Hyderabad is haleem.”

The kitchen runs round-the-clock during Ramzan – stewing meat, wheat, ghee and spices together before mashing them with a wooden mallet is an eight-hour process – a testament to the sizeable chunk of all Hyderabadi haleem that originates here.

Majeed won’t, however, specify how much haleem he sells each day, providing instead a vague approximation: “Tons.”

***

As haleem transcended its role as a dish ideal for breaking the Ramzan fast, as it became, as Majeed puts it, “Hyderabad’s identity itself,” the city’s chefs have innovated, preparing once-inconceivable new varieties.Mutton haleem is preferred by foodies and people who remember the Good Old Days, but these days one can also find chicken, vegetarian, fish and even emu versions, all meant to accommodate a wider range of city diets and budgets. Especially with sales of chicken haleem soaring, the trend has caused haleem traditionalists to bristle, and worry – perhaps because when eating haleem in Hyderabad, one must eat it right, or perhaps for all the dark portents in store for the city, if even haleem has gone astray.

Jaleel Rooz is blunt. “I don’t believe in chicken haleem,” he says. “It’s like non-alcoholic beer.” Rooz runs the Grand Hotel, an Iranian restaurant started by his father in 1935, where for the past 35 years they’ve served mutton haleem during Ramzan and Muharram.

“There are two basic reasons why chicken haleem has gotten popular,” he tells me, leaning back in an executive chair in an office above his restaurant. “For one, a lot of non-Muslims worry about mutton, since you can’t tell if it’s been mixed with beef” – since beef is cheaper, and is sometimes passed off as mutton – “and secondly, you have a lot of these neo-non-vegetarians now, people who just started eating meat. They’re comfortable with eating chicken, but can’t quite handle red meat. Something about the smell.”

Just then a tall man in a long, white kurta enters Rooz’s office and reclines on the couch. Rooz introduces him as Ashfaq Ahmed, a lawyer with “a very strong take on these matters.”

“We were just talking about chicken haleem,” I tell him.

Ahmed perks up in his chair and barks, “Chicken haleem is no good. It doesn’t smell right, and you can’t eat it!”

“Actually, I was saying that a lot of people don’t like the smell of mutton,” Rooz replies.

Arrey bhai, mutton haleem is what doesn’t have a smell. The problem is that non-Muslims suspect beef is being added in. It isn’t. These businesses” – Ahmed gestures towards Rooz – “need to explore outside of their existing markets, and convince them, because chicken haleem is the worst haleem that anybody could have.”

Rooz looks at me, and says, “See? I told you he’d have a strong take.”

He isn’t alone – many people I interviewed swore by mutton – but chicken haleem lovers like Padmaja Hazare, a chef who lives near the military base in Secunderabad, have their reasons too. “Nowadays, nobody eats mutton anymore because it has a lot of cholesterol,” she says. “Chicken is healthier, and everybody is health conscious. I have a 20-year-old son who loves eating chicken haleem. He says it’s easier to digest. He’s also very health conscious.”

Hazare used to live in the north, where she didn’t have many Muslim friends nor, she said, much exposure to haleem. But after moving to Hyderabad 15 years ago, “I found a very different taste. The day I started eating haleem, I was always eating chicken haleem.”

This crowd of health-conscious haleem lovers – people who’d like to have their haleem and eat it too – is exactly who the owners of Hyderabad’s first fish haleem stall, set up in a massive white tent by the city’s Lakdikapool intersection, seem determined to woo. A sign by the counter assures customers that ‘IMPROVING YOUR HEALTH BY EATING OUR FISH HALEEM IS NOT A WASTEAGE OF YOUR MONEY.’ Your order comes with a brochure listing the advantages of eating fish, like “Decreases Depression Rates.”

While mutton haleem is thick, dark and stringy, fish haleem has the same pale, runny texture and lemony taste of the masala oatmeal that my grandmother likes to eat. It does not smell fishy – an achievement that the chef and owner Mohammed Arif Uddin Hadri coyly refuses to discuss.

“Nobody criticizes us because fish haleem has total benefits for the health,” Hadri says, when asked about his breaking haleem tradition. “Good for pregnant ladies, children, old people, everybody. Total media coverage.” His goal, he says, is to one day make a fish version of every Hyderabadi dish.

I can only imagine Ashfaq Ahmed’s reaction. Red meat, its proponents will tell you, is perfectly healthy enough. Ahmed reminisced about going to Shadab with his college mates, noting, “In those days, I used to eat four bowls of haleem!”

It isn’t a coincidence that the cult of red meat haleem, and tradition, is laced with an ethos of masculinity (a pattern that follows many forms of red meat, including the New York beefsteak and the Texas barbeque). To break an awkward silence at the Pista House kitchen, I ask Majeed what he wants to communicate to the world about Hyderabadi haleem.

He thinks for a moment and then, looking into the distance, declares, “Be natural. Avoid Viagra. Eat Haleem.” When Majeed and his whole cohort burst into laughter, their roars echo off the kitchen’s endless walls.

It is nearing 3am by the time I leave the Pista House kitchen. The bakery has closed shop, and a few workers are distributing what remains of the day’s haleem. Empty haleem containers rattle as a light breeze drags them along the street. Shops are still open and there is still a crowd, mostly young men gathered around a shiny Lamborghini that someone has taken out for a late-night spin. They cheer and click pictures on their cellphones, while in the background the moon hangs over the Charminar, half a century of history standing strong.

Vivekananda Nemana is a freelance journalist and author of an upcoming book on tribal youth in India’s Maoist heartland. Follow him on Twitter @vnemana, or on his blog, Brown White and Blue.