How Haleem caught people’s fancy over the years
Hard to believe, but ‘haleem’, old-timers in the know insist, was not quite familiar to most Hyderabadi taste-buds before the mid-1950s. It was a delight whose variants were savoured mainly in the homes of Arabs, Iranis, and Gujarati Muslims.
Connoisseurs would want the differences to be spelt out between ‘harees’, ‘haleem’ and ‘khichda’, but those would be a tad too detailed for this story.
It was in 1956 that the pounded wheat, pulses and meat dish really arrived, thanks to the initiative of Hussain Zabeth of the famed Madina Hotel who went all-out to popularise the Iranian version -- at 25 paise a plate (!) in the Ramzan of that year.
In fact, it is the late Agha Hussain’s son, Ali Reza Zabeth, whom we have the good fortune to be introduced to. The gentleman proves to be a rich lode of lore.
Almost all the Irani cafés in the country have been set up over the last century or so by migrants from Yazd or Kerman provinces in Central Iran, he says. The Zoroastrians were the pioneers, going into business in Bombay and Poona. They were followed by their Shia compatriots, who largely preferred Hyderabad on account of cultural affinities. Thus it was that Agha Ali Reza’s father, Hussain, made his way to the city and set up Madina in the old city in 1948.
Always looking to improve, within just eight years he went in for renovation and the redone premises was inaugurated in 1956 by the last Nizam, Osman Ali Khan.
‘Haleem’ proved to be a runaway hit and Madina, says Agha Ali Reza, held the top spot in this domain for nearly 35 Ramzans. A thousand kilograms was served every evening, beginning 4:30 p.m. and sold out by 7:30 p.m. Touts made a killing selling it in black!
Generally, Hyderabadis were hearty eaters. Breakfast included, among other items, ‘khichdi-kheema’, ‘kaleji ka salan’, ‘paratha’ and ‘tandoori roti’. It was served between 5 a.m. and 11 a.m., so neither early nor late-risers missed out. More fare was tagged on to the lunch and dinner menus such as mutton and chicken biryani, and mutton curry.
Madina is not yet history, but it is currently in limbo on account of certain legal issues pertaining to the building in which it is housed. Agha Ali Reza, however, has a partnership in a restaurant in Visakhapatnam, Alpha at Jagadamba Circle.
Talking of the year that he entered the café business in 1968, immediately after his schooling, he recalls the rates: loaf of bread 50 paise, tandoori roti 10 paise, mutton curry 80 paise, mutton biryani Re 1 … Remember those days when Rs 5 by way of pocket money had you walking on air?
Returning from this digression to our ‘haleem’ story — and taking it into the present — one can’t help but note the westernised marketing trends, which have made deep inroads into the preparation and vending of this dish, namely, franchising and multiple outlets. It is a pleasant surprise, therefore, to find in a non-resident Hyderabadi upholding the old ways.
The ideal ‘haleem’
Meet Ahmed Ali Khan of Diamond Café opposite Ek Minar Masjid in Nampally. Every year, he heads home from Chicago a month ahead of Ramzan to prepare for the ‘haleem’ season.
What makes for a good ‘haleem’, he says, are the right proportions of quality ingredients — meat, wheat, pulses, garam masala, ghee ... And any skimping on quantity or shortcuts in terms of preparation time would mean it is not the real thing.
Diamond is a byword for authentic taste, he avers, and with a gesture directs our attention to the people milling around. “We have no branches,” he says emphatically, defiantly, and with a touch of pride. The ‘haleem’ is nearly 11 hours in the making — from 5:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., which is when the sales begin. The counter closes around 8:30 p.m.
“We do not cut corners by using over refined wheat,” Mr Ahmed Ali Khan says. This is often resorted to by establishments under time pressure from multiple outlets, he explains. It makes the mixing process easier, but the consistency of the dish is far from desirable and deviates from the delectably pasty to the lumpy.
Diamond, he assures us, strictly insists that the miller grind one grain of wheat into eight pieces, and no more. This means that the ‘haleem’ would have to be mixed for two hours — at the fag end of the preparation process — before it can be served. So, if you should find the occasional grain in your pasty morsel, smile rather than frown — you are treating yourself to the real McCoy.
Taking one last look at the happy folks wolfing down spoonful after spoonful, we bid goodbye to Mr Ahmed Ali Khan who, after Id, will wing his way back to his family Stateside. But, as he has been doing for over a decade now, he’ll be home again, and to Diamond, for another sparkling ‘haleem’ season …
It was in 1956 that the Iranian version of Haleem, at 25 paise a plate, first came to Hyderabad
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