It's not just biryani that evokes a lot of discussion and debate in Hyderabad. Proud Hyderabadis will tell you that their haleem - the quintessential Ramadan porridge with pounded meat blended with broken wheat, barley and lentils, is the best in India. I've explored Hyderabad's iconic food establishments multiple times including a Ramadan walk through the old city.
Saima Afreen, a local food and lifestyle writer who accompanied me tells me that the key ingredient is a high quality wheat that locals call the sharbate gehun. While Pista House is arguably Hyderabad's most popular stop for haleem in Hyderabad, I rate the Haleem at Rainbow restaurant at Abids the best I've ever tried. It was Chef Aamer Jamal who helped me unearth this spot. He's a local with a bagful of stories about the city's food culture. Rainbow is one of the few eateries that serves Haleem round the year.
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The concept of a finely mashed meat dish combined with wheat has its origins in the Middle East. There's the story of Gregory the Illuminator, the patron saint of Armenia who was offering a charity meal and ran out of meat. Wheat was added to the cooking pots and when the cooks noticed that the wheat had stuck to the bottom, Saint Gregory gave them the command - "Harekh" or stir. Most Armenians will tell you that the dish Harissa owes its name to this incident. It's served there on Easter day and is offered as a charity meal to this day.
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Harees is now an integral part of cuisines across the Arab world with subtle differences. Cardamom pods are used in Saudi Arabia and in some countries it's served with a sprinkling of parsley. It's a quintessential part of festival feasts like Eid ul-Fitr and also at weddings. The Mappila Muslims of Kerala are one of the communities in India whose culture and cuisine has been shaped by an intermingling of Arab and Indian culture. It goes back to the 7th Century AD when enterprising seafaring Arabs left their indelible footprints on the shores of Kerala way before the Khyber pass was even on the map.
Adida Rasheed is one of the best known Mappila culinary experts. During my recent interaction with her at The Park hotel in Chennai, our conversation drifted to Haleem and to a version that North Kerala knows as Aleesa or Alsa. This is a regular at festivals and weddings and not just a Ramadan specialty. While Haleem is usually a savoury dish that is served at different spice levels, Aleesa can be had two ways. That's not the only difference between Haleem and Aleesa that both can be traced back to the Harees in the Middle East.
Coconut milk is one of the ingredients that defines the flavours of the Aleesa. In areas like Kozhikode and Malappuram it's served as an accompaniment with dishes like chicken roast and also eaten as a sweet dish with a sprinkling of sugar that complement the fried raisins and cashew nuts that are sprinkled on the Aleesa. While Haleem is crafted with mutton, aleesa is also made with chicken. The use of whole spices lends the aleesa a different flavour profile. You can try making this dish at home with our easy recipe.
Aleesa - Recipe
Recipe courtesy - Suhara Ahamed
Broken wheat / samba wheat: 2 cups (soak overnight)
Mutton or chicken (boneless): 250 gm
Cinnamon: 2 small pieces
Salt: to taste
Coconut milk: 2 cups
Shallots: 5-6 (finely chopped)
Raisins: a few
Cashew nuts: a few
- Soak the wheat overnight
- Pressure cook wheat with mutton, salt (don't add too much, since this can also be served as a sweet dish) and the whole spices for about 30 minutes
- Mash well. You can also blend it in a mixer
- Add 2 cups of coconut milk and cook on a low flame for 10-15 minutes (Make sure you stir constantly to avoid the mixture sticking to the pan)
- Fry the shallots till they are golden brown and also fry the cashews and raisins for the garnish. Top the aleesa with this.
- Serve it with sugar or as a side with chicken roast
About Ashwin RajagopalanI am the proverbial slashie - a content architect, writer, speaker and cultural intelligence coach. School lunch boxes are usually the beginning of our culinary discoveries.That curiosity hasn’t waned. It’s only got stronger as I’ve explored culinary cultures, street food and fine dining restaurants across the world. I’ve discovered cultures and destinations through culinary motifs. I am equally passionate about writing on consumer tech and travel.