Calorie-rich, dense and decadent, this Ramadan favourite breaks all the rules of minimalist cooking and yet few can match this wheat-meat-lentil treat when it comes to sensory comfort and satiation.
By Madhulika Dash
Every year when award-winning Chef Manish Mehrotra (Corporate Chef, Indian Accent Restaurants, New Delhi & New York) starts working on his Ramadan menu, one dish that makes a recurring presence on his work table is Haleem. One of the most sought-after indulgences during the month, not just by those who observe the rituals, but more so by others who find the gourmet, slow cooked porridge tastes at its finest much like Ksheer Korma.
Each year the mastechefs' take on the popular rendition to Hareesa is different and starts with rediscovering Hareesa, not just that one famous in the Persian Court that inspired the Nizam-style Khatti Haleem, but also the Kashmiri version that according to Kashmiri cuisine expert Chef Nisar Ahmed (Corporate Chef, Ambience Hotels and Resorts) “gets its unique taste, texture and aroma from the special, scented sticky rice called Mushk Budji and tender mutton pieces.”
The result is a different take on the popular Hyderabadi treat. Like last year, it was a Haleem that was a fantastic marriage between the Kashmiri Hareesa and the Nizami Haleem served with house-baked saffron roti and Japanese pickled ginger. Of course, Chef Mehrotra's version is always tweaked to suit the season and the palate but without compromising on the comforting taste of the haleem.
Fascinatingly, Chef Mehrotra isn't the only one who plays the version to create his own ode to the popular comfort food of the yore. According to Hyderabad Culinary Custodian Arsheen Quddus, who considers Haleem to be one of the most fascinating pottages of all time, it is the way most versions of Hareesa and Haleem were curated.
Think about it, says Arsheen as she works the meat that has been slow-cooked since morning with onion and bayleaf, “a bowl of Haleem is packed to its hooves with the necessary nutrients one needs to sustain the long, arduous fasting schedule of Ramadan. Carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, fibre, fat among others – all of it that is recommended for not just keeping the body energised but the brain calm too. With the rest of the micronutrient coming from the garnish, which is a fistful of nuts, coriander and lemon. In fact, the composition of Haleem, as was the case with Hareesa, is built to aid people to work long hours without taking a break for food or water. And hence was designed in a way that catered to the body and mind. ”
But how does haleem, a dish that's cooked for hours, manage to achieve it? Through slow cooking or as many would equate today with sous vide that aids in the “release of Beta Glucan, a form of soluble dietary fiber that while improves cholesterol levels and boosting heart health also ensure that one is full,” says Chef Yogender R Pal (Executive Chef, Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty). During his stint in Hyderabad, he understood the importance of not just the need to slow cook for hours but also the hand pounding of wheat, meat and lentils which together allows for easy digestion – a must during Ramadan. It also, continues Chef Pal, “results in this glistening, paste-like porridge that is easy on the palate and looks rich to the eye.”
That however, says Arsheen, “is one side of the Haleem story, which is a calorie-dense food that people eat during Ramadan; the real ace up this meticulously put together dish is how the balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat work in sync along with spices like pepper to work on the brain, which partakes a generous amount of the fat and energy given the long period of starvation thanks to the making process that breaks down every component of the complex pairing into soluble nutrient.
The result is a sense of calm that washes over giving a renewed sense of energy. In fact, it is one of the reasons that the garnishes mostly are kept around nuts, roasted nuts that are high in fat, which play the dual role of lending texture and taste too.”
“The melange of nutrients that are easy to assimilate is the primary reason that porridges were such an integral part of the Indus Valley Civilisation food habits too, says culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai (Chefpreneur, Fabrica By Saby), who during the process of discovering ancient food practices found porridges made extensively with grains like jowar and bajra “some with milk and ghee like Visyandana, a dish that predates the sweet dahlia we have these days, and others with root vegetables and meat.”
Mostly had during the day, which incidentally was the role of (Hareesa and) Haleem initially, adds Chef Gorai, “the beauty of these easy-to-concoct, one pot meal was that they could take on variations that ranged from simple grain based porridges to complexly spiced meat or vegetable and lentil based pottages that could aside from lending the easiness of portioning and eating would take care of a days’ worth of nourishment, tweaked or evolved according to season, demand and later even whimsical. And that’s where spices played a grand role as they came in handy not for the taste but to ensure the mix works its purpose.”
Like in this case, says the Hyderabadi cuisine expert, “it is the two forms of pepper that is paired with ginger and other spices to give the warmth and the spicy aftertaste, which jogs up the digestive juices so the process of breaking down the meal begins as soon as possible. Of course, back in time it also worked to keep the body warm.”
While the right blend of ingredients and the right use of spices and techniques has remained the hallmark of a good haleem, its place in the modern-day nutrition books, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “is because of the composition, which was designed for people who had a larger quantum of their day dedicated to some or the other kind of physical labour and hence had requirement and the active mechanism to digest a meal that was this dense in calories and nutrients. Given our situation today, when most of us spend more time on mental labour than physical, absorbing such a complex porridge, even when broken down well, would take a lot of time, especially with the oxalates and phytic acid in the lentils which if not broken down can lead them to bind with the nutrients and hamper their absorption, and this includes essentials like iron and calcium.”
That aside, continues Bhassin, “Haleem works really well when it comes to those that are having two meals in a day as its low Glycemic Index ensures you are kept satiated through the day. It has this all-round nourishing nature that marks it as a better option to have. However, it is important to not just portion the size – thanks to richness and pasty texture it is easy to do – but also fortify it with enough vegetables, especially greens that can aid in the process of digesting, particularly given our lifestyle today.”