The holy month of Ramzan – a time for piety, self-purification, and introspection. For devotion, prayer, and discipline. And, at the end of the day, a just reward for it all: haleem.
This dish of pounded wheat and meat has become a Ramzan specialty, prepared for Iftaar, the breaking of the fast. Aside from providing hearty nourishment at the end of an arduous day of abstinence, haleem can be delicious – if prepared well. Join me in The Great Haleem Quest as I hunt down the best haleem in Bangalore.
An empty stomach and a prayerful mind from sunrise to sunset deserves recompense. And although I am neither fasting nor praying, I have enthusiastically entered into the spirit of the season by joining my Muslim brethren as they end their fast each evening.
My favorite iftaar dish is haleem, thought to originate in Persia as early as the 15th century.
I remember hanging out in Russel Market in the mid eighties with some of the guys I went to college with (St. Joseph’s College of Commerce, for the record – a fine institution, located as it has always been in close proximity to eateries and pubs) and watching in horror as they devoured a pasty, gruel-like , grayish-brown goop slopped into barely-washed steel bowls.
Though I refused to partake of it then, and avoided it for many years thereafter, I have since come to love and even lust after the aforementioned goop – known variously as haleem, hareesa,or keshkek, depending on where in the world you are.
Haleem means “patience”. And indeed, it takes patience – and effort – to make it. Broken wheat must be soaked overnight. The meat and spices must slow cook for hours in ghee, to then be pounded to a pulp along with the cooked wheat, by hand, until they meld into a smooth paste. Garnishes of fresh mint or coriander, caramelized onions and a squeeze of lemon enhance its inherent fragrance and flavor.
Well-prepared haleem is neither pasty, nor grayish-brown, nor goopy. It is, instead, an aromatic not-quite-pâté that delights the palate and satisfies the belly. With khansaamas (master chefs) perfecting their own spice mixes and regional variations aplenty, there is no perfect recipe for haleem. However, in my tasting sessions, I have defined my idea of perfection as a haleem which is:
- finely balanced in proportion between meat and grain, with the meat being the dominant flavor and texture
- well-pounded, but not so mushy that you cannot “feel” the meat in your mouth
- delicately spiced, not overwhelmed by the taste of whole spices
- rich, but not indigestible
In my quest for the perfect haleem, I visited several predominantly Muslim neighborhoods: Russel Market and Frazer Town, in Bangalore East; Tilaknagar in Bangalore South; and the Johnson Market block of Richmond Town in Central Bangalore. Yeah, yeah – that leaves a whole lot of Bangalore uncovered, but hey – there’s only so much a gal can eat, yo!
MM Road, Frazer Town
First up: Frazer Town. This is a must-visit area for the sheer energy and vibe of the breaking of the fast. Come 5pm, MM Road, perpendicular to Mosque Road, is transformed into a bustling food bazaar, lined with stalls selling every conceivable kind of treat. From samosas to firni, you can put together an entire meal here, from starter to dessert, beverage included, at street food prices.
Despite the fact that I was supposed to be there solely for the haleem, my resolve crumbled in the face of outsized kheema samosas (Rs. 50 for 8); onion samosas (Rs. 40 for 8); seekh kebab; and khichra. My eyes hungrily devoured baida rotis; large, freshly prepared caramel custards; steaming pots of fresh almond harira; and fruit-flavored kulfi.
The haleem (Rs.60 per small container), I’m sorry to say, was abominable. Too much daliya (broken wheat), too little meat. Too much clove. And not beaten well at all. Strictly B-grade. Yuckety yuck.
Johnson Market, Central Bangalore
Fanoos, an old Bangalore adda that’s now achieved shabby-chic status, serves three haleem variants: chicken, goat (Rs.75 per small container), and beef (Rs. 65 per small container).
To my mind, “chicken haleem” is the equivalent of “paneer steak” – there’s no such thing. I was willing to give the beef haleem a whirl, though, and was glad I did. It had a rich, smoky aroma that lamb and goat haleems can only aspire to and never attain. I recommend trying the beef haleem from Fanoos if you have never tried it before.
Fanoos’ goat haleem is very good. Not too spicy, not too rich, and not too stingy with the meat. It is well-beaten; personally, I’d prefer a higher proportion of fat in the meat, failing which a smidgen more ghee would have been in order. To be honest, I’m just being picky. I very nearly declared Fanoos the winner of The Great Haleem Quest. As it happens, it ended as the runner-up.
>>> Wanting to share the love, I decided to do an impromptu dinner at home, and invited Navaz Hormusjee-Cherian, Bindu Mani, and their better-known but less-deserving husbands JJ Cherian and Bruce Lee Mani to join us in sampling the wares from Russel Market and Tilaknagar. I trawled both areas in one fell swoop, picking up the goodies between 5pm and 8pm, then took the whole lot home, where we all indulged in an unashamed food orgy.