A pudgy man whose red t-shirt ended a good way above his well rounded belly dips a steel jug into a large bucket. He bends his torso so much that his tummy is inside the bucket. He stretches his hands down scraping the bottom of the bucket,the steel jug disappearing from view. When he straightens his torso the steel jug emerges, rich yellow ghee dripping from the sides down to his t shirt and settling on his tummy before dripping down to his brown pants and onto the floor.
He walks towards a series of wood fired kilns built along a short lone brick wall shifting his weight from side to side snaking his way around a dozen men dressed in similar red t shirts. The steel jug and yellow ghee leaving a trail behind him. He pours the ghee into a cauldron enclosed within the first kiln.
He snaps his fingers and barks orders to the dozen unhappy men gathered around. In answer to his bidding two men walk up to the kiln, each pick up a large heavy wooden mallet with a 2 feet long handle, raise it over their heads, steady themselves under its weight and then start pounding the contents of the cauldron in tandem.
The calls to prayer from a nearby mosque sounds against the backdrop of the setting sun. It is Ramzan in Hyderabad,India and the day’s fast has officially ended and the smell of Haleem comes wafting through the air.
Haleem is a meaty stew consumed during the month of Ramzan. During the week leading to the start of Ramzan wood fired kilns spring up like mushrooms around the city. Meat, either mutton or chicken, wheat, barley, lentils and spices are mixed in a cauldron which is sealed inside a wood fired kiln. The cauldron is sealed and kiln is fired in the morning. The heat cooks the meat until evening. Once the seal is broken the cauldron has a pasty mix.
Additions like ghee, dry fruits and nuts are added to the mixture.The bones which remain are pulverised by constant pounding.
The men pounding the mixture begin to sweat after a couple of swings. The muscles of their hands are flexed, the veins in their arms standing out. Every ten minutes the men are replaced. The tired men drop the mallet on the floor huffing and puffing.
There are a total of six kilns, of which 2 are already empty, possibly long before the fast was up. Haleem is popular with the non muslim community as well and it sells like hot cakes in Hyderabad.
There are 3 sealed kilns which have Haleem being cooked. Before the night is done they will be empty.
At the break of dawn the kilns will again be filled with cauldrons of meat, wheat and the other ingredients then sealed and fired. There they will cook in its juices until just before the first customer arrives in the evening.
The Hyderabadi Haleem is famous and is exported to different parts of world by special couriers. Some restaurants serve only Haleem during the Ramzan season and resume normal service only after the 40 days of fasting.It is a very lucrative business, so much so that there are some matchbox sized single shuttered stores along an important arterial road in the heart of the city which open for business only for 40 days in a year. The monthly rent on these places is of astronomical figures and yet they make enough money in the 40 days to meet the rent and take home a huge profit.
There are different varieties of Haleem. There is the regular Haleem with the generous amount of ghee that floats on the top. Then there is the special Haleem which comes with a boiled egg, some dry fruits and nuts and in some cases with rich cream. For someone fasting the entire day this is indeed a wholesome meal. But for someone like me who has had my four square meals already this just means that my waist, bottom and thighs are not going to see a decrease in inches despite my daily aerobics routine.
In the old city of Hyderabad a muslim dominated area has no dearth of Haleem shops.Many restaurants compete for the prestigious Best Haleem award. Each have their own secret recipe.
You can go from shop to shop tasting Haleem and yet find it difficult to conclude which one tastes better and then wake up mornings after mornings trying to shed the extra calories.But believe me it is totally worth it.