Healing with haleem

Haleem is rich, calorie-dense and decadent, and breaks all the rules of minimalist cooking. Yet there are some brownie points that make this Ramzan meat-wheat treat a must-have in moderation, with a few cautionary tweaks.

Early March this year, when award-winning Chef Manish Mehrotra (Corporate Chef, Indian Accent Restaurants, New Delhi & New York) began working on his Ramzan Tasting Menu, the inclusion of Haleem was obvious. As one of the much sought-after indulgences during the month of Ramzan, not just in Hyderabad but across the country, haleem, which is best described as a gourmet porridge made with meat, wheat (lentil) and time, has seen quite a few renditions that range from it being presented as a kebab to a savoury baklava and even a DIY one-pot meal.

Chef Manish Mehrotra’s take on this popular treat, however, was different. In sync with the Indian Accent style of reinventing favourites, Chef Mehrotra and his team began researching on what gave this calorie-rich, gourmet porridge such a wide palate appeal. A search that took them to discover hareesa, not just the 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, Mayfair Group of Hotels) “gets its unique taste, texture and aroma from the special, scented sticky rice called Mushk Budji and tender mutton pieces.”

Haleem is usually packed to the brim with nutrients and calories. Whatever is missing, is put in the form of garnishes.
Image courtesy Bombay Brasserie, Taj Dubai

The result was a haleem, which differed not so much in terms of the cooking which was still labour intensive and took a long time, but in the presentation. Says Chef Mehrotra, “The haleem served as part of the tasting menu is a fascinating blend between the Kashmiri hareesa and the Hyderabadi haleem. It is served with house-baked saffron roti and Japanese pickled ginger, which not only gives it that interesting pungency and texture but also this sweet-sour mouthfeel which add to the experience.” On its own though, the haleem, which has been tweaked in terms of spice levels to suit the weather of Delhi is a light, nevertheless rich version of a good porridge that is comforting yet a gourmet offering at the same time.

That interesting marriage of a dish that is comforting yet indulgent is what most traditional haleem makers bill their creation to be, says Hyderabad culinary custodian Arsheen Quddus, who considers haleem to be one of the most fascinating pottages of all time. Think about it, says Arsheen as she brings out the wooden mallet (a rare find these days) to work on the meat that has been slow cooked since morning with onion and bay leaf.

“A bowl of haleem is packed to its hooves with the necessary nutrients one needs during fasting. Carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, fibre and fat, among others – all recommended for not just keeping the body energised but the brain calm as well. And whatever is missing is put in as part of the garnish, which is usually a handful of nuts, generous amounts of coriander and lemon. In fact, if you look at the composition carefully, you would realise that haleem or its older cousin hareesa, were designed to enable people to go on for long hours of fasting without getting sluggish or irritated as it regularly keeps on replenishing nourishment for the brain as well.”

How does haleem do this? “The sous vide style of cooking haleem activates Beta glucan, a form of soluble dietary fibre that’s strongly linked to improved cholesterol levels and heart health,” says Chef Yogender R Pal (Executive Chef, Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty). During his stint in Hyderabad, he not only understood the importance of the traditional method where both the mutton and wheat-lentil mix gets hand pounded separately before they are put together and cooked for one last time, but also how the process of layered spicing helps develop the meal in terms of taste and nourishment.  

Hareesa is the older cousin of haleem and inspired various versions such as khatti haleem and Kashmiri haleem.

In fact, continues Chef Pal, “All these together lead to this glistening, paste-like porridge that is easy on the palate and begins digesting quickly in phases with the spices playing a supporting role. It is an action that most of us perceive as comforting, calming and to a certain extent energising as well.”  But that, says Arsheen, “is only one side of the haleem story, which is one of the calorie-dense foods people eat during Ramzan; the real ace up the sleeve of this meticulously put together dish is how the balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat work in sync along with spices such as pepper to nourish the brain, which needs a generous amount of fat and energy, given the long period of starvation. The cooking process breaks down every component of the complex pairing into soluble nutrients. The result is a sense of calm that washes over, providing a renewed sense of energy. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why the garnishes mostly comprise roasted nuts that are high on fat, which play the dual role of lending texture and taste as well.”

Haleem baklava
Haleem baklava is a specialty at White Charcoal in The Empresa Hotel. This modern rendition is a great example of the range of application of haleem across menus.

“Porridges were an integral part of the Indus Valley Civilisation’s food habits owing to them containing a mélange of easy-to-assimilate nutrients,” says culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai (Chefpreneur, Fabrica By Saby), who, while researching ancient food practices found porridges made extensively with grains such as jowar and bajra. “Some were made with milk and ghee like Visyandana, a dish that predates the sweet dalia we have these days, and others with root vegetables and meat.” Mostly eaten 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 meals was that they could take on variations that ranged from simple grain-based porridges to complex, spicy and meat or vegetable and lentil-based pottages. Aside from lending ease of portioning and eating, these would take care of a days’ worth of nourishment, tweaked or evolved according to season, demand and later, even whims. And that’s where spices played a grand role as they came in handy not just for the taste but also ensuring the mix works its purpose.”

Like in this case, says the Hyderabadi cuisine expert, “it is 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 then, it also worked to keep the body warm.”

Haleem saffron roti
The haleem on the Rmazan tasting menu at Chef Manish Mehrotra’s Indian Accent, is a blend of hareesa and Hyderabadi haleem, served with saffron roti and pickled Japanese ginger.

The mark of a good haleem, say the experts, “isn’t just the right blend of lentils (masoor, tuvar and chana dal) or the pounding to get that smooth paste, but also the use of spices that not only cranks up the taste but also the process of digesting this calorie dense treat.” But is that enough to get haleem a place in the good books of modern-day nutrition? Partly, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, who considers haleem, the home-made versions at least, a one-time treat to be indulged in, in moderation.

The reason for this, she explains, “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 oxalate 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.”

Having said that, 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—which is easy to do thanks to its richness and pasty texture – but also fortify it with enough vegetables, especially greens that can aid in the process of digesting, particularly given our lifestyle today.”

So, what is the best time to eat haleem?

Mornings, say the experts, “as it allows the body to process it well, and effectively across the day”.

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