HT Brunch Cover Story: Hyderabadi Haleem

Past: A Yemeni Sultan and some more delicious hidden history that deserve to be relished and remembered
Sea travel led to cultural exchange, resulting in an amazing dish (Parth Garg)
Sea travel led to cultural exchange, resulting in an amazing dish (Parth Garg)
Published on Dec 26, 2021 12:58 PM IST
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BySam Dalrymple

I’ve always been a fan of haleem, that delicious concoction of dal and mutton, but nothing prepared me for what I was to taste on my visit to Hyderabad last month. A soft and warm explosion of flavour that lingered on my mind, as well as my tongue, it was nothing short of a revelation.

I decided to embark on a quest to discover the origins of haleem, a quest which took me in a completely unexpected direction. A few days later I found myself weaving my way through Hyderabad’s winter traffic, and on my way to visit the military. My destination: a large officer’s mess for the Basanta Brigade called Saif Gulshan. It was in this unlikely location, at the heart of the Mehdipatnam Military Garrison, that modern haleem came into being.

After hours of organising permissions, two veterans of the 1971 war in Bangladesh kindly guided me through a series of check posts, regaling me with extraordinary stories of Army derring-do. The landscape changed suddenly, the city vanished and it seemed as if we had passed into an English country landscape watercolour. At its heart was a large mansion of wooden jharokhas and pointed arches of stucco, the last surviving building of the Qu’aiti estate.

Quick questions with Sam
Quick questions with Sam

In the nineteenth century, the young and ambitious owner of Saif Gulshan had sailed across the sea and carved out a kingdom of his own in Eastern Yemen. For over a hundred years—in an extraordinary and largely forgotten moment in history—his family ruled over the ‘Qu’aiti state’ from their estate at Saif Gulshan on the outskirts of Hyderabad.

The Qu’aiti family opened the floodgates for a period of remarkable cultural fusion. New palaces erupted from the sands of Arabia, based off of Hyderabadi architecture, serving Indian delicacies such as biryani, lime achaar, and samosas.

Cultural exchange flowed in both directions. Every autumn, when the Qu’aiti court moved to the city of Hyderabad, great pots of ‘Harees’ would be cooked for the Sultan’s Arab subjects during Ramadan. As word spread of the intriguing dish, dal and Telangana spices were added to make it more palatable to the Deccani palate, and the new concoction was christened Haleem. The Sultan is said to have introduced it to his employer, the Nizam of Hyderabad, and within a single generation, it became a staple of Hyderabadi cuisine.

Sam Dalrymple, 25, is the author of Five Partitions: The Making of Modern Asia, to be released in 2022; Art direction: Amit Malik; Make-up and hair: Shaan (Vidushi Gupta)
Sam Dalrymple, 25, is the author of Five Partitions: The Making of Modern Asia, to be released in 2022; Art direction: Amit Malik; Make-up and hair: Shaan (Vidushi Gupta)

Hyderabad State surrendered to the Indian Army on 17th September 1948, merging with India soon after. The Qu’aiti State was destined to survive for another 19 years until, by strange coincidence, it was absorbed into South Yemen on 17th September 1967. The connections between Hyderabad and Yemen were severed, but its legacy remained. Today, haleem is one of the great cultural exports of Hyderabad, a Ramadan staple for millions of Muslims across the world who are often unaware of its intriguing origins.

So often we confine history as something that is just stuck within dusty history books but as I learned in Hyderabad last week, this isn’t always the case. The past is everywhere: in the stories we tell, in the buildings we live in, and even in the way we eat. We just have to learn to listen close enough.

Sam Dalrymple, 25, is the author of Five Partitions: The Making of Modern Asia, to be released in 2022

From HT Brunch, December 26, 2021

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Wednesday, January 26, 2022