Haleem is so popular as an iftar meal in Hyderabad that one outlet sells 10 tonnes a day during Ramadan. The city's authentic version is even protected by the World Trade Organisation but not everyone is happy about that.
Hyderabad's haleem has trouble stewing
HYDERABAD // It's late afternoon during Ramadan and the courtyard of Pista House, a restaurant in old Hyderabad, has been taken over by 20 staff members. In a smooth assembly line, they pour haleem into bright red takeaway containers, mop their edges, put lids on and stack them into pyramids.
There are still two hours to go until the day's fast is broken but the street outside the restaurant is already filling up with people buying haleem - and only haleem - to take home for their evening meal.
"The crowd gets pretty crazy in the evenings," says a harried clerk who is taking a break from handing out tokens to streamline customers' orders.
Haleem - a stew of mutton, lentils and wheat that originated in Persia - has been a Hyderabad staple for decades, its flavours indigenised by the addition of Indian spices.
But over the last decade, its role as part of iftar has boomed.
Pista House, which bills itself as the largest haleem seller in the world, sells up to 10 tonnes of it every day during Ramadan.
"When I joined in 1997, when Pista House opened, we'd sell maybe 400kg in a month," says Moin Khan, Pista House's main chef. "That's how much it has increased."
Haleem is well-suited to break a day-long fast. It is rich in proteins and complex carbohydrates, giving the body a slow but steady infusion of nutrition.
Its delicate, almost porridge-like, texture also makes it a soothing dish for the evening meal, often eaten along with fruits and nuts. If anything, it can be too filling.
"I don't eat all day during Ramadan but even so, I can only manage to eat a single bowl of haleem," says Mohammed Shafiq, a slightly built executive at a pharmaceutical company, as he waits at Pista House for the sun to set. "It's too heavy."
The popularity of Hyderabad's haleem has spread outside the city - a trend driven, in no small measure, by Pista House's energetic owner MA Majeed.
In addition to selling haleem in more than 200 kiosks across Hyderabad, "we do daily home deliveries to four other cities in India and we ship cans of haleem to the Middle East as well," said Mr Majeed, who is also the president of the Hyderabad Haleem Makers Association.
"We start cooking every day at 4am and we finish by 1pm," he explained. "By 2pm the haleem is in those red boxes, by 3pm it is at the airport and by the evening, it is couriered to your doorstep."
In this manner, the courier company, Gati, ships up to 12kg of haleem a day.
Pista House's 325g portions of haleem cost 95 rupees (Dh6.25). Its family pack, a 1.3kg tub serving four people, is 430 rupees.
For 11 months of the year, Pista House functions as a typical old-style Hyderabad restaurant, serving platefuls of biryani. During Ramadan, however, all biryani production is halted in favour of haleem.
The story is similar across most of Hyderabad. Banners advertising the house haleem can be seen strung up across the doorways of most restaurants.
To cope with demand, Pista House rents additional premises nearby during Ramadan - a large, tin-roofed wedding hall, where dozens of sacks of wheat and a flour mill sit in one corner.
In the kitchen, 20 deghs - massive copper pots - perch on wood fires, bubbling with the beige-coloured stew.
For half an hour, two men with extra-long mallets pound the mutton and the wheat to achieve the velvety texture of the haleem.
In 2009, Mr Majeed applied for a Geographical Indication (GI) tag for Hyderabad's haleem.
A GI tag, as enacted by the World Trade Organisation, protects products that are unique to a certain area. Darjeeling tea, for example has a GI tag, as do the jasmine flowers grown in Mysore, the oranges of Coorg, the ikat fabric of Orissa and dozens of other products.
The GI tag was granted in September 2010. It means that any supplier advertising "Hyderabadi haleem" is required to have its process scrutinised and to make its haleem according to a set standard of quality.
Mr Majeed thinks this will benefit Hyderabad's haleem in the long run but not everybody in the city agrees.
Syed Abdul Rawoof, who calls himself the "grandmaster chef" at Paradise, a restaurant at the other end of the city, calls the move pointless.
"It's difficult to standardise this process across every nook and corner of Hyderabad," said Mr Rawoof, who used to be a vice-president in the foods division of an Indian conglomerate called ITC.
"Even on the opposite side of the road, there's a guy sitting with a degh, making less than two per cent of the haleem we make. So there's no point to standardising anything."
Paradise makes between 6,000 and 10,000kg of haleem daily during Ramadan, cooking their batches for 10 to 12 hours each.
Massive kitchens keep deghs simmering on the upper floors of the Paradise complex - a cluster of restaurants that sprang from a single small cafe that opened in 1953.
Mr Majeed fears that many other Hyderabad restaurants will not stick to GI requirements because "getting a better quality of meat or better spices will eat into their profit".
"It's because of this that, when I travel to Mumbai or Kolkata, I see restaurants selling really bad Hyderabadi haleem," he said. "In Hyderabad, haleem is a great Indian variation of a dish that came in from overseas.
"We should be proud of that. It's just so good."