During the holy month, legions of cooks gather at restaurants, warehouses, and street stalls to spend hours mashing the savory porridge of mutton, wheat, and spices, a beloved fixture of night markets and family iftar feasts
For much of the year, dawn breaks over sleepy lanes in Hyderabad, India, as chai and newspaper vendors rush to deliver piping hot tea alongside the news. But during Ramadan, mornings in the Old City, Secunderabad, Mallepally, Tolichowki, and other neighborhoods bring a different kind of activity. Dozens of eateries and warehouses fill with workers starting the long process of making massive amounts of haleem, an iconic savory porridge-like dish enjoyed across the Muslim world but especially beloved in Hyderabad during Ramadan, when it becomes a staple of the nightly iftar meal.
Across its many locations, the legendary Pista House, a name nearly synonymous with haleem, prepares around two tons of the dish every day during the holy month. The operation at the restaurant, and at many others, is a communal effort. Legions of cooks (including many temp workers hired just for the month) set up firewood, chop mutton, grind wheat, prep lentils, clean herbs and chiles, strain rose petals, crush cardamom, chop cinnamon bark, and ready other spices and ingredients before piling everything into bhattis, mud or brick kilns fitted with huge cauldrons. Then it’s all hands on deck, as crews of Muslims as well as non-Muslims work like well-oiled machines, using wooden mallets to rhythmically pound the mixture as it cooks for up to 12 hours. (If you thought tricep dips were hard, try pounding tons of meat into a paste, every day for a month, while fasting.)
As the sun sets, the streets transform again with a new flurry of activity. The usually traffic-packed road around the iconic Charminar monument and mosque is blocked off to allow pedestrians to explore freely. Almost simultaneously, thousands of stalls spring up, selling all things festive: shimmery bangles, little jars of attar (perfume), colorful sarees, embroidered anarkalis. Here and across the city, restaurants shift their attention to serving the food they spent all day preparing. Workers distribute Styrofoam bowls filled with haleem, topped with caramelized onions, coriander, shorba (meat consomme), slices of lemon, and other fixings.
Mohammed Sibghatullah Khan of Deccan Archive, a digital publication preserving Hyderabad’s heritage, recalls relatives across Hyderabad coming together during his childhood to prepare the feast that follows the fast. “Back then, this was the only time I got to eat haleem,” he says. The more family members who showed up to help, the more the work could be shared, with everyone taking turns to lend a hand in preparing the dish (at home, many families cook the elements of haleem separately before combining and mashing them to make the work a bit easier). Today, his family heads to Shah Ghouse, a popular choice, to fetch “buckets of haleem,” he says. “Cooking this dish has become a rare sight” in his house, Khan adds with a chuckle.
After he offers his prayers, Khan breaks the fast with his community over dates, fresh and dried fruits, and a handful of pakoras, before everyone disperses to hit the stalls, alongside diners of all backgrounds eating, shopping, and searching for the best bowl of haleem.
How did haleem come to Hyderabad?
The dish can be traced back to Arabian cookbooks from the 10th century. A predecessor called harees (also spelled jareesh) also consists of mashed meat and wheat; it came to India with Arab mercenaries, likely from Yemen, during Muslim rule in Hyderabad under the Nizams. These soldiers enjoyed harees for breakfast, when its high calories were especially useful. The barracks that housed these mercenaries eventually gave their name to the Barkas neighborhood, today home to hundreds of thousands of Arab descendants. You’ll still find harees year-round in Barkas, like at the long-standing Madina Hotel and Hadrami Harees, two restaurants that inspire long lines of customers as early as 5 a.m. and often scrape the bottom of their pots for the last harees by 10 a.m. (A sweeter version of harees is also on the menu at some eateries, though it’s not as popular.)
Unlike mild harees, which usually calls for equal parts wheat and meat, haleem calls for double the meat. Over time, locals augmented the ratio and added more seasoning. Though Hyderabad is equally famous and protective of its biryani, during Ramadan, the rice dish is quite literally on the back burner — which alone speaks volumes about the passion for haleem.
Versions of haleem and related dishes are hugely popular in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, West Asian countries, and Turkey. Across India, haleem can be found in Iranian restaurants in Mumbai; eateries in Bangalore’s Fraser Town, Old Delhi, Lucknow, Chennai, Ludhiana, and Goa; in traces in relative dishes like aleesa in Kerala, harissa in Kashmir, and khichra in Gujarat; and at many family gatherings and weddings.
Over the last decade especially, meat consumption, especially beef, has been a flash point for violence by right-wing Hindus on Muslim communities (as well as on Indigenous Adivasis and Dalits) as nationalists have pressed for the widespread adoption of vegetarianism. Given the context, the scene in Hyderabad during Ramadan, with crowds of Muslims, Hindus, and other non-Muslims all enjoying haleem, is striking.
What makes Hyderabadi haleem so popular?
At its best, haleem is an amalgamation of sensations and flavors — gamey mutton, subtly aromatic rose petals, punchy spices, slick ghee, generous fixings — all delivered in a caloric, easily digestible bowl. Anas Murtuza, the food critic behind BeingHydFoodie, claims he could fast for days after one bowl of haleem — though that doesn’t stop him from constantly visiting his go-to shop, City Diamond, a favorite of residents in Mehdipatnam.
In 2010, haleem earned India’s Geographical Indication status, the first non-vegetarian dish to do so, which not only recognized the importance of haleem in the city but also raised the bar for vendors. To qualify under the rules of the GI, Hyderabadi haleem has to tick a few boxes: The meat-to-wheat ratio should be 10 to four, the goat meat must be good-quality, the ghee needs to be pure, no artificial flavors or trans fats are allowed, and the cauldron must be cooked on firewood.
Apart from mutton, you can find non-GI haleem made with chicken, beef, duck, turkey, prawn, fish, emu, and jackfruit. Then there are the toppings. According to Navin Sigamany, a Madinaguda resident and the owner of the Hyderabad Walking Company (which runs a Ramzan Walk), most shops offer the standard fried or caramelized onions, chopped coriander, bright red shorba, and a slice of lemon. There have always been a few eateries willing to experiment, throwing in half a boiled egg, fried cashews and raisins, or a drizzle of fresh cream; as the dish has become more popular on social media, more eateries are adding additional ingredients, meaning there is always another new bowl to try.
There are also many ways to enjoy haleem outside of the street stalls. Small restaurants cook haleem in pressure cookers all year, and Sigamany encourages people to explore their neighborhood haleem shops, some of which add their own twists to the dish. During Ramadan, many customers also prefer to take their meals home to their families. “Locals can be seen bagging huge portions of haleem to take home and enjoy with the company of loved ones,” Sigamany says. Many establishments also partner with delivery companies to facilitate the iftar rush.
But it’s the scene that surrounds haleem that makes eating it so special, a feeling that begins even before the holiday. Sigamany suggests visitors check out the restaurants pre-Ramadan to watch them set up their bhattis, a huge operation in and of itself.
According to Murtuza, Hyderabad’s heavy Muslim influence seeps into every aspect of daily life in the city, but during the holy month, residents are often heard saying, “Hawa ich alag rehti Ramazan mein” (there’s a different vibe to the city in Ramadan). “Hyderabad is busy from iftar till sehri, from 7 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. The city is alive with chatter and the sound of vendors persuading you to enter their shops,” Murtuza says. “At the sound of adhan, Muslims in the Old City gather at Makkah Masjid and offer their maghrib prayer.” After that, he joins his friends for chai at Nimrah Cafe before they set off on their hunt for haleem.
In the busiest lanes of the Old City, restaurants blare out the day’s specials on megaphones as mehendi (henna) vendors try to entice passersby with elegant designs and bangle sellers show off their wares. In Shalibanda, Mehdipatnam, Madina Circle, Masab Tank, Basheer Bagh, and other centers of haleem, entire communities turn out for dinner.
Where to try haleem in Hyderabad
You wouldn’t go to Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower, and you shouldn’t miss haleem at Pista House in Hyderabad. Since the long-standing establishment began in 1997, it has expanded with outlets across the city, including a branch in Shalibanda conveniently near the historic Charminar monument. The restaurant takes pride in its premium ingredients and consistent recipe, which comes with the usual toppings of fried onions, coriander leaves, and shorba. If you can’t make it to Hyderabad, the restaurant has locations in the U.S. (California, New York, Virginia) and Oman; plans to open in the UAE, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore; and delivers international orders to other parts of the U.S., Canada, Singapore, South Africa, the UAE, and parts of Europe.
20-4-132, Charminar Rd, beside Pista House, Shalibanda, Hyderabad, Telangana 500002
A favorite of Sigamany and Ashis Nayak of FoodDrifter, Hotel Nayaab is located in Chatta Bazar, a 10-minute walk from Charminar. The 37-year-old operation does not indulge in heavy marketing or advertising, but has attracted millions of customers for its haleem, as well as classic dishes for sehri like paya (slow-cooked sheep or goat shank stew), bheja (goat brain) fry, and keema roti (roti stuffed with mince). With a reputation for some of the best non-vegetarian Hyderabadi dishes, Nayaab offers an unfussy, classic, piquant take on haleem, topped with a generous serving of shorba. While you’re there, try the famous paya and the kesar chai (tea simmered with saffron).
Nayapul Road, Ghansi Bazaar, Hyderabad, Telangana 500024
If the crowds of Charminar are too intense for you, try this relatively chill Iranian eatery in Banjara Hills — though still expect the restaurant to be filled to the brim with haleem connoisseurs during Ramadan. Sarvi is known for its ghee-rich haleem topped with cashews, fried onions, egg, and fresh cream. Finish your dinner with mouth-watering phirni, a sweet rice pudding with a powerful punch of cardamom. Sarvi has two additional locations in Hyderabad.
Road 1, Opposite Care Hospital, Banjara Hills, Hyderabad, Telangana 500034
Opened in 1973, Cafe Bahar sees crowds throughout the year. Besides the delicious base in the haleem, the restaurant is famous for its topping choices of goat tongue and chicken 65, fried chicken infused with spices and topped with crispy curry leaves. Finish the meal with an Iranian chai (another integral part of Hyderabad’s cuisine), and don’t forget to grab some baked-to-perfection Osmania biscuits on your way out.
3-5, 815/A, Old MLA Quarters Rd, Avanti Nagar, Himayatnagar, Hyderabad, Telangana 500029
Anusha Kulal was born in Mangalore, a coastal town in the state of Karnataka. She is a freelance writer passionate about regional foods around the world, including hyperlocal cuisines in India.