On one of the hottest days in the month of Ramzan, we are at Shiraz, The Golden Restaurant, in Kolkata. This popular 75-year-old establishment – alongside others such as Royal, Aminia and Rahmania – has been feeding the city’s insatiable craving for all things Mughlai or, rather, Awadhi, dishes that have been lovingly and proudly Bengali-ed. Throughout the year, Shiraz and its rivals operating in and around the Mallick Bazar, Park Circus and Chitpore neighbourhoods do brisk business in biryani, champ and rezala.
But it is now the holy month of Ramzan, and the scene is different. Shiraz has positioned its trusty karigars outside and they lord over gigantic handis with equally imposing ladles. This is the 45th year of the Haleem Festival at the restaurant and, going by the steady stream of customers, things are looking good.
“Haleem has been selling more than our biryani,” said Atiquer Rahman, one of the partners at the restaurant, who sits in an air-conditioned dining hall with just a handful of customers digging into mounds of aromatic Kolkata-style biryani served with potatoes and a boiled egg. The bustle outside is a delicious contrast. “Due to the meat scare, business has been really bad for us for the past couple of months. But thanks to the demand for haleem, we are recovering fast.”
Things are not very different a few minutes away at Arsalan’s, where handis of haleem are put out for sale under massive shamianas from 4 pm onwards. Or at Zeeshan. Or at Royal, where people wait patiently in queue for the haleem handis to be uncovered in the afternoon. Not all their customers are devout. In the crowd you can find employees of food delivery services, food bloggers, tourists, and first-timers keen to share their haleem experience on Facebook and Instagram.
The demand for haleem – which was once largely confined to members of the Muslim community during the holy month of Ramzan – has been exceptional this year, say restaurateurs and caterers. On an average, establishments such as Arsalan, Royal, Rahmania and Shiraz sell 300-400 bowls of haleem every evening. The number is higher this year. “We have been serving haleem for decades in all variants – Hyderabadi, Afghani, Arbi, Shahi Mutton and Shahi Chicken,” said Rahman. “But now we see more and more people showing interest in the dish.”
In a different part of the city, Manzilat Khan, the great-great-granddaughter of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who gifted his version of the Awadhi biryani to his city of refuge, has been busy with her fledging catering service. But the demand for her light, fragrant and healthy haleem with oats and other cereals, has taken her by surprise. “I just packed 20 pots of haleem for a dinner at Tolly Club [one of the most elite Raj-era clubs in the city],” she told Scroll.in from her kitchen, in between taking orders for more haleem and instructing her helpers. Khan is amused by the excitement around this dish, especially from people who are not from her community. “The haleem could be Kolkata’s next favourite snack, after the biryani,” she said, even though the dish is in great demand for only a few weeks of the year.
Restaurants such as Shiraz did experiment with putting the dish on the year-round menu, but it did not work. “Traditionally, it has always been associated with the festival,” said Rahman. “And, somehow, I feel that the meat does not taste as good when the haleem is prepared at any time other than Ramzan. Maybe it is just my mind playing tricks.”
The old guards of the Mughlai food business say no other city, other than Hyderabad of course, has been as enthusiastic about haleem. What could explain Kolkata’s love for the hot and rich festive dish?
“Hype,” said chef-restaurateur Rahul Arora, who has grown up walking the skinny allies around Nakhoda Masjid, relishing other lesser-known culinary gems. “Even three years ago, there was hardly anyone writing about food. And now, everyone is a food expert, and everyone has suddenly discovered Zakaria Street. But there is so much more to iftar than just feasting on haleem and beef kebabs.”
Zakaria Street, along with Phears Lane, Colootola and Rabindra Sarani (once home to Rabindranath Tagore and Raja Ram Mohun Roy’s Brahmo Samaj), shimmers in the incandescent glow of the statuesque Nakhoda Masjid. Home to some of the oldest Muslim families in the city, this is where you will find flawlessly-crafted mojris and kurtas, exotic attars, hand-beaten cooking pots, perfectly-tuned musical instruments and hookahs.
The food trail will take you to the impossibly soft and buttery suta kebab at Adam’s, a hole in the wall, rumoured to be 100 years old. Close by is the legendary sweet shop of Haji Allauddin, a 112-year-old establishment that churns out laddoos and jalebis that melt to the touch. There are festive stalls selling moist chicken and fish kebabs, dahi vadas, ghoogni and a mindboggling array of breads.
But the most imposing presence in this labyrinth of flavours and textures and aromas, is of the massive haleem handis outside the oldest eateries in the vicinity – arch rivals Royal and Aminia. While the former is proud to serve its signature mutton haleem for customers who wait patiently for the staff to break their fast, the latter dishes out beef haleem by the potfuls. Both are spicy and delightfully underpriced. Little wonder then these streets have become the favourite haunt of social media food experts. Zakaria Street, especially, is to Ramzan what Park Street is to Christmas in Kolkata.
Arora, whose father owned a shop in a neighbouring street, has been making impassioned pleas to those organising food walks around Nakhoda Masjid to look beyond haleem and beef kebabs. He has been writing about a certain Pathan who pops up only during this time to sell grilled fish rubbed with a special masala. And Arora mentions the impressive range of breads, miniature jalebis and sweet samosas that are on the menus at stalls and shops. Most importantly, what he would like people to notice is the spirit of harmonious coexistence in the heart of the city where Marwaris, Bengali Hindus and Muslims have been sharing walls, streets, tailors and sweet-makers.
“Iftar is about restraint, not about simply feasting,” Arora said, echoing Khan, who feels the enthusiasm for food often overrides the true spirit of the holy month. “While it is great for the business, I wish people understood the purpose of iftar,” said Khan, adding that the haleem, in its most homely form, is supposed to be a nourishing dish, well balanced in its proteins and carbs, meant to help the body recover from the long hours of fasting. “It is not a meal.” But try saying that to the food enthusiasts who are queuing up to have haleem, which owes its present, more commercial form, to the enterprising cafe owners in Hyderabad.
Interestingly, the more popular variant of the haleem in Kolkata is distinctly different from the GI-tagged Hyderabadi haleem. “It is lighter and the meat is in chunks, unlike the Hyderabadi variant that is pasty,” said Arora. And here is another culinary battle in the brewing. As the city acquires a taste for the haleem, passionate debates are breaking out on the superiority of the Kolkata haleem over the Hyderabadi one.
In a city where food is as important as any religion, there has been a lot of curiosity about food from cultures and communities. “Given that Ramzan is a month-long festival, it is a great opportunity for people to discover the lesser-known aspects of the celebrations,” Khan said. And haleem, which is otherwise overlooked through the year, is enjoying its rockstar moment at Kolkata’s food theatre.