Cityscapes

In Kolkata, haleem is bringing together communities during Ramzan

The nourishing, traditional dish is the star of the season, winning over foodies from all communities and walks of life.

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 haleem stall outside Shiraz.
The haleem stall outside Shiraz.

New enthusiasm

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.”

Manzilat Khan.
Manzilat Khan.

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.

Photo credit: Rajarshi Mukherjee
Photo credit: Rajarshi Mukherjee

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.

Photo credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters
Photo credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters

Skimming surface

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.

Photo Credit: Rajarshi Mukherjee
Photo Credit: Rajarshi Mukherjee

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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.