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In southern India, haleem is a cherished Ramadan tradition — and not just for Muslims

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

It's the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when faithful around the world abstain from eating or drinking between dawn and sunset. Each day's fast is usually followed by a feast. In the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, one delicacy in particular has become a cherished Ramadan tradition. It's called haleem, and it's not just for Muslims. Sushmita Pathak recently got the chance to see how it's made.

SUSHMITA PATHAK, BYLINE: The Royal Hyatt Convention Center in Hyderabad usually hosts wedding receptions. Nowadays it's a kitchen for Pista House, one of Hyderabad's top restaurants. When I visit one afternoon during the first week of Ramadan, preparations are in full swing for that day's haleem.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRINDER)

PATHAK: A big grinder crushes cardamom pods. A few feet away, men peel a mountain of onions. Meanwhile, the star of the haleem, the goat meat, has been cooking for nearly 8 hours.

MOHAMMED MOHDDIS ALI: Process started at night, 4:00. So the morning comes...

PATHAK: Mohammed Mohddis Ali walks me through the process. His family owns Pista House. He leads me to an open space, where some 20 furnaces are blazing.

MOHDDIS ALI: That haleem takes 11 hours to cook. So it's very easy to eat, but it's very hard to cook. And you cannot stand in the kitchen. Like, it's a lot of smoke.

PATHAK: And it's so hot here. You can - my eyes are watering.

After the meat becomes tender, a mixture of dals, or lentils, and coarsely ground meat is added to it. Then come the spices.

So this is the mix of masala spices that will - are going to go into the haleem.

(SOUNDBITE OF STIRRING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

PATHAK: Cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, rose petals. This is followed by the most physically challenging part of the recipe.

MOHDDIS ALI: We will spice the haleem with wood sticks for around 20 minutes to 25 minutes.

PATHAK: That's what they're doing right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

PATHAK: Two cooks pound the meaty mixture with long wooden hammers. It gives the haleem a soft, smooth texture. But it's a real workout, a workout that city historian Sajjad Shahid remembers from his childhood, when his family used to make haleem at home every Ramadan. It was only in the 1980s or '90s that the dish became commercialized, he says.

SAJJAD SHAHID: But not exactly haleem. It was called harees.

PATHAK: Shahid says harees was brought to India many centuries ago by the Arabs, who were employed by Indian kings and Sudans as mercenaries.

SHAHID: The personal bodyguard of the ruler used to be mostly Arabs. You had huge, huge populations of Arabs.

PATHAK: There were indeed armies of Arab soldiers in India, Shahid says. And harees was their meal of choice. It was practical, not too complicated, and it could be made in one pot. Shahid recalls a 17th-century poem, where the poet describes the degh, the vessel in which haleem is made.

SHAHID: So he says, the deghs used for cooking haleem were as large as the ears of elephants.

PATHAK: Over the years, Hyderabadis tweaked the dish, and a new version was born. Today, Hyderabadi haleem has many fans. Vaishak Damodar says he eats at least one plate almost every day during Ramadan.

VAISHAK DAMODAR: I roam around the city, and I try haleem at all different spots.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE TRAFFIC)

PATHAK: At the roadside stall where Damodar is relishing his haleem, most customers, including him, are Hindu. Some Hindus don't eat meat. And in recent years, meat has become a point of tension between Hindus and Muslims. Damodar says that's all politics.

DAMODAR: See, for me, haleem is a feel-good factor. You just come. You eat. Go. Food brings a lot of people together. That's all I've got to say.

PATHAK: For NPR News, I'm Sushmita Pathak in Hyderabad, India.

(SOUNDBITE OF LANTERNA'S "B MINOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.