A conference took me to Hyderabad in the month of Ramadan; and it was clearly a city obsessed with haleem.
Its a city I had not seen in a while. The last time I was here, the ISB was just a gleam in Rajat Gupta's eye, the old airport was still called new and Saikat Dey (now father of two) was still an unmarried hunter-gatherer of biriyani. In those days we thrilled over Shadab, sneered at Paradise and felt reasonable satisfied with the corner chacha's stall, focused entirely on that magic b-word (biriyani – not those other x-rated alternatives your dirty dirty minds are pushing forward).
Hyderabad has changed beyond recognition. The scrappy, dusty city of my memories seems to have been replaced by some magic teleporter to a developed country. The expressway transporting me to ISB (Chinese infrastructure in a Sholay set is the best I can describe it) had posted speed signs of 120kmph - that's 75mph, you slow American commuters. The infrastructure was, frankly, nauseatingly well planned; almost treacherously un-Indian, certainly more Guangzhou than Gurgaon. And this seems everywhere in the city – roads narrowed only when we were inches away from the Charminar.
But back to matters of the stomach. While marvelling at a gleaming new airport I could hardly faul to notice the large flex announcing that haleem was now available at the food court. Pista House, a name I had first heard only a week ago (and not in the context of the nut) was the proud originator of the flex - promising 207 awards and the world's largest haleem-selling operation.
An auto ride through the city reinforced the h-word (haleem– oh you dirty minds) as king of the hill. The hoardings were everywhere; even those feel-good airtel billboards sulked a little at all the fuss. Irani origins were firmly established and purity seemed to be a very important part of haleeming - pure ghee, pure meat, even the odd pure veg. Poorer-cousin harees grabbed the silver, chicken seemed to be nearly as popular as mutton and beef rated the occasional mention. The odd Udipi chipped in with vegetarian promises; I even saw mention of a Chinese haleem (you decide if it was fusion food or a missed comma).
The auto, of course, was headed to Charminar. My experience has usually been that the old city is the best bet for traditional food; on the way auto-driver turned gourmet guide Ahmedbhai pointed out the city's most famous options. I passed Pista House and Shah Ghouse staring each other down across the usually wide Hyderabadi street, Paradise making its brash presence felt (twice). Bilal declaring ice cream love from a quaint English building and then suddenly, one odd turn here and there and I was in crowded old city teeming with hawkers and hawkees.
Surprisingly enough, the Charminar area turned out to be relatively sparse on food. This was no Minara Masjid jammed like sardines with temporary barbecue kingdoms; indeed the focus seemed to be trinkets and shoes and very (lets call it) cheerful fashion than food. There were stalls, of course, and many offers of haleem, but far less than I expected. Indeed, the primary foods on offer were fruits – hundreds of stalls in a fifty-sixty metre stretch offering pomegranates, apples, pineapples, watermelons, every kind of fruit there is. I quickly escaped that part of town. There were also a large number of dahi vada stalls and even two white capped muslims selling regular dosas. The dahi vada, in particular, was worth a mention; unlike the cold, uncooked dahi that is used everywhere else, the Hyderabadi version is more like a kadhi - slowcooked with a mustard and chilli tadka. Also no chutney on top, neither red nor green. It made for a nice twist.
Back in more meaty sections, street vendors seemed to be selling two main things out of carts – seekh kakabs that looked very like boti, bheja on a tava, a bread-egg production that we could call french toast, a soup that looked – well – like a soup but they called boti, and of course - haleem and harees.
Distractions out of the way, I finally settled down to the serious business of haleem. Lets be brutal here; you're not going to get a "best haleem" recommendation from me - that would take years, a mountain of calories and more than a few frequent auto miles. I discovered rather quickly, however, that best isn't that important – haleem in Hyderabad seems to all be very good (you could probably write home about finding a bad one). The average street food did not impress much, but the haleem is a decent number of notches above the other feeble attempts I've had elsewhere.
My first haleem was at the Charminar, chosen for nothing more than because it happened to be where the auto stopped. I'd never heard of Fiesta Green Bawarchi, there weren't any crowds lining up and those huge colour pictures of chickens and sheep did nothing much to whet the appetite. I figured, lets try the chicken here, leave the mutton for better places; the three eager servers promptly set out to make me the perfect plate. A huge dollop of white, sticky, pasty stuff was dug out of the ground, ladled into a bowl, topped with deep fried onions, chopped pudina, dhania, a handful of cashews, a squeeze of lime and finally a generous dollop of the ghee the meat was cooked in.
Chicken or not, it was delicious.
I promptly got ambitious. At 60% more expensive, mutton was clearly the haleem to have; a few delicious spoonfuls of the chicken later, I told him to pack it up and hand me a mutton version. It was indeed a little bit better but not by much; I can die reasonably happy even with the chicken version. The mutton version had a darker, deeper flavour, but the Green Bawarchi version had small, irritating bones too.
Next stop, a harees shop a few steps away. Harees is only wheat and meat - haleem without the dal. A little smoother, a little less complex, served with the same garnishings, still utterly delicious. Next stop was the giant in haleems in the city – Pista House. We went to the more convenient outlet in the Toli Chowki area rather than to the original old city outlet. This one was a stripped down outlet, serving only haleem in bowls, takeaway and even huge paint-can sized fifteen-kilo family packs. The haleem, as usual, was great – this time a little more polished without all those irritating bone fragments.
Bottom line, haleem is worth putting ass for. Obsess over where if you like, its all very good.