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When the life of the mind is nourished by a pot of fragrant, slow-cooked haleem

An unconventional Christmas gift that enlivens what might, otherwise, have been a dull festive day

Written by Devapriya Roy |
December 23, 2021 10:00:13 am
Of friends and Christmas cheerOf friends and Christmas cheer (Source: Getty Images)

It is winter in Delhi, and we are living the life of writerly poverty that I have always idealised —by which I mean the life of writerly poverty I have read about in books and magazines. (This, I shall have you know, is distinct from the life of writerly poverty that has been insinuated by well-meaning people back home in Calcutta: profound coughing, sheafs of unpublished poems, liver disease, leaky roof, death, the end.)

Our roof, to be sure, does have a leaky patch. But it is a barsati in Delhi, a rite of passage, full of light, and if our parents find it precarious, our friends all find its weather-beaten charm decidedly edgy. Let’s face it, the barsati might not be as well-known as the Parisian garret in the history of letters, but it is no less atmospheric; even Amitav Ghosh had lived in one. (Or so I expound, to unsuspecting people who have committed the mistake of asking where I live.)

Also, though that may not be strictly relevant, neither of us writes poetry.

We have just submitted the long-overdue manuscript of our joint travel-memoir. S has returned to his PhD and spends long hours on intricate math, and longer hours on defence technology. And while I write about books and the writing life for a provocative new web platform, I spend most of my time reading, and dreaming, of all the books we are yet to write on the long nights when we shiver in our little parlour, both of us tapping away at our keyboards.

Our eating habits are as eccentric as the hours we keep. When the bank accounts are lean, as they often are, we eat what we call our “Delhi menu” – kadhi-chawal, rajma-chawal, tinda-subzee with parathas, chhole-chawal; some nights we rely on sattu parathas, accompanied by fiery alu chokha, from a JNU dhaba, or cheap Chinese takeout. When the accounts are less lean, we are pukka Bengalis: chicken curry with potatoes and maachher jhol and mutton kosha. When there are windfalls, I walk determinedly to the local magazine stand and buy a new issue of GoodFood India to cook from: seafood paella, that reminds us of a salty day in Monaco; fish cooked in parchment paper; Moplah mutton; red velvet cake with cream-cheese frosting. When the windfall is one of S’s articles published in a foreign journal, we go to CR Park and buy ilish.

Our barsaati might have a tiny bedroom – basically nothing but our bed fits in, with a dresser jammed next to the window – but it does have a large kitchen. Our octogenarian landlady, Santosh Aunty, likes to joke that it is larger than her own kitchen on the first floor. When we moved in, I’d had the shelves painted red, shocking against the whitewashed walls, to match the cracked mosaic floor, our red single-door Kelvinator and our tiny red OTG, in which said red velvet cake was baked. It is a cheerful kitchen, with yellow curtains, and if we don’t cook as much as we should, the décor is at least on point: old wine bottles with money plant curling out, French recipes on postcards stuck on the fridge with sassy magnets, yellow measuring cups.

And this brings us to 2014, lean December.

We don’t buy tickets to Calcutta, where we usually spend Christmas break, eating a fantastic amount of food. My father shares his birthday with Jesus, so the panoply of gastronomic delights flows from twin founts of inspiration: one, the goodies of Calcutta-Christmas, and two, the goodies sourced for him by the extended clan — family, friends and fans. (My parents are terribly popular.)

As Christmas nears, I become insufferably grumpy. S, meanwhile, begins to suffer from a strange hunger that simply will not be satiated. We fight for hours over nothing, then we make up lavishly. We dance around the terrace at night and sulk in corners in the afternoons. We pitch articles and go on long walks, pausing to buy second-hand books – an Erma Bombeck for me or a Ravi N Batra for S – at the local newsagents. We enjoy the Christmas lights at Khan Market and the hampers at Modern Bazaar, all from a stoic distance. We are outsiders to the mirth and joy, and we feel very grown-up about it. Sometimes we are bitter. Other times, we are giddily sanguine about our choice: the life of the mind.

Eventually, we crumble and begin to colour our daily Delhi menu with intense, often theoretical and always impassioned speculations. Would my mother’s sweet pulao – a recipe passed down from my grandmother – be better with her chicken-in-coconut-milk or with the melt-in-your-mouth mutton invented by my young cousin Ribhu? If it was our last day on earth then would we choose the rabri that my father-in-law brings for my father’s birthday every year, or would we choose the Nizam biryani instead? Nahoum’s marzipan or rose cookies from Hogg Market: which were more authentic to Calcutta’s Christmas?

The temperature plummets, the days are hard and brittle in the cold, most days the fog persists into the afternoon.
On Christmas day, my friend Aneela Babar, once of Rawalpindi, decides to do a Mrs March. As we Hummels are about to eat our sad little chana bhaturas, ordered in from the local halwai, Aneela sends over a pot of hot fragrant haleem. We throw out the chickpeas when it turns out that fat round bhaturas with haleem and a dollop of butter makes the most charming Christmas dish after all.

Later, on the phone, the parents sound wistful. I assure them there is nothing to FOMO about, I shall acquire the recipe and make it for the birthday lunch in Calcutta next year. We will be there. Of course we will.

(Many thanks to Aneela Babar, writer, raconteur and Bollywood-encyclopaedia for sharing her recipe. One can only hope she hasn’t omitted her secret ingredient. It is, in all probability, playing the Chandni soundtrack while the haleem is simmering in the pot.)

Aneela’s Slow-cooked Haleem

haleem A pot of slow-cooked haleem (Source: Getty Images)

Ingredients:
l 100 grams of masoor dal (split)
l 50 grams of channa dal
l 50 grams of barley pearl
l 50 grams of white rice (optional)
l a tablespoon each of ginger and garlic paste
l Two medium onions, one for the base and the other for tempering (tadka)
l 1500 grams of boneless chicken
l 500 grams of soup bones
l Garam masala: This includes your desired mix of red chilli powder, turmeric, black pepper, coriander powder, nigella seeds, cumin powder, green cardamom, caraway and clove. Feel free to innovate.
l Salt, to taste
l Sprig of curry leaves, two bay leaves
l 100 grams of wheat daliya (shredded wheat)
l Lemon juice
l Chat masala, coriander, green chillies and julienned ginger for garnish

Steps
Soak the dal and barley pearls (and the rice if you are using it) for three to four hours.
Fry the ginger, garlic and onions till golden brown
Stir fry the meat and bones now with the garam masala, curry and bay leaves. Add salt.
Now rinse the dal and barley mix and add that to the mix too. Add 10 cups of water and cover the pot and let it simmer. You will have to occasionally check if it is not sticking to the bottom.
Two hours in, add the wheat daliya. If the mixture is thickening and the water is drying up, you may add half a cup of water on occasion. The aim is to let it simmer for 5 to 6 hours and constantly checking on it and stirring. When you are exhausted with the process, take it off the stove and remove the bones.
Now fry the onions for tempering in a cup of oil and add it to the haleem covering the pot.
Stir in a tablespoon of chat masala, return to stove and let it simmer again for 30 minutes. Check for salt. Add four tablespoons of lemon juice. Garnish with coriander, split green chillies and ginger julienned.
I have since been introduced to the miracles of instant pot. I follow through to Step Number 4 and then turn the instant pot to High Pressure for 40 minutes, after which I let the haleem rest for 20 minutes more. I then take a hand-held mixer to blend the mixture of lentils and meat. Put it on slow cooking for an hour and so. Add chat masala and the lemon juice and garnish as before.

Devapriya Roy is a Delhi-based author. Her most recent book is Cat People, an edited anthology with contributions mostly from cat lovers, but also a few haters

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