From Holy Dates To Haleem, Iftar Meals Pack A Punch
Image Credit: Exotic stuffed dates--Credit- Bateel

It has been barely a week into Ramzan, and I have already been invited to nearly half a dozen Iftar parties in Hyderabad. The Covid-induced lull in iftar festivities seems to have now got over and while the pre-Covid times of Charminar-hopping and haleem eating/making competitions have not yet returned to their original fervour, Ramzan celebration is finding its mojo gradually.

 There are two meals which can be had by those fasting during Ramzan, Sehri taken before dawn and Iftar after sunset. It is this Iftar meal which gets all the attention and visibility as one is usually out at work and this is what is tapped into by restaurateurs and chefs.

From the iftar occasions which I attended in the week gone by two stand out, one by Bateel, a Dubai-based premium dates company known for their exotic fruit-and-nut-filled dates and the other interaction by Safa, a woman-based NGO, representing the stark yet stunning simplicity of a festival known for highlighting sacrifice and doing charity or Zakat, before the month or Ramzan got over.

Bateel had put out their gourmet collection of dates and date-inspired creations for date connoisseurs. So there were dates stuffed with just about everything,( pistachios, macadamia, almonds, apricots, candied ginger and orange zest), date spreads and drinks made with dates such as Apple, Date and Pomegranate, date cookies etc, as well as a diverse non-date product portfolio such as extra virgin olive oils, kahwa and aged balsamic vinegar.

Exotic stuffed dates. Credit--Bateel

Apparently, there are various grades of dates and the holiest date of them all is the Ajwa date since it is grown in the holy city of Madina.  Ajwa has a raisin like texture and resemble prunes and are among the oldest known dates in the history of mankind, known to have been consumed even 8000 years ago. In India it retails at almost Rs 7000 a kg and obviously has takers with deep pockets!

Then there is Wanan, as gourmet as it gets with its deliciously sweet taste and a long cone shaped body with dark wrinkled skin. There is also the delightfully chewy Khidri originating in Egypt with a caramel aftertaste, and the unique Kholas date, which is enjoyed at every stage of maturity of its ripening process such as Balah (unripe), Rhutab (semi ripe) and tamr (fully ripe).

Then there are the more common (in India) Mejdool dates, larger and darker and also have a caramel after-taste.

Traditionally, it is the date, in a humbler form of course,  with which Prophet Mohammad is supposed to have broken his Ramzan fast.  Nearly a quarter of the globe today fasts during the Islamic month of  Ramzan or Ramadan, the Islamic month in which the holy book of Quran was revealed to the Prophet.

The other iftar meet which is worth mentioning was by Luqma by Safa, an all-women’s kitchen run by the NGO Safa, which works with single Muslim women (mostly abandoned by husbands or widows) who are trained in Hyderabadi cuisine and other cuisines too) with an objective to making them economically self reliant.

Luqma is a kitchen studio located in Dar-ul-Shifa in Old City of Hyderabad and the sister duo of Rubina Manzhar and Fareesa Khan, co-founders of the NGO are doing a stellar job of training socially disadvantaged Muslim women as chefs (modern cooking methods and practices, even though they are cooking heirloom Hyderabadi dishes) and have so far trained 75 chefs in the three years since inception which included the Covid pandemic shutdowns.

Luqma is getting noted for its excellent Shikampur kebabs, Dahi Wadas (the Hyderabadi version made out of chana atta or besan), Patti samosas and Lukhmis (square-shaped puffs stuffed with keema masala) Gil-E-Firdaus ( a phirni made of green bottlegourd or lauki) and Sharbat-E-Mohabbat. A divine concoction made of watermelon, milk, Rooh Afza and magaj or melon seeds.

According to Fareesa, these are traditional simple recipes of Iftar which have stood the test of time for most Hyderabadi families and they are trying to retain that tradition. It seems to hae struck a note with food connoisseurs across the disapora as Luqma is readying to host the iftar party of the US  Consul General in Hyderabad, Jennifer Larson.

Luqma has been curating iftar boxes consisting of dates, fruits, samosas, dahi wadas for a nominal price and also have a vertical dedicated to charity, as during Ramzan, giving away iftar boxes to the needy has become a welcome practice.

The iftar boxes are getting in vogue especially during the post-Covid era when ordering iftar boxes on delivery apps at workplaces or home is a better option than wading through traffic to reach home for iftar on time. The boxes are getting smarter and more contemporary, and there are plenty of choices like Iftar Box, Iftar Party and Luqma by Safa which are in individual, standard and family packs and mostly have haleem as one of its contents.

Which brings me back to Hyderabadi haleem, the other biggie of Iftar.  When I witnessed the haleem frenzy during my first Ramzan in Hyderabad more than a decade ago, I was amazed to see how the city’s landscape changed dramatically. During the entire month, one dish, haleem would occupy centrestage, with haleem joints literally mushrooming overnight on the street sides. This would be in addition to the big haleem brands like Pista House, (which started the tradition of exporting haleem in special cargo containers to the US and Middle East in a tie up with local logistics partner Gati). Incidentally Mohd Abdul Majeed, the founder-proprietor of Pista House also spearheaded the campaign to get the GI tag for Hyderabadi haleem which it eventually received in 2010.

What is the craze for haleem all about? Tonnes of wholewheat grains are pounded with goat meat and cooked on slow fire in ghee and other whole spices to be made into this gooey porridge, topped with fried onions or brista, cashews, fresh mint leaves and a wedge of lemon. This one dish has almost everyone in Hyderabad queue up on the streets much before sunset and big restaurants like Shah Ghouse, Paradise, Sarvi etc are known to hire extra wagers just to get the haleem service in plastic containers on automation mode. Quintals of haleem are sold in any restaurant worth its brand name and some restaurants in a bid to be different, have taken resort to gimmicks like the Baahubali haleem.

At Grill9, for example, the Baahubali haleem is topped with Chicken tikka, patthar gosht, marag gosht boiled eggs, cream, and costs Rs 999 and has somehow got trending. But as Fareesa Khan cautions, nobody who is fasting, eats haleem everyday or so frequently, as its neither healthy nor economically feasible. This is more of a commercial trend, she says, adding that while at Luqma, there is haleem on the menu, they have kept the iftar box simple and basic as it used to be and still is, for many Hyderabadis like her.

It used to be more of dates, fruits, a fruit-based drink or Rooh Afza, dahi wada and boiled chana dal seasoned with salt, lime juice, onion and chopped coriander.

At the end of the day, Ramzan is about fasting, abstinence and prayer. A simple date helps maintain the blood sugar balance from their fasting lower levels and also adds nutrients to your body, aiding in its strength. So does the high-on-protien haleem, like many would argue.  But excess of anything is not good for you, like the saying goes.