KOLKATA – The clock ticks towards the iftar time and the main street of the predominantly Muslim locality of Park Circus in Kolkata comes alive with a festive hustle and bustle of people, busily shopping their favorite Ramadan delicacies.
Stalls lining both sides of the street are selling sliced seasonal fruits, boiled chickp-eas, vegetable fritters, dates and sherbets which are traditionally taken to break the fast.
But the makeshift shops that are selling haleem- a special preparation of meat and pulses, are doing the briskest business.
"Our iftar remains incomplete without a generous helping of haleem,” Nazir Ahmed, a devout Muslim who along with a non-Muslim friend Supriyo Mandal, has come to Arsalan, a posh Kolkata restaurant, to have his daily fill of the restaurant’s iconic mutton haleem, told OnIslam.net.
The duo's eyes lit up as the waiter serves them bowls of piping hot haleem, topped with generous tempering of butter, freshly cut coriander, green chilies and slices of lemon.
Large crowd of customers are thronging the shops from where rich aromas of haleem kept in giant metallic pots are wafting out. For many Muslims in Kolkata, a haleem is fast turning perhaps the most special item of the traditional iftar platter.
A rich mish mash of pulses, meat and drizzling with oil tempered with strong spices, haleem, has become synonymous with the holy month of Ramadan in the capital city of West Bengal.
Ramadan special market is not exclusively located in Park Circus. Across the city dozens of such market is held during the month of Ramadan where few hundreds of haleem stalls are selling their ware every afternoon.
Haleem has become so popular a culinary delight among Muslims as well as non-Muslims that many leading Muslim restaurants of the city have launched special “haleem counters” to meet the demand.
"Our haleem is very special because of its unique style of preparation. We first boil wheat and pulses, then mix them with cooked mutton curry, before mixing our secret spices, handed down to us by our forefathers who used to cook at royal courts of the Mughal emperors. The mixture is then left to simmer on charcoal oven for long hours,” said a Noor Haque, a chef of Arsalan, a top of the line Muslim restaurant chain Kolkata.
"Before serving it to our customers, we add a seasoning of onions fried in oil, green chilies, ginger juliennes, coriander and a dash of fresh lime juice to the haleem.”
The chef who was diligently mixing the cooked meat and pulses in a huge metallic pot with a long wooden ladle added that Arsalan sells "more than 2,000 plates" from its half a dozen outlets in Kolkata every day, during the month of Ramadaan.
According to legends, haleem traces its origin to the time when Prophet Noah set out with his followers on the Ark.
"After the great floods, the first meal served on Prophet Noah's Ark was haleem", says Maulana Nurur Rahman Barkati, a great haleem buff and the Shahi Imam of Kolkata’s Tipu Sultan Mosque.
The Haleem cooked by Prophet Noah was a thick soupy dish of whatever grains, vegetables and pulses, available on the great Ark, informs Maulana Barkati.
"Meat and other spices were later added to Haleem by Arabs and Persians and the Indians transformed it by using butter and other hot spices to prepare this king of all foods,” he added.
Mouli Ghoshal of Kolkata, who is a great foodie and an avid cook, has done great deal of research on the history of haleem.
"Haleem is the cousin of 'Hareesa', a popular Ramadan food in some of the Arab countries. It also resembles 'Dhansak', which is the most celebrated item of the Parsi cuisine in India," says Ghoshal.
"But during the Mughal era the infusion of Indian spices like red chillies, green chillies and turmeric turned Indian haleem into a culinary wonder.”
Although the lip-smacking, tantalizing Haleem is integral to the iftar menu in Kolkata, the list of savories and sweets devoured at sunset by the hungry devout and their non-Muslim friends is endless.
In this historical city, which is the melting pot of many cultures and religions, fritters of different types also occupy an special place in the community iftars held at mosques, bazaars and congested streets.
"First we dip flattened small portions of boiled and mashed potato or fish seasoned with spices, dip them into a batter of chickp-ea flour and then deep fry them in hot oil,” says Dhannu, who sells 'chops' or fritters at Kalanga market, a popular iftar destination in Kolkata.
"We serve them hot with even hotter dips made by green chillies, coriander, mustard paste and garlic,” chuckles Dhannu. He also sells fritters made of sliced brinjals, onions, and spinach leaves.
Another famous Ramadan delicacy of Kolkata is a desert called firni - a rice pudding set in earthen pots, taken by the faithful to round off their elaborate iftars.
"Firni is prepared by mixing rice flour, dry fruits and sugar with milk and then cooking it on slow fire to get the right consistency", says Najam Husain, a firni seller at Tiljala, a busy Muslim locality in central Kolkata.
Kolkata is also a place where many poor Muslims from neighboring states have come to make their living by working as laborers and rickshawp-ullers.
These poor yet deeply religious men who cannot afford the expensive foods sold in the Ramadan markets turn to affordable yet energy-giving foods to break their fasts.
"We soak black chickp-eas in the night and at the time of iftar we sprinkle them with salt and have them along with slices of cucumber and some potato fritters. We round off the iftar session with a banana," says 62-year-old Gulam Hossain, a hand-cart puller who has made Kolkata his home since the 1980s, after migrating from Bihar.
"We try to cut down on our food expenses during this holy month of Ramadan as much as possible so that we can save enough money to buy new clothes for my children on `Eid,” adds Hossain, who has 4 children back home in Bihar.
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net - Read full article here
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