Food by VICE

You'll Need Nine Hours and a Ghotni to Make This Curry

It takes hours to pulverise the meat required for haleem—the Indian Arab curry—using a traditional wooden utensil. Chef Muhammad at London’s Lahore Kebab House has been cooking the dish since 1987.

by Tom Jones
Mar 14 2016, 10:00am

All photos by the author.

Haleem is arguably the king of all meat-based curries. A rich, slow-cooked stew of lentils, oats, rice, and lamb or chicken pulverised until it becomes a thick paste, the dish has the consistency of a meaty, spicy rice pudding. In other words: delicious.

Although a significant part of Northern Indian cuisine, haleem has its roots in the Middle East and is still widely enjoyed in both regions. The dish was originally referred to as "harees" in Arabic and its recipe can be found in the 10th century Arabic cookbook, Kitab al-Ṭabīḫ—one of the oldest known recipe sources in the world.

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London's Lahore Kebab House chef and haleem expert Muhammad. All photos by the author.

Harees would have found its way to India during the time of the Mughal dynasty, which ruled most of Northern India in the 16th and 17th centuries. It's believed that Arab soldiers from the Hyderabad Nizam army were the first people to introduce harees to India.

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Over the years, haleem evolved, drawing from local culinary traditions until it became the dish we have today. Due to haleem's link with the Arab world, it remains hugely popular among Pakistani and Indian Muslims—its spiciness and instant hit of calorific stodge making it the perfect way to break fast during Ramadan.

Haleem also takes a long time to make—the word literally translates from Arabic as "patience." You'll need around nine hours of patience if you want to make a really good haleem, due to the amount of time it takes to soften the meat and pulverise with a ghotni, a traditional wooden kitchen utensil.

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Muhammad mixes the pulverised lamb with lentils.

To find out if I could stick out the wait, I visited Lahore Kebab House, one of London's most famous Punjabi restaurants and purveyors of traditional haleem. Because of the amount of time it takes to prepare, they usually only serve the dish once a week.

"It's funny," says chef Muhammad, who has been cooking at Lahore Kebab House since 1987. "Haleem is such a small word but it takes so long to make!"

As he begins to prepare the dish, I ask Muhammad if he'll be using a ghotni to break up the lamb, bracing myself for a nine-hour meat pulverising process.

He smiles.

"I used that about 25 years ago. Now I use an electric grinder otherwise I would be in the kitchen for days," he says.

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Slightly relieved that I won't have to spend the best part of a day mashing meat, we turn to the lamb, which has been soaked in boiling in water for a number of hours already. When Muhammad takes it out of the pot, it shreds like pulled pork. He adds it to a pan of spiced lentils and rice already simmering on the stove.

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"The trick with Haleem is to get the meat very soft, it must be softer than tissue paper," explains Muhammad.

The lamb and lentil mixture is then blitzed with the electric grinder until it resembles a vegetable-based curry like dhal or saag. Any sign of the fleshy lamb meat has now completely disappeared, giving us the smooth consistency that would have taken several hours with a ghotni.

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The curry is mixed with an electric grinder until it reaches a smooth consistency.

The mixture is then combined with a huge vat of fried onions and chilies, before being left to slow cook. Finally, Muhammad garnishes with fresh coriander and we're good to go.

I'm eager to try it and ask about the best way to eat haleem.

"You can eat it with rice or naan, most people tend to eat it with naan though," Muhammad tells me.

I grab a naan fresh from the tandoor and begin dipping the bread into my brimming plate. The haleem is instantly warming and almost porridge-like—perfect for someone who has been fasting all day.

Or pulverising meat for nine hours.