There cannot be a more satiating winter morning dish.
Harissa, not to be confused with the hot red chilli pepper paste (another version is with rose petals) of Maghreb (Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Libya), is a winter breakfast dish of Kashmir, perhaps more of just Srinagar. A few dozen harissa shops, mainly in old Srinagar, the downtown area or the Shehar-e-Khaas, begin a routine around October that lasts till March. This centuries-old delicacy is a must-have breakfast meal in the harsh winters of the valley.
Harissa came to Kashmir in the 14th century, and the Srinagar city has been serving it for over 200 years. It is said that eating harissa for breakfast keeps a person warm all through the day even in freezing temperatures and is believed to ward off many diseases related to cold climate.
The name hariss/harees comes from the Arabic verb harasa, meaning ‘to pound’ or ‘ to break into pieces’. It’s thought to have originated from Tunisia, where shoppers in spice souks watch the spices pounded. The simplest versions have only chillies, salt and olive oil. Harees is a popular dish known throughout the Arab world, commonly eaten in the month of Ramadhan, and in Iraq and Lebanon during Ashura.
According to Armenian lore, the patron saint of Armenia, Gregory the Illuminator, was offering a meal of love and charity to the poor. There weren’t enough sheep to feed the crowds so wheat was added to the cooking pots. They noticed that the wheat was sticking to the bottom of the cauldrons. Saint Gregory advised: “Harekh – stir it!” Thus, the name of the dish, harissa, came from the saint’s own words. Harissa has been offered as a charity meal ever since. It is still prepared by many Armenians around the world.
Harissa/ herriseh/keshkeg is traditionally served on Easter day and is considered a national dish of Armenia. It is a thick porridge made from korkot (dried or roasted cracked wheat) and fat-rich meat, usually chicken or lamb. Herbs were substituted for meat in harissa when the Armenian religious days required fasting and penance. The extremely long cooking process is an essential part of the harissa tradition. Like other ritual dishes, the time taken for preparation is part of its cherished value. Harissa helped the Armenians of Musa Ler (in modern-day Turkey) survive during the resistance of 1915.
Harees, jareesh, boko boko or harissa is a 7th century dish of cracked or coarsely ground wheat/millet/rice, mixed with meat and spices, cooked overnight in an underground earthen pot using steam. Its consistency varies between porridge and gruel. It’s eaten across the Gulf–with recipes varying slightly from country to country, household to household–and is cooked in a pot called ‘mash pan’, stirred with a wooden spoon called masad masr. Wheat is cooked in slightly salted water for hours and then the meat is added and cooked again for at least four hours. Some people prefer to cook the meat and wheat together, with water and salt, and others serve it with a topping of chopped fried onions.
In Zanzibar, the dish is called boko boko and is popular mainly in the Oromo region. It may be cooked with lamb, beef or chicken and topped with dhadhaa/kibbeh (nuggets) and served on Eid or special occasions such as the birth of a baby.
There is a different traditional way of preparing harees in each of the Arab countries and among the Arab tribes. For example, in Saudi Arabia, cardamom pods are added. Also, it is decorated with parsley.
Harees was only made by the wealthy during Ramadhan and Eid for the duration of a three to seven-day wedding. It was, however, customary for the harees dishes to be shared with poor neighbours on such occasions. Formerly found only in homes, it is now served at restaurants as well.
The dish was the focus of a weekly event at Al Ain Palace Museum, UAE, that took place every Friday throughout the holy month of Ramadhan. Museum officials invited visitors to learn more about the dish – how it’s made and the ingredients used. Visitors came with their own plates to fill with harees or they took home neatly created packages with a container of the dish, plus a small tub of ghee.
Each package contained information about the dish in a range of languages. The literature explained the significance of the dish, especially of wheat which in the past was cultivated by Al Ain residents.
Harees is documented in Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq’s 10th century cookbook, Kitab Al Tabikh., as well as in al-Baghdadi’s 13th-century book Kitab Al Tabikh and Ibn Razin al-Tujibi’s 13th-century Andalusian culinary treatise, Kitab Fadalat al-Khiwan fi Tayyibat al-Ta’am w’al-Alwan.
Persian author Magaret Shaida believes that harees was born into royalty courtesy King Khuosrow of Persia in the 6th century. And, a century later, to Caliph Mu’aviya of Damascus, who made harees in the honour of the Arabian Yemenis delegation, thus introducing a practice of serving harees as a welcome meal to visitors and travellers alike. Ibn Batutta’s 14th century travelogue mentions that the gooey food was served in a bowlful to weary souls and exhausted soldiers alike.
Emperor Humayun, who made harees a part of his post-prayer meal, was first introduced to the nourishing comfort food while in exile in Persia. It stayed a favourite much through the dynasty rule, albeit with a few tweaks added as generations passed. So there is a strong likelihood that the future Nizam had the taste of harees even before the Chaush (Muslim community of Hadhrami Arab who became Nizam’s bodyguards) brought it along with them to his court. This is supported by the evidence of the existence of a similar dish, the Kashmiri harissa, albeit made with rice, that uses spice (green cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and whole fennel seeds) infused mustard oil for tempering instead of ghee.
The Kashmiri harissa is a mash similar to the Armenian and the West Asian harees, the Persian dizi and the Hyderabadi haleem. Dizi is a Persian dish of meat and beans traditionally cooked and served in small stone dishes, also known as dizi. The broth and the paste are served in separate dishes – the broth in a bowl with crumbled tarragon leaves sprinkled on the top and the paste on a plate garnished with fresh mint leaves. The kind of bread commonly preferred with dizi is sangak, an Iranian traditional bread.
The graduation of the nomadic harees to the royal haleem (given a GI status), however, began with the Nizam lending a piece of land for the Chaush to settle down. Called the ‘mini Yemen’ in Hyderabad, Barkas’ market became the first place where Hyderabadis were introduced to the harees, both in savoury and sweet form. Hyderabad, which was by then used to much spicier meals and dishes may have found the harees bland and could have made a few modifications of their own, creating the first iteration of haleem.
But it wasn’t till it was picked up by the khansamas – chefs- in the Nizam’s royal kitchen that harees was noticed again or became haleem. With the end of the Mughal dynasty, Nizams began creating their own style stamps – one of the iconic dishes that emerged was the haleem. The rise of haleem as a Ramzan/Ramadhan dish had also to do with its nourishing nature.
Both harees and haleem are made with mutton and wheat. The difference is not only in their ancestry but also in the ratio in which the main ingredients are used. Haleem is spicier and has lentils added to it as well.
Hyderabad has two versions of harees – the khari and the meethi. Khari, true to its name, is bland by Hyderabadi standards and available at majority of the harees outlets and the meethi has sugar mixed with it which is available only in the Barkas area.
Harissa/Hareesa in Kashmir is prepared during winter (chillai kalan ), typically made of mutton and rice flour and eaten with Kashmiri bread called girda. It is cooked in huge degs (earthen pots) ensconced in wood fired ovens. Downtown Srinagar is considered as the hub of harissa making in Kashmir.
One of the beliefs is that harissa making was brought to Kashmir by Mirza Hyder Duglat of Yarkand during Chak period in 1540. While others, like the oral historian Zarif Ahmad Zarif, attribute harissa’s origin in Kashmir to Central Asia, which influenced the art, custom, rituals, beliefs and the food culture of the Kashmir.
Harissa’s roots can also be traced to the Mughal period. It was during Afghan rule of Kashmir that harissa was formally introduced in its present form in the valley. It’s said that during the Afghan rule of Kashmir, due to the poor economic conditions, people couldn’t afford harissa and instead boiled turnips as a cheap alternative to it.
The best harissa shops are at Aali Kadal, Saraf Kadal, Fateh Kadal and Sarai Bala. While these serve the dish only in the morning hours, some eateries like the Dilshad restaurant at Maisuma serve harissa throughout the day.
A nearly 200-year-old shop at Aali Kadal is one of the oldest. Zahoor Ahmad Bhat and his father Ghulam Mohammad Bhat (Ama Lala) own the shop which was started by their forefathers. Ghulam Mohammad, due to his ill health now, visits the shop only to select the mutton. The shop is popular not just with the locals but also gets orders from outside the valley. Mohammad has been honoured by the government of Jammu and Kashmir for promoting the Kashmiri harissa all over the world. Before its establishment, only the chefs of the elite were known to prepare harissa.
Subsequently, after the establishment of the Bhat Harissa joint, a member from the family set up another shop at Saraf Kadal and two more shops followed at Fateh Kadal and Sarai Bala. Up until the Dogra times, these four joints were the only harissa outlets in Srinagar. Later on, when harissa found wider acceptance as the common people became affluent enough to afford it, many other shops mushroomed within the city.
The Sultani Harissa in Fateh Kadal, more than a century old, is run by father-son duo of Mohammad Shafi Bhat and Umer Shafi. The shop is named after Mohammad Sultan Bhat, father of Mohammad Shafi Bhat. Mohammad Sultan Bhat has served harrissa to the likes of Sheikh Abdullah and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad.
The downtown harissa shops down the shutters around 10 am. In fact, at most places, the day’s stock is over by 8 am. Maisuma’s Dilshad restaurant is open throughout the afternoon. Kong Posh Harissa, at Jamalatta Chowk, Nawakadal has opened a shop at Rajbagh too.
A plate of harissa in the valley is served with a mutton kebab and methi –finely chopped mixture of a sheep’s innards cooked in ghee and fenugreek. If you can get a plateful by 10 am in one of the old city shops, you are lucky. By that time, they are usually scraping off the crust at the bottom of the pot. The crust, called phuher, is a favourite with children and the adults alike. Once the pot is cleaned, preparations begin for the next morning. Harissa making is a round-the-clock job.
The process starts in the afternoon with the selection of meat and chopping the pieces. Around 10 pm, the chopped lamb is cooked on a slow flame in a large earthen pot. In a separate earthen pot, rice gruel is prepared, preferably with the short-grained, sticky Kashmiri rice. The cooked rice is added to the meat along with spices like fennel seeds, cinnamon, green and black cardamom, cloves, crispy fried Kashmiri shallots and salt. Around an hour-and-a-half into the cooking, the narrow-necked earthen pot is closed with a lid. This is when the harissa makers steal a few hours of sleep.
Around 4 am, with a metallic scoop fitted to a long handle, the bones, from which the meat has fallen off, are removed. The mixture is either kept in a large earthen pot or is shifted into a large copper vessel where it is continuously pounded till it turns into a paste. Into the mix is poured smoking mustard oil. The mixture is mashed with the help of a long wooden masher until the desired consistency is reached. The dish is served in plate portions, topped with seasoned mustard oil, with the local bread, girda.
A generation ago, many harissa makers would employ workers from Gurez. They are known for their muscle power, a quality most needed for mashing the harissa. Muhammad Munawar Wani, in his seventies, came to Srinagar half a century ago from Gurez to work at the Bhat Harissa shop at Aali Kadal.
The restaurants are packed from as early as 7 am in freezing cold. While there is a flurry of service to the restaurant goers, there is also a parallel activity of dozens of parcels being packed for orders placed online or on phone from the day before.
The new cafes have also incorporated harissa into their menu. Some cafes like Chai Jaai serve it in a very traditional way in Kashmiri copper utensils. This, of course, in no way, compares to the experience of having the dish on the streets of downtown Srinagar on a cold winter morning.
A harissa maker is usually seated on an elevated stone platform, and uses a brass or wooden ladle to scoop out a generous helping from the steaming pot which is half buried in the platform. This harissa is poured into ornate copper plates and then tempered with flaming hot mustard oil, fried onions, and a small bit of methi or a kebab, or both. The smoky blend of succulent meat, spices and rice, have a distinctive taste. There cannot be a more satiating winter breakfast dish.
Jaspreet Kaur is a Delhi-based architect, urban designer, Trustee Lymewoods & Span Foundation and Consulting editor of Kashmir Newsline.
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