Yes, and from Hyderabad — the stronghold of its traditional meat-rich avatar.

Hyderabadi haleem is not just another dish –– it is a culinary tradition with religious association, as Muslims break the Ramzan fast with it. It was even granted GI certification in 2010. Cooked over 12 hours on firewood in a copper vessel, it is quite the slow-food star in Hyderabadi cuisine.

But vegetarian haleem? Like vegetable biriyani, this might sound like an oxymoron, or even laughable, to those who relish this traditional Ramzan fare characterised by generous helpings of meat. Foodie friends swear these veg versions are nothing like the real thing, and don’t even deserve the name because there is much too much compromise in taste and aroma.

Nevertheless, diehard vegetarians like me will persist in looking for meatless versions and feeling gratified by them. So imagine my joy at discovering the famed Hyderabadi haleem, no less, in a vegetarian version.

The city’s much-loved Pista House first prepared it in 2003. Inputs from 100 haleem-experts, a year of trials, feedback from different age groups, and nearly 50 rejected-recipes later they finally zeroed in on the perfect veg haleem with a spicy, melt-in-the-mouth richness.

M.A. Majeed, founder-owner of the Pista House restaurant chain, says: “We created this since we noticed many vegetarians interested in tasting haleem, and many non-vegetarians turning to vegetarian dishes for health reasons.” The meat is substituted with dry fruits and fresh vegetables while the spices remain the same. “Depending on the season in which Ramzan falls, there might be a slight alteration in recipe and taste,” he adds.

A veg haleem is now part of the Ramzan special menu at Taj Deccan. Spicy, soft, flavourful, and rich in nuts, ghee and vegetables, it looks similar to the non-vegetarian original.

Says Executive Chef Sajesh Nair: “The base of the vegetarian version is broken wheat or daliya. We substitute vegetables for the meat. Cauliflower, white pumpkin, potato, etc., give body to the veg haleem. It is finished off with carrot, French beans, and broccoli.” Taj Krishna and Taj Banjara offer this dish on request.

Despite health concerns -– haleem, whether veg or non-veg, is a calorie-rich delicacy - the novelty factor of the veg haleem is attracting a fan following. Zeba Khan has been making a vegetarian variant for Ramzan for the past seven years - ever since her septuagenarian father-in-law and his sister turned vegetarian for health reasons. “Now, my extended family and friends have taken the recipe and they make it too," she says.

On the other side, of course, are the many Hyderabadis who insist that vegetarian haleem simply does not make the cut. Says businessman Ali Ahmed, who divides his time between Hyderabad, Oman and Qatar, and follows Ramzan traditions no matter where he is: “There is a unique taste to gosht haleem which no other version can, or should replicate.”

Nevertheless, the veg version is holding its own at Pista House, with sales increasing every year, including home-delivery orders, says Majeed. At Taj Deccan, many sample it out of plain curiosity and/or because they happen to be vegetarians, says the chef. Some, of course, are captivated by the sheer audacity of such a culinary creation, which somehow seemed to belong in the realm of the impossible. That is… until now.

(This article was published on August 2, 2012)
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