Fast food of the Nizams

Rashmi Pratap | Updated on September 12, 2014

Columns of cooking vessels rise in front of Pista House in Hyderabad's old city   -  G RAMAKRISHNA

Taste of successPista House owner MA Majeed with his sons

Every day during Ramzan, Hyderabad-based Pista House sells hundreds of kilos of haleem and exports this 16th-century delicacy across continents

It is 1am in Hyderabad’s old city. Crowds throng the markets around Charminar, shopping for clothes and knick knacks, tucking into biryanis and kebabs. Amidst the gaiety of the holy month of Ramzan, the aroma of pure ghee and spices wafts through the Nayaab function hall. Inside, a group of men briskly stir the contents of huge, gleaming copper cauldrons. The mix of pounded wheat, mutton, spices, dry fruits, rose petals and lentils cooks over the blazing imli firewood for 12 hours. By dinnertime the next day, this, the Hyderabadi ambrosia or haleem, is ladled out at tables across India.

Pista House, a 17-year-old eatery in Charminar, rents the Nayaab hall every year to prepare haleem — a dish that originated in the kitchens of emperor Akbar in the 16th century, now prepared only during Ramzan and special occasions, such as weddings. In the holy month, Pista House sells hundreds of kilos of haleem and exports it every day. Currently, it has 32,000 orders from the US, UK, Germany and Australia, among others. As the eatery’s kitchen is not large enough to handle the huge order, the action spills over into Nayaab hall.

Proprietor MA Majeed took a bank loan of ₹20 lakh to set up Pista House in 1997 as the income from his family’s clothing business was insufficient. “In those days, clothes would sell mainly during Diwali and Ramzan. Then too, vendors from neighbouring cities arrived here, eating into our market. I didn’t see a future in that business,” he says.

At first, Majeed made and sold biscuits and confectionery, but there was a crisis within three months. Banks wanted their money back. Majeed sold his house, his share in ancestral property and everything else he could muster to repay the debt. Meanwhile, sales at Pista House plummeted, forcing him to think of ways to improve revenues. He decided to add new items to his shelf. Among them was the now famous haleem. “Then, few people knew of haleem. It was prepared in select restaurants in the city.”

The earliest mention of haleem is in Ain-i-Akbari, a treatise on the administration of the Mughal empire, by Akbar’s minister Abul Fazal. Said to have been introduced to the Hyderabad State by the Arab diaspora during the rule of the Nizams, the use of local spices made the Hyderabadi haleem unique, even earning it the Geographical Indication status (GIS) in 2010, a first for a non-vegetarian dish in India. Under the GI status, only haleem cooked on imli firewood in copper vessels, using standard ingredients and tested in a lab, can be called Hyderabadi haleem. The stew is continuously worked with a wooden mallet ( ghotni), which results in a sticky-smooth consistency.

Today, a plate of Pista House haleem costs ₹130 as opposed to ₹18 in 1997. Word spread and demand spiralled. Not only did diners eat at the outlet but they also asked for takeaways. “They got boxes from home as we didn’t have packing facilities then,” he says.

Within two years, orders poured in from other cities. Majeed started selling through outlets in nearby cities, districts and states, beginning with Karnataka. The then prime minister AB Vajpayee tasted the haleem at an event and became a patron. Members of BJP’s local unit regularly despatched it to him in Delhi. That got Majeed thinking. He tied up with India Post in 2002. “We went national. Sales increased manifold for us and India Post earned ₹20 lakh a month,” he says. The honeymoon lasted five years, until the postal department began to courier dishes like biryani by other players. “The focus on haleem diminished. We ended the partnership in 2007.”

In 2012, logistics firm Gati entered the picture, and today it guarantees same-day delivery. After the haleem is packed by Majeed’s team, by noon the consignment is airlifted for delivery to Delhi NCR, Pune, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Coimbatore and Visakhapatnam. Between 1pm and 3pm, it’s despatched by flight to ensure it reaches the destination airport by 6pm. Meanwhile, local units of Gati gear up for delivery. By 7.30pm, the haleem leaves the airport and arrives at the nearest distribution centre in each city. Last-mile delivery begins at 8pm and is completed by 10pm. “We don’t take orders after 8.30am for same-day delivery to ensure freshness,” says Majeed, who charges ₹451/kg for delivery within Hyderabad, and up to ₹651 elsewhere.

“Pure ghee acts as a natural preservative. And we insist on consuming it the same day,” he says. Exports are a different matter though. Haleem boiled at 90ºC and sealed in an airtight container has a shelf life of 18 months.

A majority of Majeed’s customers are Hindus. “We get to eat haleem on many occasions like marriages and birthdays. But for Hindus, Ramzan is the only time they get to relish it.” To cash in on the demand, 2,000-odd students of law, commerce and engineering set up temporary Pista House outlets across Hyderabad. They put up banners and re-heat the haleem in a microwave to earn a share of the profits.

Despite the success, Majeed is yet to find a partner for national operations. “We need to figure out how to expand,” he says. Until his plans are firmed, Gati will ensure that Ramzan and haleem arrive together at India’s doorstep.

Published on July 18, 2014

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