Harees is not everyone’s bowl of porridge. It is undoubtedly one of the most ancient and popular iftar dishes across the Gulf countries during Ramadan – but its gluey, fatty consistency coupled with minimal spicing can often pose a challenge to the uninitiated.
The word Harees comes from the Arabic ‘harasa’ or even older, the Akkadian ‘harasu,’ which refers to the mashing of meat with barley or shelled whole grains of wheat. The bone-in meat is often first cooked separately before combining with the starch, de-boned and then rhythmically pounded into a smooth paste. Food processors have added their own convenient spin to this otherwise laborious bicep-building dish.
If you thumbed through the earliest cookbook to be discovered, the 10th century ‘Kitabh al Tabikh’ (Book of Dishes) by Ibn Sayaar Al Warraq, you would find numerous variations of the porridge: rice and meat, shredded chicken and bread, tripe and stale bread, or roasted and shredded chicken breasts and rice slow-cooked over a brazier. With the protein and carbohydrate components pinned down for this all-encompassing meal, the recipes called for enriching the porridge with butter, clarified butter, fat rendered from ducks, chickens or the tails of fat-tailed sheep, sesame oil, or in some recipes, all of the above. Harees can provide a fully balanced, calorific and communal meal that replenishes your family’s reserves after a day of fasting.
But history and nutritional content aside, I have always found myself nudging harees novices extra hard to give a dollop of the slimy paste a fair taste. One of my British guests once reconciled the flavour of harees at Al Tawasol restaurant in Deira to that of bread stuffing prepared for a festive turkey dinner. While the medieval Arabs might have raised an eyebrow, the comparison inspired other reluctant diners around the traditional majlis to give the porridge a well-deserved second chance. Since then, I have always used that analogy to get harees’ glutinous foot through the door. Bread stuffing is essentially a butter-laden dish of crumbled bread, often drenched in the juices of that turkey into which it is tucked or in a splash of gravy. Similar to harees, it is that comforting combination of fat and carbs laced with meaty juices that is a flavour no-brainer across many Old World cultures.
For those not privy to home-made harees, some of the best versions available commercially are cooked in bulk at ‘public kitchens’ across the country. These kitchens are usually takeout-only operations that serve dishes like harees, biryani and margouga that are typically enjoyed in Emirati households. My mother and grandfather polished off the mild version we brought home from the Tuar Public Kitchen in Satwa, though it took a generous dousing of hot and sour sauce before I was motivated to wipe my bowl clean. This dilution of the dish may seem like sacrilege to harees purists, but I take solace in the fact that the earliest written recipes of harees call for a final flourish of ‘murri,’ the salty, sour fermented sauce of medieval Baghdad.
The litmus test for a good homemade or commercially prepared harees is that it should possess tender threads of meat or chicken running through the porridge, else the cook may have scrimped on the protein and used a higher proportion of cheaper wheat instead. My father-in-law brings home a chicken harees from the Shan Public Kitchen in Al Ghafia in Sharjah that passes the litmus test with ease. Once home, he whips out his secret blend of spices and simmers the pale creamy paste into a rich, reddish-brown pottage. His modified version is greedily lapped up by the family till the last appetizing drop – no hot sauce needed.
Most Muslim cultures prepare some version of harees, especially since many believe that the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) favoured this dish. The Iranians prepare their own version of harees, or ‘haleem,’ topped with cinnamon, confectioner’s sugar and melted butter for a sweet-savoury porridge that I once sampled at the erstwhile Abshar restaurant on Maktoum Road.
If you travel to Hyderabad in India right now, in the midst of Ramadan, you would be courted by countless signs for the Hyderabadi version of Haleem. In comparison to the subtle, classical flavour of the traditional Arabian harees, haleem throws itself onto centre stage like a heavy metal band on fire. Purists would argue that this haleem is really ‘kichda,’ a meat-wheat porridge that is enriched with pulses. But call it kichda or haleem, the restaurant versions display such spice liberalism as to cause all your facial faucets to burst into a spontaneous stream of sweat and tears.
Personally, I find the traditional bowl of harees a notch too bland. The commercial Hyderabadi Haleem is too spicy, often leaving my taste buds in a pile of smoldering ashes. My pickiness arises out of our family’s homemade haleem. My mother’s recipe stays true to the wholesome, nourishing nature of the traditional Arabian porridge, yet with the right fistfuls of lentils and spices to complement rather than overpower the base meat and wheat flavour. Tradition calls for cracking a raw egg over the haleem right before serving; mum then splashes it with bubbling hot clarified butter so that the whites curl up into tender frills around the tender quivering yolk. Served with crisp fried onions, grated raw ginger and a spritz of lime, mum’s bowl of porridge is just right.