by Gautam Pemmaraju
One fairly nondescript morning a few years ago I found myself headed to Barkas in the old city of Hyderabad to meet my friend, Saleh Ahmed bin Abdat, the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of Al-Jamaitul Yemenia bil Hind, which administers affairs related the migrant community of Yemen, particularly the Hadramaut province of Southern Yemen. As part of an ongoing project, I have been speaking to members of the community for several years now. Barkas, close to the scorpion-shaped Falaknuma Palace, is a corruption of the English word barracks, for it was here that cadre of the Irregular Arab Forces of the princely ruler of Hyderabad, the Nizam, were housed. It was 7 AM and we were scheduled for a shoot with Sheikh Ba’wazir Ba’shaiba, a 76-year-old local resident, who had recently returned from his first ever trip to the land of his ancestors. The septuagenarian, as part of the last ruling Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan’s personal staff, had tended to the erstwhile autocrat of the independent state of Hyderabad till his dying breath. The Sheikh was a Khanazad – one of the many wards adopted by the Nizam to keep him company in his palace at King Kothi. We were late to arrive and consequently missed what was to be a delicious start to the day – a saucerful of Harees, the Turkish/Arabic originator of the more popular Haleem, a thickish, pulpy stew (or porridge) of wheat, goat meat or lamb, and spices.
In his foreword to Lila Zaouali’s Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World, Charles Perry points to the oldest surviving Arabic cookbook, Kitab al-tabikh, compiled in the 10th century by the scribe Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq. The Nabataeans, as the Aramaic-speaking Christians of Iraq and Syria were known, he informs us, contributed significantly to the Arab repertoire of dishes (and terms used to describe them). Perry points out that the pioneering scribe Ibn Sayyar devotes an entire chapter to stews called nabatiyyat, and it is here we see a mention of Harisa, a Nabataean dish: “whole grain stewed with meat until done, and then beaten to a smooth, savory paste.” Interestingly, in this illuminating foreword, Perry also mentions that there is no proscription against meat at all in Islam and ‘this surely explains why meatless dishes were called muzawwaj (“counterfeit”)’.