Riffat Zaidi, orthopedic surgeon at Miles Memorial Hospital in Damariscotta, has vivid memories of his mother making haleem in the month of Muharram.
He recalls her sitting down with a mortar and pestle to ground the husks off the barley by hand. She even let Zaidi and his siblings have a go at it. Apart from having it in the first Islamic month, Zaidi’s family also made Haleem in Ramazan.
Talking about Ramazan, the 55-year-old said, “The idea of fasting is to control your urges but after 19 hours without food, the tendency is to cook many dishes and binge in the evenings. On top of that, many of the favorite foods for breaking the fast, such as pakoras, are fried. As a result, a lot of people actually gain weight during Ramadan.”
Zaidi and his wife have made a conscious decision to lighten up their meals so instead of making 10 different dishes every night like many Pakistani families do, they only make one nutritious dish, and usually it is some kind of soup.
“We said we are going to have soup for our break fast, our iftar, because it has all the good things,” he said. “There’s a little bit of protein and a lot of vegetables.”
The 55-year-old surgeon showed how to make haleem from scratch, and said that it was a very ‘historic dish”.
Wearing his surgical gloves, he got two types of barley to simmer on the stove and left some goat bones boiling to make a broth.
Working from memory, Zaidi chopped onion and garlic, grated ginger and added spices to the goat broth. He also tossed a handful of coriander and a bunch of brown mustard seed.
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When asked how much water he put into one of the pots, he replied, “Just enough. The only thing I measure is salt because you don’t want to overdo it.”
Further, Zaidi also explained the kind of food made during Ramazan. “We make all sorts of things for Ramazan. The most popular things are the fritters, the pakoras. They’re unhealthy … but they taste awesome.”
When asked about how he came to love cooking so much, Zaidi answered that he learned to cook during the days of his medical training in England, where the food was “really horrible.” Zaidi practically lived at the hospital, working extra shifts. As a Muslim, he could not eat pork and he is allergic to seafood.
“I couldn’t cook when I went to England,” he said. “What happened was, as I trained as a surgeon, I realized that if I were to survive, I had to cook. Initially everything used to taste the same.”
“The first time I went home to Pakistan, I was asking my mother all these questions I had, and my father was sitting there and he said ‘Well, you haven’t actually talked about being a doctor. The only questions you’ve discussed are cooking.’ ”
The doctor is now quite adept at cooking and he is also working on a cookbook and has gathered many of his mother’s recipes to include in it.
“This is Berber goat,” Zaidi said as he added the meat to a pot of browned onions. “The thing to know about goat is the goats that have a lot of hair, their meat doesn’t taste as good.”
“Everybody grows up with a slight variation of haleem,” Zaidi said. “They think that’s the original one. If you go to the northern part of Pakistan, they’ll make it slightly different. If you go to the southern part of Pakistan or India, they’ll make it different. In Pakistan, it is traditionally made with beef.”
Zaidi worked in Pakistan for a time before moving his young family to the United States, but he returns regularly to visit family and do charity work. When an earthquake in 2005 left millions of people homeless, he visited three times, bringing with him $60,000 in relief funds raised here in the states, as well as physicians and nurses from Miles Memorial.
Further, when major flooding hit in 2010, he said, “we collected money to build a village of 320 homes, and two schools for girls – for girls only, and we are still running those – and a couple of mosques.”
Zaidi usually takes the whole day to make haleem but this time he speeded up the process and completed it in three hours.
Then the whole family sat down to eat, Rifat and Tasneem, their son Sammy, their daughter Izzy, and Rahaan Ansari, a medical student from the other Newcastle – in England – who is living with the family while he trains in orthopedic surgery at Miles Memorial Hospital.
Serves 10-12, with plenty of leftovers
FOR THE STEW:
1 cup hulled barley
1 cup pearl barley
1 cup yellow split peas
½ cup red lentils (masoor dal)
½ cup yellow lentils (moong dal)
1 cup white lentils (urad dal)
½ cup olive oil
1½ onions, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon red chile pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon pepper
2 large serving spoons Greek yogurt
1 garlic clove
1 teaspoon grated ginger root
2 pounds goat meat
FOR THE BROTH:
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon grated ginger root
3 or 4 cloves garlic
4 green cardamom pods
2 black cardamom pods
Generous pinch brown mustard seed
2-3 broken pieces cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
3 dried chili peppers
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon dried thyme
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FOR THE GARNISH:
Onion pieces, fried in oil until crispy and dried on a kitchen towel
Soak the two barleys, split peas and lentils separately in water overnight. The next day, fill a large pot with water, enough to cover the barleys by 2 inches. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer until the mixture thickens, about 45 to 60 minutes. Add the drained split peas and the lentils and continue to simmer for about an hour.
Meanwhile, to make the broth, add goat bones to 4 quarts of water, bring to a boil, then lower heat to a moderate simmer. Add the coriander, ginger, garlic, the cardamom pods, mustard seeds, cinnamon, fennel, chili peppers, cumin, salt and thyme. Continue to simmer.
Returning to the stew, heat a 3- to 4-quart, heavy-bottomed pot and add the olive oil. Add the chopped onions and fry until golden brown. Add the salt, red chile pepper, paprika, turmeric and pepper to the pot and stir. Add a little water if necessary to keep the onions from burning, but not enough to bring the temperature down. Stir in the yogurt.
Crush a garlic clove and add to the goat meat, along with the grated ginger.
Add the goat meat to the spiced onions in the heavy-bottomed pan and stir frequently, continuing to sprinkle water in the pot. Cook the meat for 15 to 20 minutes.
Pour the goat broth through a colander into a bowl to separate out the spices and bones and add the strained broth, along with the goat meat mixture to the pot of grains. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer – stirring constantly – until the haleem thickens and sticks to the spoon. Total cooking time should be about 4 hours. The stew can also be transferred to a slow cooker to cook overnight on low heat.
While the haleem is cooking, prepare a platter of garnishes for the table. Serve the haleem in bowls, and allow each diner to top his or her portion with a little of each garnish.
This article originally appeared on Portland Press Herald