Wheat, Meat, and Time: The Morning Magic of Iranian Halim | TASTE

Persian haleem recipe in slow cooker

Video Persian haleem recipe in slow cooker

Many of the tenets of Iranian cuisine go against what we think we know: burning rice (the crispy glory of tahdig); braising herbs normally used as a side dish (the sour fleshiness of ghormeh sabzi stew); or eating them as a salad instead (the “eating herbs” of sabzi khordan). Enter halim, a lamb-wheat breakfast porridge garnished with butter, cinnamon, and sugar; Think of it as a cousin of tasty oats, congee or polenta. Halim gives us two new broken rules: puree meat and develop gluten.

There are dozens of variations of halim prepared throughout Asia, from Turkey to the Indian subcontinent, though it always takes the form of a mashed wheat or lentils (in Cooking in Iran, the latest book by Iranian cooking queen Najmieh Batmangij, she adds chickpeas to the mix to give it a new twist). The Iranian version is eaten at breakfast in the winter for a real stick to the ribs to start the day. The ingredients are wheat, meat, and time, so most Iranians outsource halim brewing to restaurants, queuing up the night before to buy their breakfast (in the morning, it reheats like a charm). Although halim looks like an unpretentious beige puree, it is fully infused with the taste of lamb and wheat nut, mixed with stirring cinnamon and sugar and with an elasticity that clings to the spoon almost similar to French cheese and potato aligot.

The best halim I’ve ever tasted wine from a restaurant not in Tehran, where my family is from, but at Taste of Persia on West 18th Street in New York, where owner Saeed Pourkay operates a stall selling Iranian soups, stews and rice in front of an unpretentious pizzeria. Because of the work involved, he only does halim once or twice a year; I visited his shop after seeing the halim bat sign on his Instagram. I ordered a bowl, confessing to Pourkay that I hadn’t minded halim as a child, and covered my bet by covering it with cinnamon and sugar. I also ordered a bowl of his signature dish, the reshteh of ash from herbal and noodle soup: I love ash reshteh more than many things in this life, but he sat and cooled down while inhaling halim.

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Turning wheat and meat into a puree is a multi-step process. As in many Iranian recipes, lamb pieces are braised very simply in water, perhaps with a little sliced onion, until they are completely tender. (Turkey is another popular choice, but with less fat and flavor, I’ve never seen the point.) Halim requires peeled wheat (also called pearl), since the absence of the outer layer of bran allows to gently puree cooked grains. Middle Eastern specialty stores are your best bet for finding peeled wheat, but if all you can find are wheat berries in their whole grain form, cook them for a long time (a slow cooker makes it easy), then run them through a food grinder to separate the stringy skins.

This is where we get to those broken rules. You might be able to imagine a version of halim with a tender lamb lying swimming in a sea of wheat grains. But the hallmark of a perfect Iranian dish is that it is ja oftadeh: “fallen into place,” the truly married flavors. When you think about it, if the lamb is completely tender, is it so important to go a step further and separate it completely so that its flavor permeates every bite? And while it feels strange to make mashed wheat, which develops the elastic gluten that any cake or cookie recipe tells us to avoid carefully, in this format it’s essentially homemade wheat cream, but with much more personality.

In an era before kitchen electronics, this meant furiously churning the lamb-wheat mixture with a wooden spoon as it bubbled to break it all down and get that characteristic stretchy texture (this could take all night, you’d really need a hearty breakfast like halim after all that work). Today, a food processor or portable immersion blender does the job very well.

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Everything falls into place after a final boil, and then it’s a matter of keeping the halim warm (I love halim, but cold and elastic porridge is very different from hot porridge) and garnishing it. Butter, cinnamon and sugar are magical on toast, and here they work too, combining the bitter touch of cinnamon with a redemptive glow of sweetness to liven up what is directly a tasty bowl of porridge. (Mixing sweet and savory is common in Iranian stews; the reason the meat is cooked separately at first is to prevent the final balance of flavors from becoming cloudy.)

Back at Taste of Persia, full of joy over this dish I had previously discarded, I scraped my clean bowl as another Iranian man walked in from the street. His face lit up when he saw Pourkay’s menu, and he said in Farsi that he hadn’t eaten halim in years. Was it part of the menu regularly? Only once a year, Pourkay said. The man replied in wonder: Che shans avordam!

What luck!

Main photo of Cooking in Iran: Regional Recipes and Kitchen Secrets by Najmieh Batmanglij © 2018 Mage Publishers. Other photos by Antonis Achilleos.

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