There are many roles in which food could play in our social lives. Food has a certain power beyond its physical purposes; not only can it satisfy, but it can inspire, inform and unify people. It evokes creativity and grounds us to our culinary heritage and our land.
In this land of various countries and cultures, food unites us as we all share a similar way of cooking and connecting with our land. We might feel that we are different from our neighboring countries, but once we realize how our food and general social behavior are alike, we might start to appreciate that there really is not much distinction between us all, even with our distant neighbors.
Harissa is a dish very common in Lebanese villages, across its different ethnic communities, where it is usually cooked on religious occasions in a big pot in a village gathering. Additionally, Harissa is used by the Assyrians as a dish on Christmas, and Easter. Harissa is very similar to a popular dish among Arab countries of the Persian Gulf known as Harees, which is made of meat and finely ground wheat.
Harees or Hrissé as we call it in Lebanon is a dish of boiled, cracked, or coarsely-ground wheat, mixed with meat. Its consistency varies between a porridge and a dumpling depending on the country that prepares it. Harees is a popular dish known in the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, especially in the month of Ramadan. The wheat is soaked overnight, and then simmered in water along with meat and butter. Any remaining liquid is strained and the mixture is beaten and seasoned.
Harissa, another very similar dish, is Armenian from the Ararat plain. It is a thick porridge made from korkot (dried or roasted cracked wheat) and fat-rich meat, usually chicken or lamb. Herbs were substituted for meat in harissa when Armenian religious days required fasting and penance. The extremely long cooking process is an essential part of the harissa tradition. Like other ritual dishes, the time taken for preparation is part of its cherished value.
This dish, according to the Armenian traditions, has been passed on since ancient times. Stories differ as to the origins of the dish. According to Armenian lore, the patron saint of Armenia, Gregory the Illuminator, was offering a meal of love and charity to the poor. There weren’t enough sheep to feed the crowds so wheat was added to the cooking pots. They noticed that the wheat was sticking to the bottom of the cauldrons. Saint Gregory advised, “Harekh! Stir it!” Thus, the name of the dish, harissa, came from the saint’s own words. Harissa has been offered as a charity meal ever since. The dish is traditionally served on Easter day. It is still prepared by many Armenians around the world and is also considered the national dish of Armenia.
Harees is documented by Ibn Sayyar al Warraq’s who compiled a cookbook of dishes popular with the “kings and caliphs and lords and leaders” of Baghdad. “The version described in his Kitab Al-Tabikh (Book of Recipes), the world’s oldest surviving Arabic cookbook, is strikingly similar to the one people in the Middle East eat to this day” it reported. Harees was introduced by Arab soldiers of the Hyderabad Nizam’s army to the city 10th-century cookbook Kitab Al Tabikh. Harees is also the origin of Haleem which was thought to have been enjoyed by Prophet Muhammad. Haleem is made of wheat, barley, meat (usually minced meat of beef or mutton or chicken) lentils and spices, sometimes rice is also used. This dish is slow cooked for seven to eight hours, which results in a paste-like consistency, blending the flavors of spices, meat, barley and wheat.
There is a different traditional way of preparing Harees in each of the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf area, and among the tribes of these countries, also in the Middle Eastern countries, like Lebanon. But they are simple difference. For example, in Saudi Arabia, they add cardamom pods (hél). Sometimes it is also decorated with parsley.
Harees was only made by the wealthy during Ramadan and Eid, for the duration of a three- to seven-day wedding. It was, however, customary for the Harees dishes to be shared with poorer neighbors on such occasions.
Harees (called as hareesa locally) is also an essential part of Kashmiri cuisine. Hareesa is a typical Kashmiri winter cuisine made from wheat & mutton and eaten with Kashmiri Bread called Girda. Kashmiri migrants also made this dish very popular in Punjab. This dish is one of the unique dishes eaten in Pakistani part of Punjab as well. Harees is also a popular dish among the Mappila of Kerala calls Hareesa or Areesa. It is also known as Haleem, Hyderabad City being famous for Hyberabadi Haleem.
It really is incredible how the history of one dish can map similarities in food preparation going as far as India, to the Persian Gulf, Armenia, and the Middle East. This journey of love, of sharing, of being charitable, of cooking and feeding, traces us all to one single culture, namely a culture of humanity and love. This universal language to sharing a meal is what binds us all together as one entity. Food for thought, when you are cooking your Hrissé next time!
Interesting clip on cooking Hrissé : https://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_210011209033046
Here is a quick recipe that I cook at home:
2 ½ cups whole grain skinless wheat, soaked overnight
750gm. Beef or lamb shank, cubed (preferably from the neck)
¾ -1 cup melted butter
(I always like to add a little bit more spices so I add ½ to 1 tsp. of cinnamon, seven spices, and sweet pepper, depends on taste, sometimes I add cardamom)
- Put the meat in cold water, add salt and cook on medium heat until the froth appears on the surface of the meat.
- Remove the froth, add the skinless wheat, and cover with a generous amount of water.
- Cover the lid and reduce the heat and simmer for 1 to 1 ½ hours until the meat and wheat are cooked. (for more speed you can use the pressure cooker or what we call in Lebanon Presto)
- Remove the lid and mix the food with a wooden spoon to make it mushy like a grainy purée.
- Blend in the melted Ghee or butter (in Lebanese villages they still use ghee for most slow food cooking) and this is where I add in my spices. Sprinkle at the end with some cinnamon.