In the labyrinthine convention center hosting Beirut's annual food-and-restaurant-industry trade show, visitors are crowded around a celebrity chef presenting a modern twist on a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine: three pinkie-size stuffed grape leaves on a plate with a nouvelle cuisine smear of sauce. Suddenly, a word ripples through the crowd: harisa! The chef is swiftly abandoned as everyone rushes across the hall to another counter, where a balding, rotund cook is stirring a pot almost as wide around as he is. Soon, people are emerging from the scrum, triumphantly bearing paper plates brimming with what looks like a gray porridge. But appearances are deceptive: harisa, a mixture of meat, spices and grains, is a dish worth stampeding for.
People have been savoring this slow-cooked sludge for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. Today, harisa or its Persian and South Asian equivalent, haleem can be found from the eastern Mediterranean to Kashmir, a sizable swath of the Islamic world Ibn Battuta explored.
Harisa, however, is not merely a Muslim delicacy. According to food historian and cookbook author Claudia Roden, medieval Andalusian Jews ate it on Saturdays, 20th century Iraqi Jews hired Muslim cooks to pound the wheat and meat for them, and Yemeni Jews make it to this day. In Syria and Lebanon, Christians make harisa to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption. And in Iraq and Lebanon, Shi'ite Muslims make it to commemorate the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein. In the Indian city of Hyderabad, Hindus argue about the best place to get the dish and whether it tastes better with goat or lamb meat.
The faith, like some of the ingredients, may vary, but all harisa has one thing in common: it is meant to be shared. "What's interesting is that you find the tradition of sharing [it] across all the religions," says Anissa Helou, a cookbook author and expert on Middle Eastern cuisine. Helou, whose grandmother used to make harisa for the poor at the Feast of St. Mary in the Lebanese village of Rechmaya, describes it as a "generosity dish."
References to harisa abound in Middle Eastern history. In the late 7th century, Caliph Mu'awiya of Damascus, leader of the rapidly expanding Islamic world, received a delegation of Arabian Jews from Yemen. No doubt they discussed important matters of state, religion and commerce. But according to medieval historians who wrote about the encounter, the Caliph's first question to his visitors addressed something more urgent: Years earlier, on a journey to Arabia, he had eaten an exquisite dish, a porridge of meat and wheat. Did they know how to make it? They did.
The first written recipe that we know of for harisa dates from the 10th century, when a scribe named Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq compiled a cookbook of the dishes favored by the caliphs of Islam's so-called golden age. The version described in his Kitab al-Tabikh (Book of Dishes), the world's oldest surviving Arabic cookbook, is strikingly similar to the one people in the Middle East eat to this day.