It’s hot, spicy and best eaten in the earliest hours. From the kitchens of the nawabs to the bylanes of Kolkata, Nihari has had an umda safar. We dug in
As soon as the morning namaaz ends at Chitpur’s Nakhoda Masjid, long queues ensue at the eateries lining the side of the road on Zakaria Street. With the sun still under the covers, happy, eager faces are seen polishing off plates of delectable looking meat cooked in hot, spicy gravy. By the time it’s 7:30 am, hunger is quelled and the happy faces start going about their work. We let out the gourmands in us and dug in to discover the secret of this happiness.
A morning affair
“Nihari comes from the Urdu word nihar which originated from the Arabic nahaar, meaning day,” said Jehangir Alam from Aminia. Small wonder then that handwritten signs outside the restaurants read: “Nihari available, 5 am-8 am”. “Nihari involves the slow cooking of meat with the stock in large vessels, sealed with dough. Since the meat is cooked overnight over slow fire, these vessels are called shab deg or overnight vessels. About 50 different varieties of spices are used including the usual garam masala, cumin, cardamom, cloves as well as a special type of sea foam,” he said. Though Nihari can be made of mutton and chicken, Jehangir says that it tastes best when cooked with beef shanks. “Since the nihari involves a cooking time of a minimum of six and a maximum of 8 hours, lamb or chicken would easily melt.”
Tryst with history
“Every time one digs into a plate of Nihari, one digs into a slice of history,” said Tariq Bhai of Sufiya, bang opposite the main gate of the mosque. “There is a long line of dispute as to the origin of Nihari. Some claim it originated in Old Delhi during the late 18th century during the last days of the Mughal empire, while others say it was born in the royal kitchens of Awadh,” said Tariq. “Nihari tastes best when had with khameeri roti, naan or phulka. It is said that the Nihari is so heavy on the stomach that in olden days, the nobles ate a plate of it and took a nap till the zohar or afternoon prayers.” That’s why, Tariq says, Nihari is to winter what Haleem is to Ramzan. “Winter is the best time to have it. During summer, Nihari is indigestible!” Digesting the nihari is itself a separate subject, added Tariq. “Har shaqs ka hazm karne ka andaaz alag hota hai,” he said in pure Urdu. “I recall this incident where a young boy who works for the mosque used to eat three plates of Nihari with 15 rotis! He never fell ill. Whereas there were others who will find digesting even one morsel of Nihari a difficult task!”
Ali from New Lucknow Hotel believes that the secret of cooking the best Nihari lies in proportion management. “Everyone buys the meat, the masalas and even the desi ghee from the market but when it comes to producing the best taste, it lies in the hands of the cook and in what proportions is he going to mix the masala in.” Is that a trade secret that differentiates each restaurant’s nihari from the other? “Every mughlai restaurant dishes out the mutton chaanp but few will be able to achieve the finesse with which the Royal Indian Hotel (and he points to the direction where the unassuming two-storeyed restaurant stands) cooks the chaanp. Similarly, every eatery have their own calculation of proportions and only a connoisseur would be able to make out the difference,” he said.
What is their secret of the nihari? Ali remains tightlipped. On prodding, he revealed that only four members from his family know the proportions of the nihari, “Apart from my septuagenarian uncle, the secret remains safe with my sister, my wife and me,” he said.
Know your Nihari Nihari comes from the arabic word nahaarmeaning day. Hence, it’s a delicacy best enjoyed in the mornings Cooked brains and bone marrow are often served to go with the stew of the Nihari The Hyderabad version of the Nihari contains lamb bones and tongue. The Nulli Nihari is made with bone marrow Nihari is cooked overnight in large vessels called shab deg, literally overnight vessels A single plate of beef Nihari will have two pieces of meat and is priced at 60 and is a fulfilling meal for a family of four if had with the Tandoori rotior phulka Claims as to the origin of Nihari is disputed. Some feel that it originated in the Mughal kitchens of Awadh, present day Lucknow while others believe it was first cooked in the 18th century old Delhi To savour Nihari, one must be up early and reach the eatery between 5 and 8 am. Nihari is served as soon as the morning prayers end. Our best bet? Zakaria Street