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A Mexican makes nihari


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—Photo by author

In his highly readable book on Delhi, the noted writer Shahid Ahmed Dehalvi, recalled that nihari was concocted by a hakeem sahib in Delhi. It was meant to be taken at breakfast in winters and was supposed to act as a deterrent to cold, cough and congestion. Sadly, now the hakeem sahib must be turning in his grave for this mouth-watering beef curry is available almost round the clock at nihari joints in Karachi.

Three years ago when I told a friend one evening in Delhi that I wanted to try the Jamia Masjid nihari, he looked at me in utter amazement. He thought I had gone bonkers. “I can take you there tomorrow early in the morning,” he said and then trying to educate me he commented “Nihari means morning.”

Nihari is in one way like the English language, which gained much wider currency since the mid-fifties, almost entirely because of the Americans and their influence. The poor ahle-zaban British don’t deserve credit for that. Likewise, the Karachi walas, who frequent the joints which display the message, “subah nihari, dopahair nihari, sham nihari” (morning, noon and night nihari), have made the finger-licking delicacy popular outside the subcontinent too.

Incidentally, no one ever heard of nihari in what is now Pakistan before partition. It was brought to Karachi by two or three bhatyaras from Delhi after partition. Initially, it was only available in places like Burnes Road and Eidgah where the refugees from Delhi had settled in large numbers. Sabri Nihariwala, on what was once Bunder Road (now MA Jinnah Road), knew the pulse of the public, for he reduced the chillies thus making his speciality less hot, though not less spicy. This worked, his sales went up, and what is no less he saved money on the extra chillies that he was putting in the cauldron. Needless to say, his competitors followed in his footsteps.

Over the years, cooks from other parts of the subcontinent also started making nihari. A few years ago someone recommended that nihari served by a restaurant in one of the bylanes of Tariq Road. “There are two eateries, both displaying cauldrons of nihari, which one belongs to the man from Delhi?” I queried. Just go there, read the signboards and you will know which is genuine and which is fake.

On reaching the place I had a quick look, one said “Yehan Dilli ki asli nihari milti hai”, while the other claimed “Yehan Dilli ka asli nihari milta hai.” The second belonged to a Pathan, whose man by the cauldron was sitting idle though his chapli kabab chap was quite active. I hardly need to tell you how busy was the nihariwala on the other side of the street.

For the more health conscious people, who avoid red meat, a new option has cropped up, they get chicken nihari made at home. With nihari masala available readily not just in Pakistan but in Pakistani and Indian stores abroad, also more people make the dish at home now. They don’t add bone marrow and brain, which the seasoned nihari buffs prefer to have with their dish.

The lower middle class can’t afford this luxury so they opt for the Spartan version. A ‘single’ plate of nihari, carrying a small piece of meat, together with a couple of tandoori nans, costs Rs 30. Every evening, outside some of the nihari joints, you find poor men, women and children waiting for the dish to be served to them by Good Samaritans who pay for 5, 10 or even 25 people.

Three years ago while visiting Chennai, I went to a non-vegetarian restaurant. Its menu proudly displayed, in bold letters, nihari and paya. I ordered nihari happily only to be disappointed – the chef had added coconut milk to mutton nihari, like adding insult to injury.

A couple of months back I went to ‘Nihari House’ in Michigan. It was initially run by a Pakistani, who had married the investor, who happened to be a Filipino lady. They had employed a Bangladeshi cook. The woman found her Pakistani husband a good for nothing guy, so she got rid of him but retained her chef. The nihari tasted fine, but the best nihari that I have ever had outside Pakistan was in Chicago, where a restaurant ‘specialises’ in the dish. When I tried to find out if the chef had come from Karachi or Delhi, I was told he came from a neighbouring country. He was a Mexican, who had been a Pakistani nihari expert’s understudy for a year or so but when his mentor moved to Dallas on a much higher salary, the Mexican took over.

The man learnt to cook nihari, but never bothered to learn English. His colleagues in the kitchen, all from the subcontinent, had to learn Spanish to be able to communicate with him. Knowing the Mexican’s fondness for spices, I asked him if he took nihari home. The question was translated into Spanish and the answer that came was rendered in Urdu. The response, coming as it did from a man who made highly tasty nihari, was shocking – “Ye bhi koi khane ki cheez hai?

The writer, who jointly authored the bestselling ‘Tales of Two Cities’ with Kuldip Nayar and more recently compiled and created ‘Mehdi Hasan: The Man and his Music’ writes and lectures on music, literature and culture. He also reviews books and pens travelogues and humorous pieces, and can be contacted at


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (48) Closed

lover Sep 24, 2011 03:54pm
Lol at the guys response! :D
Agha Ata Sep 24, 2011 07:01pm
How can anyone say such a thing about nihari. The Mexican guy who made nihari must be talking about something else, and then . . . forgot to use the space bar!
Alex Sep 24, 2011 07:23pm
I'm married to a Cypriot. Her first Pakistani food was Nihari from a restaurant known as Shirazi in Chicago's Devon area. She also tried palak ghost, chicken tikka, bihari kabab, biryanies of different types, achar ghost, shami kabab. But Nihari tops the list for her and any other non-Pakistani friends of mine. I cook it myself, like u said the masalas are readily available from the desi supermarkets. Nihari is the best food ever. I can eat it for weeks and my wife can eat it for months. One of my doctor friend told me that u can eat Nihari from outside in Karachi without the fear of germs because it is cooked for a very long period on a high temperature. And it is really really delicious if served with piping hot naans.
Jamil Sep 24, 2011 08:42pm
I have not eaten nihari in Chicago (or anywhere else for that matter) since I agree with the Mexican's chef pronouncement on it "Ye bhi koi khane ki cheez hai". I can, however, vouch for bariyani, also made by an Hispanic chef in one of the restaurants in Chicago's Devon (pronounced Divaan) area. The likes of that bariyani you will not get in Karachi.
Salman Ahmed Sep 24, 2011 08:44pm
Majority of restaurants in Chicago have Mexican cooks, may it be an Pakistani or Indian joint.
Syed Habib Sep 24, 2011 09:16pm
I believe NAHARI is the King of foods
Adnan Khan Sep 24, 2011 10:41pm
Very well written. Excellent read!!
T. Khan Sep 24, 2011 10:47pm
Besides Nihari the Mexican cooks can also make best Naan, Paratha, Seekh Kabobs etc. Actually they are the faster cook than Indian/Pakistani Bawarchis who take a long time to make these dishes to maintain job security. Viva Mexico!
Razzaq Sep 24, 2011 11:04pm
Very good article.But sadly no one in Pakistan can cook nihari as it was done 40-50 years ago.I tried every area of Karachi and found disappointment only.may be the expertise or the real ingredients are no more there.
gt Sep 25, 2011 12:36am
Is Nihari Cafe the place where this Mexican chef works? Could the author please reveal the name of the restaurant? I have an amusing & true anecdote. An Indian Muslim restaurant owner ran a very successful business with the help of his Latin American crew, cooks included, who he had carefully trained in his own recipes. After many years of faithfully reproducing his exact style for customers, they one day invited him to dinner to taste their own rendition of Indian flavors. This gentleman was very curious & expectant about that meal, knowing how talented and expert his cooks were. He was utterly shocked upon being served all manner of "Indian" food that they had carefully and lovingly prepared for him [obviously with much expense: lobster, etc.] but drowned in huge helpings of tomato ketchup within the "masala", sauce, etc.--- their preferred flavor profile!! Yeh bhi koi khaneh ko cheez hai, in reverese!! talented and expert those
khalid Sep 25, 2011 01:38am
Nihari House’ in Michigan, a great combination of cultures.
malik Sep 25, 2011 04:12am
Yea nice response. Some Mexican dishes do taste and look like ours. I have seen them eating 'Aalo gosht' with chapatis and there was no desi retaurant around so they must have cooked it.
:( Sep 25, 2011 04:34am
“Ye bhi koi khane ki cheez hai?” adding insult to injury!
Rizwan Sep 25, 2011 05:43am
Sabri Nihari in Chicago?
Atta mateen Sep 25, 2011 07:03am
That is why I love dawn. What an interesting research, never thought of that
Henry Chu Sep 25, 2011 07:31am
I know plenty of Pakistani restaurants in NY and NJ whose entire cooking crew is made up of Mexicans. The are hard working, cheap labor and get along well amongst themselves.
M Sep 25, 2011 08:15am
You've got your facts wrong! I know the owners of the "Nihari Cafe" in Michigan very well, the Filipino lady and her Pakistani husband opened the restaurant together. They have been and still are happily married for many years, long before they opened the restaurant together as a family business.
Ali Naqvi Sep 25, 2011 08:40am
Fantastic writing,,,,
saleha Sep 25, 2011 09:25am
Oh it would be amazing if you told us what restaurant in Chicago "specializes" in nehari??? I have been studying in US for a while and not tasted nihari for the longest time! I would go to Chicago just to have some!
Ali Sep 25, 2011 09:25am
Once you desi food, no turning back!!
sf Sep 25, 2011 10:14am
Well that is not a surprise, in Chicago a street called Devon Ave is almost taken over by Indians and Pakistanis and there are many Desi restaurants and the cooks in most of them are Mexicans. And in one restaurant known Sabri Nihari a Mexican cook not only cooks Nihari but also Biryani and other Punjabi dishes. The mexicans are mostly illegals and Desis take adavantage of them and also Desi cooks once they get the hang of the business start their own restaurant.
Shabbir Chiniwala Sep 25, 2011 12:12pm
I am an ardent fan of the author and had his book of Mehdi Hasan Saheb from Pakistan and all his articles are worth reading including this one. Keep it up.
prafulla shrivastva Sep 25, 2011 12:21pm
I had one year back Nihari & Nan in a Pakistani Hotel & it was so delicious that I can never forgot its delicacy. I was with one of my colleague Mr.Saleh Khan who was from Saudi Arabia. He took me in another Pakistani Hotel next day where I have tested various other dishes & it was marvelous experience of salad & Kababs. I have tried same once in Abu Dhabi with one Bagladeshi Restaurants but my experience was not good. My two younger brothers live in US & they have nice experience of Biryani in Pakistani Restaurants but they have not tried other dishes as they do not prefer beef.
Muhammad Sajid Sep 25, 2011 02:04pm
The reason Mexican was able to make such a tasty nihari is that they have a dish called "Barbacoa" similar to Nihari.
Maria Sep 25, 2011 02:33pm
Since when is Karachi "all of Pakistan". Nihari might have been brought to Karachi by either Indian Muslim migrants or whomsoever else, I believe Mr. Noorani has forgot an entire province known as Punjab and its capital known as Lahore which is ALSO part of Pakistan. Nihari walas around Lahore, will tell you the length of time they have been "Nihari walas" and for the time Lahoris have had Nihari for breakfast definitely extends much more than the 60 something years of partition. And yes, like the Delhiites, Nihari was strictly a breakfast item in Lahore and still is for most vendors.
kanak Sep 25, 2011 05:53pm
Asif Saab, The Paya you ate at Chennai is not Nihari and as you called it is Paya. It is made from lamb leg roasted on live fire and then cooked in a gravy finished with coconut milk. It is never eaten with Roti or Naan but with Rice Noodles or a rice pan cake called paya which also has fermented coconut water added to the batter. It is a popular breakfast item among South Indians esp. Keralites and Tamils and should not be mixed up with Delhi's Nihari. Thanks a lot for this article which is so much of fun to read and enjoy.
dave smith Sep 25, 2011 06:47pm
The Mexican workers are exploited by all including the Pakistanis. They pay them well below what is required by law. Majority of the restaurants in California, whether there are hamburger(it isn't ham,it was invented in Hamburg,Germany) joints, Italian restaurants, Japanese, Chinese or Indian/Pakistani all have Mexican staff in the back.
Agha Ata Sep 25, 2011 07:30pm
And ... food of kings.
Asim Sep 25, 2011 08:17pm
I wish he had mentioned the name in his article but I am pretty sure he is talking about Sabri Nihari at West Devon Ave, Chicago. They have the best Nihari I've ever had in USA. I often drive 2 hours from Milwaukee just to have that nihari.
Zuhair Abbas Sep 25, 2011 08:30pm
The article reminds me of my early days as a student in UK. After moving into my very own flat, I did not know how to cook anything other than Omelette and Pasta, and so for over a week I lived on sandwiches and baked beans. A cousin of mine from a nearby city then delivered me a huge container of Nihari! which fed me for 12days (twice a day) and surprisingly I didn't grow tired of it! Nihari saved my life, felt like something that I can call mine in a place where everything was new. Oh Nihari, how I miss thee. :(
JPositive Sep 25, 2011 10:14pm
I must say that good tasting real nihari is only found in Karachi on some selected outlets. The other far distant rival is Lahore but I never tasted good real nihari there though some I found claimed to have chefs from Karachi. To be honest and contrary to all claims, for me Karachi is the food capital of Pakistan. I found this by extensively travelling throughout the country and eating all sorts of stuff everywhere.
Sudy Sep 25, 2011 10:16pm
Nihari, biryani etc are not Punjabi dishes. They have a rice dish called chana pulao and some stuff called haresa which I think is from Punjab.
Khalid Sep 25, 2011 10:53pm
@ Maria Lahore has got the tastiest restaurant food in Pakistan - no doubt in it. But Nihari has always been typical to Karachi. I visited Lahore in 1991 and the only place where one can get good nahari was at Anarkali (new) and there was no nihari at all in Rawalpindi at that time.
Ali Ansari Sep 25, 2011 10:58pm
Forget Dehli. Nihari belongs to Karachi. Javed, Sabri and Cafe Zaiqa. In California, try Al-Watan's nihari in Los Angeles area.
longhorn Sep 25, 2011 11:50pm
Mexican staff happens to be part of every other restaurant in the US. Doesn't matter what the cuisine, you look in the kitchen and you are sure to find Latin staff. They are hard working and learn very quick. Most ethnic restaurants also hire them because they do happen to work on low salaries but work twice as hard (specially in Texas and California, the two states that used to be part of Mexico at one point).
Piyush Sep 26, 2011 12:01am
Glad to see that Indians and Pakistanis dont squabble when it comes to the origin of one thing - FOOD ! Thank God no Arabisation in this :-)
Aslam Sep 26, 2011 03:10am
Since I ate Nihari from the cafe owned by the filipino lady in Farmington Hills, Michigan and also in Chicago along with other places in US. I completely agree with the author's statement that though Nihari in Michigan in plenty good but the one in Chicago is the best tasting in US.
khan Sep 26, 2011 05:41am
Z Sep 26, 2011 07:48am
I also know these people...Mashallah se happily married....
A.Cery Sep 26, 2011 08:21am
Wow! How can you compare stringy fried barbacoa meat to Nihari? I would have given you some credit if you had said Mole', but really? ....Barbacoa?
Rafay Sep 26, 2011 09:28am
Yes, you completely missed Lahore where people eat "Nehari, Siri, Paya, Khadain, Boong, Chikar choolay, murgh choolay" and what else all breakfast . I dont know if i can mention the name or not but a very famous Nehari shop in Lahore near mazang fixed his Nehari "Daaig" inside the ground and health department came to know they have not taken it out from the ground and washed it for many years... just keep pouring fresh and tasty nehari in same every day .....still yummy..
Asif Noorani Sep 26, 2011 12:41pm
The Mexican I referred to could not have been exploited. I was told that he dictated his terms because the owner of the fast running Nihari joint at Devon in Chicago had no option.
Shahzad Kazi Sep 26, 2011 07:16pm
What is the name of the Devon restaurant that you mention? is it Sabri or Usmania?
T. Khan Sep 27, 2011 06:50am
Sabir's Nihari is only good through 1/2 of the hot naan. After that it looses the taste, becomes very thick and very filling due to heavy use of flour. Also, none of the Chicago restaurants know how to serve Nihari - Giner is sliced too thick, never serve girlled onion, very little cilantro and lemon. Alas, the days of Nihari at Burns Road, still remember the aroma and the flavor.
Shahrukh kazmi Sep 30, 2011 06:18pm
Sir i think you forgot to eat Javaid Nihari which is Located in Federal B Area, Karachi do visit there whenever you come to Karachi they sell the best Nihari.
ayesha Oct 01, 2011 02:42am
Interestingly, the author mentions that the original Pakistani cook had relocated to Dallas. The day after I read this, I heard a radio ad mentioning that now people need not travel all the way to Chicago to eat Nihari at Sabri Nihari restaurant. They could have that wonderful taste at the Lal Qiala Tandoor restaurant in the Dallas metro itself. Small world.
Nasah Oct 03, 2011 03:12am
As the well wisher of the health of the interactors on this mouth watering blog of Nihari galore I will be derelict in my duty as a physician if I did not caution bloggers incuding Noorani sahib to go easy on Niharis. It is loaded with artery clogging cholesterol and saturated fats.
Ali Zahoor Oct 09, 2011 10:45am
Reading this article is so mouth watering and it was fun to read and especially the pathans version of dilli ka asli nihari .. I tasted nihari for the first time a few months ago in lahore an i instantly fell in love with its taste.. it is one of the remarkable food dish to ever exist in this world and I thank that hakeem sahab from dehli to make this this he is the colonel sanders of India.