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?”
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