"I tore a fold of thick, steaming tandoori roti and folded it between my index and middle fingers. The meat gave way as easily as half-melted ice cream, barely distinguishable from the thick gravy around it. Cumin and chillies and nutmeg and mace and God knows what other spices had become virtually indistinguishable one from another, forged into a single flavour of unparalleled depth and density. When I ran out of roti, I used the sides of my fingers to wipe my plate clean.
On the way out, I saw that the man had left his post and the top had been replaced on the handi. They had already sold out for the night."
An ode to one of my all time favorite foods-originally a breakfast delicacy of Indian Urdu speaking Muslim cuisine from U.P. to Hyderabad Dakkan, and nowadays one of the iconic dishes of Pakistan: Nihari.
It's traditionally made with beef shank cooked on a slow simmer for hours and hours until the meat is so tender it is gelatinous and falls apart when touched gently with a naan. It can also be made with lamb or even chicken. The flavors of the gravy come from browned onions and garam masala, with anise and especially fennel being signature spices that give the dish a distinct perfume. In Hyderabad, nihari is eaten with a flaky 'warqi paraatha' and not naan or rumaali roti. In Lucknow, people prefer it with thick, fluffy kulchas. (It is never eaten with plain daily roti, as it is a special, fancy dish.) In India, I could only ever find it served for breakfast at specialty restaurants. In Pakistan, Urdu speaking immigrants from U.P. brought the dish to their new home (it is not indigenous to any of the regions of Pakistan) and it has taken on a life of its own. Though it is not made by all ethnic communities, and mainly found in Karachi where most Urdu speaking families are settled, nihari is one of the iconic dishes of Pakistan. It is available at all times of day and is a fancy dish for special occasions and Eids. As meat and cooking fuel are very expensive, many people prefer to buy it by the plate at specialty restaurants and the most well-known are on Burns Road and in Boat Basin in Clifton.
In the US, I have mostly enjoyed nihari in peoples' homes. The best I have had in a restaurant was in Chicago on Devon. Not at the famous Sabri Nihari (which I don't think is all that great) but in a place called Nehari Palace.
Nihari is meant to be garnished with fresh ginger shards, cilantro, green chile slices, and a squeeze of lime juice. It is soupy and one sops up the luscious, fennel seed-perfumed gravy with a piece of flat bread. It is an amazing dish, and I highly recommend it.
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