A plate of nihari is pure joy on a cold, Sunday morning. Or a Monday morning. Or evening. Basically, nihari is the comfort food that’s perfect for any time of day.
I was introduced to nihari, a slow-cooked beef stew, years ago when my taaya jee took me and my cousins to Akbari Road in Anarkali. Upon asking me if I had ever had nihari and then discovering I hadn’t, he remarked in Punjabi, “What have you parents been doing all this time?” He seemed almost offended how for the first two minutes I couldn’t even register the name N-I-H-A-R-I. That’s the side -effect of growing up in Defence. Anyway, soon we ended up at Waris Nihari, a busy and buzzing restaurant. The air was filled with aroma, spice, and ginger, and although skeptical before arriving, I quite liked what I was smelling. Food was ordered and I waited in anticipation of what was to come.
A love affair
Minutes later, food was served. Steaming hot rotis with a beautiful, almost red masala and a huge chunk of beef in the middle. I broke a piece of bread and dipped it into the masala to get a taste. Just when I took my first bite, my eyes grew wide in amazement and I said WOW a million times in my head. I felt a sudden explosion of flavors in my mouth. It was spicy but having grown up in a Punjabi household, I was accustomed to it. I also loved how oily it was, and the masala itself so thick. The beef slid off effortlessly, making my struggles with breaking off meat vanish. My taaya jee directed me to add some chopped hari mirch, lemon, and ginger to the plate – I wasn’t so impressed with the ginger but the chili and lemon juice made all the difference. I was blown away, totes.
From that day onwards I knew I had to have it again, and so I put my mum to the task. The dish is now a regular at our home. I pair mine with some fresh, roghni naan and my parents with khameeri roti. I like mine in beef, but you most definitely can have it in mutton or chicken.
Moving on from how I got acquainted with nihari, I’d like to talk about its rich history. The South Asians that we are, our lives revolve around food. It was no different for our ancestors either. They have given us some of the best in food around the world today.
The name of the dish derives from the Arabic word “nahar” which means day or daytime. It is believed by many that the dish was developed in the Jamia Mosque muhalla of Delhi and was served to nawabs after Fajr prayers. There are also those who contest that claim and say the stew was actually invented in the Nawab of Awadh’s royal kitchen. Whichever is true, one thing is for sure, the shahi households loved their nihari.
Later on, the popular royal breakfast also became very common among the working class. Nihari, with all its protein, was believed to be a source of energy and warmth (for the winters) and would also decrease cravings of laborers working for the nawabs. Legend says it was also a hakeemi cure known widely to treat fever, cold and sinus problems. WOAH!
Post-partition many immigrants from Delhi traveled to Karachi and Lahore and established their own nihari restaurants and some even exist today. This dish, that normally takes 6-7 hours to stew and prepare is still served in those restaurants among many new ones early in the morning. Chances are you won’t get a plate of hot, tasty nihari if you end up there at 11 am. If you ask any of these restaurant owners, each would have their own romanticized narrative of the historical magnificence of how their great, great grandfathers cooked and served the dish all their lives. It’s indeed a treat to listen to them go on and on about their legacy and love for nihari.
Nihari continues to be cooked in a majority of the households (thank you Shan and National masalas!) in Pakistan today. It’s served at modern restaurants and even all over the world for expats and foreigners.
Do you love nihari as much as I do? Let us know in the comments what your fondest memories with nihari are.
Cover image via Asad Sheikh/Pakistan Food Forum