The story goes back to two decades ago, when as newlywed and I had just arrived in Karachi.
An aunt ( Phuphi) of my husband invited us for a dinner on some ‘special’ delicacy (in her own words). There were a few other dishes, but all the focus was on the ‘special’ dish.
In the first glance, it looked like a thick curry with some extra large pieces of boneless meatloaves lying in it. Garnished with greens and some baghar, the aroma was appetising, I must admit.
While eating my Phuphi-in-law asked; “Do you know what this is?”
I said, “Some salan (curry) I guess.”
That must have really hurt her. She twisted her mouth with a wicked smile. My husband, too, looked wide eyed at me. So did everyone else present there. They all had that ‘poor her’ expression on their face, which generally Pakistanis had in 1970s, when their austere Indian cousins visited them.
“You don’t know this?” someone asked.
I was regretting to have guessed. It wasn’t the regret of having annoyed the aunt, but of those piercing eyes that were focussed on my ignorance of the dish.
My husband came to my rescue, “Phupho Amma, she isn’t very fond of non vegetarian food. So perhaps she doesn’t have any idea.”
My younger brother in law and a friend teased: “Yeah, bechare Indians don’t get to eat gosht so often, and beef is absolutely a taboo for them. ”
PhuphoAmma charged on me in a mother-in-law tone, “Tum kaisi Dilliwali ho, tum Nihari nahin janteen” (What sort of Delhiite are you, you are not aware of Nihari?)
I screamed before I could check my volume, “Nihari? This is not Nihari.”
Before I could blurt something else, I saw my husband giving me a look to shut up. And like an obedient new wife, I did, but with a huge turmoil within.
Back to our room, my husband assured me that perhaps this was homemade and hence not as delicious as the Khan ki Nihari famous in Karachi. Over a period of few months, we tried Niharis at several places, but I could not find what we in Delhi called Nihari.
I admit I wasn’t very fond of Nihari till then, nor was I really conscious of Nihari being associated with Delhi. In Delhi, I had heard from my father that Nihari is a Avadhi delicacy, from Lucknow.
Anyways I wasn’t a foodie especially for non vegetarian delicacies, nor a culinary expert, nor did I have any ambitions to be one. It was an open secret at home that I had chosen to be a medical professional, so that it would save me from domestic responsibilities, especially cooking. (It turned out to be an illusion, though. But, that’s another story to tell, anyways)
Knowing very well that I was marrying a goshtkhor( meat-eater) Pakistani who was fond of good food, and who’s mother was a culinary expert, I had made it pretty clear to him that I don’t like to cook.
He had in all sincerity reassured, “Anda to fry karna ata hai na? Kaafi hai.”
But as we hunted for the real Nihari, my craving for Dilli ki Nihari became stronger.
After an year and a half when I first visited my parents in Delhi, apart from the million other things on list, one on the top was to go to Jama Masjid and relish ‘the’ Nihari, which is sold right at the corner of Matia Mahal, just a furlong from Dadi Amma’s house.
As the tradition goes, Nihari is cooked from the special shank meat of the beef, with trots in over two dozen spices, the most dominant being the saunf (anise seeds) which gives it the aroma. on slow heat and takes several hours to get tender. Hence usually over night as shab degh. The degh( a giant round bottomed pot) is opened at certain times only –mostly at dawn around 7am or now, even at dusk (at Maghrib). And one has to be there at the right period of time to be able to grab it, otherwise degh lut chuki hoti hai.(It gets sold out fast).
True to its name ‘nihari’ means pertaining to daytime, it is usually eaten at breakfast, at dawn.
Many a times I had seen Dadi Amma or any of the phuphis in the household send one of the shagirds ( disciples who come to her for learning Quran), a night earlier, to keep the pan with the shopkeeper. And as the cook would the degh early next morning, the he would kept aside some in her reserved pot.
The mere mention on phone of my desire to eat Nihari was enough, Dadi Amma promised to keep it reserved for me. I remember her doing the same for us with Shaadi ka Qorma and sheermal whenever any left overs arrived from a kin’s wedding, knowing that we craved for it. (Aah Dilli ka Qorma is another delicacy, not seen anywhere, which deserves another blog).
At first opportunity, we went to see Dadi Amma and others at our ancestral home in Purani Dilli.
Dadi Amma’s place, is a house, typical in the walled city. There is a sehan ( courtyard) at the entrance which leads to a room inside another , both of which used to have spic white chandnis spread wall to wall, and no sign of any furniture.
In addition to sleeping over, eating at Dadi Amma’s place had always been a fascinating experience. With a dastarkhwan( sheet to lay the food) laid on chandni( the spotless white spread on the floor to sit) covered floor across the length of the room. I wonder why, but as kid, I remember vying for a place at the corner of the spread. Some of the senior family members, referred to the plates, in salees-shusta Urdu, as rakabis. And although it had since long become a routine to use glasses for water, there would always be a couple of silver plated copper katoras sitting on dastarkhwan. (Drinking water in katoras (wide bowl) was an old tradition of purani dilli).
That day too, we sat at the dastarkhwan all set to enjoy Nihari. My agenda was personal, while others were eager to see my husband’s response to Nihari. (Thanks to my negative publicity of Karachi Nihari)
With red glazing, aromatic nihari in sight, we waited till the boy brought in hot crispy nans wrapped in newspaper straight from the tan door in the gali, just a few steps away.
The first bite was like a dream come true to the nerve endings of my olfactory and taste buds. But in just a couple of seconds to my tongue, it was a reign of terror unleashed. The poor tastebuds caught fire and laid their arms in the next few bites. As if in a bid to dampen the fire, the eyes started to pour water. But I had to put a brave front, and no matter how hot the tongue burned, the ego stood firm to confirm, this is the true “Nihari”.
All ears, including my red hot ones, were dying to hear my ‘Pakistani’ husband’s reaction on the ‘Indian’ dish. Being courteous, he remarked, “It is delicious, but a bit hot for my liking.”
However, later when we went home, he revealed lightly, that he still preferred his Karachi ki maghaz Nihari. I was devastated, absolutely. But soon rationalised that, perhaps his tastebuds, and his brain cells were conditioned to call that thick curry as Nihari. His loss not mine, I consoled myself.
My ego wanted to have this Nihari more often, though a bit less spicy, so I got keen to get its exact recipe. My mother could not believe her ears that a cooking rebel like me was asking for a recipe. She and a phuphi had their recipes to offer, but they all admitted not being experts in the dish.
It is generally a tradition in purani Dilli that women do not cook Nihari at home and when needed, they just get it ready made from outside. Probably apart from convenience, it is because of the non availability of beef and also that it needs to be cooked overnight. In Delhi we have gas cylinders, not gas through a pipeline like in Pakistan. (In the days I lived there, cylinders too were rationed).
My Dadi Amma’s wisdom guided me to go to Rehmatullah (the cook and owner of the restaurant) and get the recipe from him.
Being in a flourishing business, Rehmatullah, was unwilling to part with his secret recipe. However, knowing that I wasn’t living there, he was kind enough to offer some from the readymade mixture of spice powder, that he prepared for his recipe. He was generous, and his masala lasted almost an year, till my mom found a place which sold indigenous masala.
Repeated cooking over the years for friends and family has given enough expertise and repute of being able to cook what most taste buds recognise as good Nihari.
Now I can claim to have mastered the details of the difference between the maghaz nihari they make in Karachi and the nalli nihari that we Dilliwalas have in Delhi. (However, I wonder, if there was any difference in them, earlier).
And now that the froth of my ego has flattened quite a bit, I am able to accept the Karachi one as a different version of Nihari, which acquired its own distinct character after crossing the border.
Unfortunately, now in Delhi, even the Muslims residing outside purani Dilli do not seem to yearn for Nihari during the breakfast, while in Karachi, Nihari seems to have taken the place of a national dish which is available at any hour of the day and at every corner of the city. But it still manages to retain the tag of being a Delhi dish.
Interestingly, instead of suspecting some secret readymade masala, most of my kin and friends from Pakistan attribute ‘my’ Nihari flavour to my Dilliwala origins.
Even more interesting is the secret, that it was in Pakistan that I was made to realise for the first time that I was a Dilliwali. And thanks to the Dilliwala tag that was thrust upon me , I now love it and quite often brag about it.
PuraniDilli- sketch by Shilpa Wadhwa