What are winters without nihari for meat eaters? The word nihari comes from the Arabic word nahar which means morning. Traditionally, this soothing meat stew is considered to be a breakfast item, or the first meal of the day, and eaten after the morning Namaaz. It used to be served with khamiri roti, a version of Indian sourdough bread cooked in tandoor, which soaks up the gravy for a flavourful experience. Now, many restaurants pair it with the sweetish sheermal, which balances the spicy nihari and enhances the meal. Even though nihari means morning breakfast or a dish eaten in empty stomach (nahar muh in Urdu) preferably in winter, it is now available through the day irrespective of the season. Nihari mureed (fans) go to great lengths, including travelling to other cities, to try this piping hot, fresh-out-of-the-pot, flavour-packed dish.
A standard recipe calls for veal or buffalo meat roasted and cooked in mustard oil with spices like black pepper, nutmeg, mace, and dried ginger powder. It is left to simmer overnight on a slow flame; and was traditionally cooked on a wood-fired stove. The slow cooking process helps break down the meat, fat, and gelatine, which blend with the spices. In the morning, a slurry of whole wheat flour is added to thicken the gravy, along with ghee and spices like red chilli powder and sliced ginger.
Late Sadia Dehlvi mentioned in her book, The Jasmine and the Jinn, that nihari is rumoured to have originated either in the back alleys of the Jama Masjid in Delhi and cooked for the workers engaged in the construction work of Shahjahanabad in the 17th century (1639 and 1648) under the rule of Emperor Shah Jahan.
I grew up in Jharkhand and Bihar, and our nihari or paya is a light stew that one would consume only in the bone-chilling winters. It does not have a thick consistency and resembles a bone broth, topped with lots of chopped fresh coriander, consumed with a squeeze of lemon and served with khamiri roti. For me, nihari has always been a morning affair, but the walled city of Old Delhi taught me differently. People’s love and commercialisation of the dish are unparalleled; the larger the number of mureeds, the more degh (cauldrons) of nihari will be served.
Mohammed Umair, the third-generation owner of Hilal Hotel in Gali Madarse Wala, Old Delhi, says his sales go up during winter as this dish helps people keep warm and is considered to fight common cold. This is the theory my mother believed in too. Ingredients like black pepper, turmeric and bone marrow are the three ingredients that outweigh the other spices in the dish.
Umair says, "We start preparing nihari in the night, and by morning it is ready. A delicious nihari tastes even better when the back legs of the animal are roasted in ghee." A plate of nihari, 40 years ago costed about ₹12 and now it is ₹240 (approx). Even though the prices have gone up, the Hilal Hotel still serves almost 4,000 people every day, from morning to evening.
In the gullies of Old Delhi, a plate of nihari, irrespective of the establishment, has chunks of meat from the legs or neck served with the delicious gravy. One can ask for bone marrow, bones (nalli), brain (bheja), or hot melted butter on top, but be ready to pay extra for any additions.
My quest to explore nihari took me to Nai Basti in Agra, where Tahir Ahmed from the Agra Heritage Walk guided me to the Mughal Nihari Centre, a second-generation nihari shop managed by Mukhtar Sahib. The shop opens at 5 am to serve customers and closes between 11-12 am. I reached here at 6.30 am, because Tahir mentioned, “the earlier one comes, the better the nihari.” In Agra, a pot of nihari contains everything from nalli, feet and meat, which are considered additions and come with extra charges in Delhi. I also appreciated the lack of butter tadka on top.
Tahir says Mukhtar Sahab is like a hakeem; bring your pain, and he will give the cure through nihari.
Compared to the nihari I tried at Hilal Nihari in Delhi, the version at Mughal Nihari Centre in Agra was light, the use of spices was minimal, and the focus was completely on the quality of the meat. The pink, melt-in-your-mouth meat was in a thin gravy and did not coat the back of my palate, even though we ordered a plate with bone marrow. Both places claim that the meat was cooked slowly, and not pressure cooked, because they followed a recipe passed down from their father or grandfather. It is the spice blend that distinguishes them.
Needless to say, restaurants and food joints have a secret sauce that they don’t share. There is one such secret preserved by the bawarchis of old Delhi that prominent food writer Dehlvi mentions in her book. She says taar (leftover nihari) is used to top up the fresh batch to add a mature flavour, and age-old shops boast of an unbroken nihari taar going back to more than a century. It’s a tradition that remains alive to this day.
Where to find the best nihari in Old Delhi and Agra:
1) Hilal Hotel, Gali Madarse Wala, Old Delhi
2) Haji Shabrati Nihari Wale, Chitli Qabar, Old Delhi
3) Noora Nihari, Bara Hindurao, Azad Nagar, Old Delhi
4) Javed Ki Famous Nahari, Zakir Nagar,Old Delhi
5) Shaukat Bhai Nahari Walay, Mantola, Agra
6) Asif Bhai Nahari, Shaheed Nagar, Tajganj, Agra
7) Mughal Nihari Centre, Nai Basti, Agra