Shahjahanabad was a city of emperors and courtesans, kaftans and the Kohinoor, meat and ghee. This morning I set out searching for its past splendor. The ancient alleys of Matia Mahal bazaar, under the watchful eyes of Jama Masjid, are redolent of morning meals. Kesar-flavored milk. Sewai. Jalebis. Soon a rich, meaty aroma tempts me. This must be paya-nihari. But it is burra — Buffalo meat. A true nihari carries the upper thigh of a cow. In its absence, I will have to resort to goat instead.
The quest ends at Jawahar Hotel. A no-frills eatery, it is teeming with breakfast people. Men in skullcaps and pajamas are supping on paya and nihari. The cashier claims that Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated the restaurant sixty years ago. Hence the name. As we chat, the steward appears. Nihari (Rs. 90) and paya (Rs. 90) are glistening in a pool of oil. The roti (Rs. 3) is fresh off the tandoor. The extra plate of lime wedges, chopped chillies, and slivered ginger completes the meal.
The boneless mutton nihari is supple and succulent. The garlicky gravy, liberally spiced with javitri and dhaniya, is hearty. Its warmth is believed to have restorative qualities. Each bite of the tender flesh is infusing the flesh with a vigor that easily explains why nihari came to be traditional a morning food for the ‘working-class’ men. This zesty delicacy pumps in so much strength into the body that a labourer or a rickshaw-wallah can carry on with the hard manual labour of the day without any lunch.
Ironically, nihari originated in the genteel dastarkhwans (a low dining table) of Muslim Delhi, before it percolated down to other classes, following the decline of the Mughal Empire.
Like the nihari, paya (or trotters), is also a satisfying winter dish and prepared in a similar fashion — simmered overnight in a stew until the marrow is softened and the bones free of gelatin. At Jawahar Hotel, the cooks start their nihari preparation in the freezing cold of the night. They leave at sun rise.
In my portion, the chunks of meat (so soft they instantly melt in your mouth) have already parted from the bones. Yet, I lick off all the juice from the latter. The stew is also so fulfilling that it is a meal in its own right. I use the last piece of khameeri roti to polish the plates clean of the remaining broth. This was truly a kingly breakfast that has outlived the kings.
Where to find nihari-payas Street Stalls in Matia Mahal, Jama Masjid (Bura nihari available between 6am-10pm); Jawahar Hotel 9-10 Matia Mahal, Jama Masjid (23269241; 7am-11am) Karim’s 16 Gali Kababiyan, Jama Masjid (23269880, 7am-9pm); Kallu Nihari Shop No. 80, Chattan Lal Mian, Jama Masjid (6am-7:30am); Haji Noora Near Hindu Rao Hospital (7am-9am); Haji Shabrati Nihariwale Shop No. 722, Haveli Azam Khan, Jama Masjid (6am-9am); Saeed Nihari Baradari, Ballimaran (6am-10pm)