In celebration of winter’s perfect dish, the mutton nihari!
It’s early morning in Old Delhi: the city is still in a deep slumber, as if exhausted by the night. There’s a sweet coolness in the late October air, and the serenity of the morning is occasionally disturbed by the shouts of pigeon-fliers from the rooftops, calling their birds home.
But in a street named Haveli Azam Khan at Chitli Qabar near Jama Masjid, a shop that sells nahari is bustling with activity. Customers piling up for the first serving of nahari watch the proceedings avidly.
A man sits smoking on a raised platform made of bricks and cement that houses a gas-fuelled tandoor and a daegh — only the neck and the opening of the daegh is outside the platform. Others in the eatery run about cleaning tables, getting the plates in order. A man sits in a corner, chopping gingers and green chilies finely, while another sitting beside the tandoor is making dough balls of the size of cricket ball. After a while, the man on the platform mumbles something and removes the big koonda wrapped with cloth that covers the daegh. A cloud of smoke slowly escapes the large opening. The strong aroma emanating from the daegh quickly travels along the alley. The Shabrati Nahari Shop, which has been serving nahari since 1957, is now open for business.
People standing and sitting on two-wheelers beside the shop now gather around, as the sound of kafgeer (a long iron spoon) striking the daegh resonates across the alley. The owner of the shop, former photojournalist Mohammed Ilyas, explains, “Nahari derives its name from the Arabic word ‘Nahar’ which means early morning. It is a morning dish with a history. One of the specialties of nahari is that it is slow-cooked in a sealed daegh for a long period of time.”
History on a stove
As winter progresses on the morning and evening breezes, colds and coughs become common. Back in the day, the water of the Yamuna surrounded Shahjahanabad (present day Old Delhi) — the city built by the fifth Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan. At the Emperor’s palace, which was built emulating the Quranic paradise, canals ran aplenty. A canal also ran through the main market of the city, Chandni Chowk. Water bodies in the form of hauz were in abundance, and most havelis had a fountain in their courtyards.
Historian Rana Safvi elucidates how nahari came into picture during the early days of Shahjahanabad: “In those days, food was supervised by hakims. Shah Jahan consulted his hakims, who came up with two recipes: for non-vegetarians, a spicy dish called nahari made of buff to be eaten nahar muh (on an empty stomach) in the morning. And for vegetarians, a spicy combination of chhole and bedvi (a form of puri) to be eaten in the morning.” She adds: “Nahari was a working class food, which was also considered good for digestion.”
A refined version of the dish found its way to the royal court. “Nahari was used as an alternative remedy for colds and coughs. The hakims advised royal rakabdars (head chefs) to infuse ingredients such as turmeric and fenugreek seeds in the food as preventive measure for ailments,” says chef Gulam Qureshi of Dum Pukht. “The reason nahari was eaten on an empty stomach in the morning was that it kept the person energised and enabled him to work until the next meal in the afternoon.”
And thus, it became the breakfast of labourers and commoners of Shahjahanabad, since the dish also brought warmth to the body due to its rich ingredients.
“Till some years ago, it was considered a poor man’s food and it was never served to guests at homes. Over the years, it has come to be treated as a delicacy and now it is even served at weddings,” says Sadia Dehlvi, author of Jasmine and Jinns: Memories and Recipes of My Delhi.
In the past, those who excelled in making nahari beyond the formidable walls of the Red Fort were naanbaiyes (bread-makers), and not bhathyaares (cooks). Nahari was purely a winter dish; it was never eaten during the summer and monsoon. In the off season, eateries selling nahari would only make bread. Before 1947, every bylane of Delhi had its own nahari shop. Much before this, when a very small population resided in the city, there were four nahari shops — the most famous was the shop of Ustad Ganje at Katra Neel in Chandni Chowk.
The making of nahari
Now there are only a handful of shops that serve nahari in the mornings. “Nahari is traditionally cooked overnight with large cuts of buff [meat from the lower part of the leg]. Over the years, the way this dish is prepared and its ingredients have changed. Now, every restaurant has started serving nahari during the evenings due to its popularity. And they are compromising on ingredients; they are using tomato pulp which is not a part of the nahari recipe. Cooking techniques have also changed: now they prepare nahari in a matter of three to four hours,” says food critic Osama Jalali.
His favourite nahari eateries are Shabrati Nahari and Saeed Hotel in Ballimaran.
Dehlvi recalls, “In winter, at our ancestral home, every Sunday was nahari day when the whole family gathered for a nahari breakfast in the sun-soaked verandah. The dastarkhwan would be spread out on the floor. The khamiri rotis were warmed on a lighted angheeti (coal stove). As we sat around the dastarkhwaan, each one was handed a plateful of nahari with a bhagar (topping of desi ghee and crisp brown onions). We got the nahari from a small eatery near the Tughlaq era Kalan mosque near Turkman Gate.”
Nahari was a quintessentially Delhi dish; most people elsewhere hadn’t even heard of it. In fact, beyond the walls of Shahjahanabad, the term nahari was used for a syrup given to horses for strengthening their muscles. But today, nahari’s popularity has burgeoned beyond the walls of Shahjahanabad and it is eaten all across India.
Some food connoisseurs in the old quarter of Delhi believe the original nahari recipe has been lost in the tide of time. Many Dilliwallahs left their ‘nests and gardens’ during the Partition of India in 1947. Today, there is no shop in the old city that can claim longevity of its nahari as that of Shabbu Bhathyaare’s shop, which used to be in Farash Khana near Lal Kuan in pre-Partition Delhi. This man claimed to be the seventh generation cook of the shop, which traditionally added gravy of leftover nahari to the fresh batch. Thus, he claimed, his nahari dates back to the era of Mughals.
Dehlvi partly agrees with this theory of the lost nahari recipe,and says that today every house of Old Delhi has its own distinct style of preparing the dish. “From the 18th century onwards, many spices were added to nahari. The Central Asian style cooking used very little spice, but with time the nahari got spicier and spicier,” she says.
Today, every eatery serving nahari across Delhi has a unique taste of its own. The mutton and chicken versions of nahari cooked at homes are quite different. Most restaurants, including the posh ones at five-star hotels use curry cuts, rather than the specific meat cuts required for nahari. In spite of all this, some essence of nahari has withstood the test of time: you can sense it when you have a damnable cold, and you eat desi ghee garnished nahari with chopped ginger, finely sliced green chillies. After a couple of bites, your nose gets watery and begins to run.
The recipe to a delicious nahari by Sadia Dehlvi
1 kg mutton shanks
3-4 tsps anisette
1 tsp cumin seeds
4 tsps dried ginger powder (saunth)
1 blade mace
4 green cardamoms
4-6 small bay leaves
15 black peppercorns
4 black cardamoms
2 tsps garlic paste
1 tsps ginger paste
1 tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp deghi red chilli powder
1 cup oil
½ cup whole-wheat flour
Salt to taste
To remember: When you purchase mutton, tell the butcher it is for nahari so that he prepares large cuts of adla, shank .
Grind all the masala ingredients together to a fine powder in the mixier. Heat oil, add garlic and ginger paste, red chilli powder and salt, and fry the spices with a little water for a minute or two and then add the meat. We use both varieties of red chilli powder because while the regular makes it hot and spicy, the deghi adds colour to the dish. If you want the nihari spicier, increase both the chilli powders in equal proportion.
Leave the meat for 5 to 10 minutes till the water it releases evaporates and oil bubbles rise..Then add the ground masala mixture, cook for a few minutes while stirring the meat and then add 3-4 cups water. You could pressure cook for two whistles or leave on low flame till the meat is done.
The wheat flour is used to thicken the nihari and for enhancing taste. Roast the wheat flour over a tawa, or in another utensil for a few minutes. The wheat should turn slightly darker but not brown. Mix the roasted wheat flour with a cup of water, and make sure it does not form lumps. The water and flour mixture is added to the boiling nihari after the meat is doe. Leave to simmer for five to ten minutes till the nihari is of the right consistency.
However, nihari is best when left for a few hours to mature before serving. I usually take a fistful of golden fried onions and add these to a little piping hot desi ghee and pour it directly on the serving plate so it looks sizzling and inviting. The right garnish for nihari is very important. The traditional way is to keep fresh chopped coriander, finely shredded ginger strips, finely chopped green chillies and lemons cut into quarters all together in a plate. This allows everyone to choose their garnis
Get your nahari here
Kallu Nahari, Chatta Lal Mian (Timing: 5 pm to 6.30 pm)
Considered to be one of the best nahari eateries in Old Delhi, the daegh here lasts for hardly an hour and you must be willing to compete for your plate. The nahari is as meaty as it gets. There’s no seating arrangement here. (Price: Rs 50 to Rs 300)
Shabrati Nahari, Haveli Azam Khan
The best place in Old Delhi to eat nahari early in the morning, though there are evening hours as well. The unique thing about its nahari is the gravy, which is not thick. Try it with cooked brains and bone marrow. (Price: Rs 50 to Rs 200)
Al-Makkah, Gali Captain Wali, Darya Ganj
The newest addition to the list of nahari eateries in Old Delhi, this place’s nahari is not very spicy and thus not hard to digest. Everything about its nahari is precise: spices, thickness of gravy, meat cuts etc. This place serves only in the evenings. (Price: Rs 30 to Rs 200)
Al Jawahar, Jama Masjid
Serves only in the mornings (except during Ramzan). This 69-year-old restaurant’s nahari is made with lamb’s meat. The taste is not authentic — it is like eating any other qorma. (Rs 150 half plate and Rs 275 for full plate, excluding taxes)
Karim’s, Jama Masjid
This restaurant was established by Haji Karimuddin in 1913, who claimed that his forefathers were cooks in the Mughal emperors’ kitchens. The mutton nahari is available in the morning only (except during Ramzan). The taste, aroma and the tender meat of nahari signal fidelity to the authentic recipe. (Rs 326 for full plate and Rs 188 for half plate including taxes)
Haji Nahari, Choti Baradari, Ballimaran
This nahari has the most distinct taste due to its unique gravy. They also serve paya in the evening and the combination of nalli-nahari here will certainly satiate your taste buds. (Price: Rs 30 to Rs 300)
Dum Pukht, ITC Maurya Delhi
Unlike other posh restaurants, the Shahi Nehari (as it is called here) is made here using nahari-specific cuts of meat. It is slow-cooked as it should be, but is quite different due to its Awadh origins. The richness of the nahari is due to the liberal use of ghee to bring out the natural taste of the fat of the meat and its subtle flavours. (Rs 1,950 plus taxes)
Noora Nahari, Bara Hindu Rao
This place serve in the mornings and evenings: the nahari here is meaty and rich. The gravy is thick, full of fragments of meat, and as spicy as it can get. Those with weak stomachs can eat nahari with curd. (Price: Rs 50 to Rs 200)
Javed Nahari Hotel, Zakir Nagar
The most famous nahari beyond the surviving gates of Old Delhi, this is quite similar to the one served at Noora’s eatery in the old city. The owner of the shop, which was established in 1992, hails from the same area as Noora. (Price: Rs 50 to Rs 200)
Dilli Nahari Hotel, Zakir Nagar
Established in 1996. The taste of nahari has declined over the years. (Price: Rs 50 to Rs 200)
Al- Madina, Abul Fazal
Established in 2002, the nahari here is different due to its distinct flavour and creamy gravy. (Price: Rs 50 to Rs 200)
Mubeen’s Restaurant, Akbari Gate, Chowk, Lucknow
One of the best places to eat lamb or buff nahari in Lucknow. It can be eaten with a kulcha that has a tinge of sweetness which goes well with a spicy plate of nahari. This place was established in 1973. (Price: Rs 160 to Rs 300)
From HT Brunch, November 5, 2017
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