Gourmet Secrets: Kill the chill with a steaming bowl of meat-laced nihari this season
Nihari is something very special in the history and repertoire of Moghlai food in India. I remember going to Hyderabad many years ago in winter…waking up at the crack of dawn and taking a rickshaw to the Old City around the Charminar to try a breakfast speciality from a large cauldron called nalli nihari. This thin, slow-cooked soup of trotters and tongue I was told, had been simmering away all night and was a Hyderabadi breakfast dish I had to try. Nihari involves the slow cooking of meat with stock in a large vessel. Since the meat is cooked overnight over slow burning coals, the vessel it is cooked in is called shab deg or overnight vessel. About 50 different spices are used including the usual whole garam masala - cumin, cardamom, cloves and so on, as well as a special type of sea foam. Though it can be made of mutton and chicken, nihari is traditionally made with beef shanks. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I remember being truly disappointed with the end result. The prohibitive cost of the raw materials and the amount of time and energy needed for authentic Hyderabadi dishes make it impossible for any restaurant outside uber luxury hotels and with the exception of grand homes, to reproduce the dishes well. If you are invited to a Hyderabadi home for dinner, never refuse.
Nihari comes from the Arabic word nahaar which means ‘early in the morning’. Nihari could include trotters, koftas and even goat head (siri nihari)! In Delhi Moghlai or Muslim food can still be found all over the old and what is called the ‘Walled City’ in the areas of Turkman Gate and Jama Masjid. Dishes like siri nihari are mopped up with baquerkhanis (large Afghan style bread baked in a tandoor) or khameeri roti. I discovered a tiny hole in the wall eatery opposite Kali Masjid where this delicious roti, soft on the inside and crispy on the outside is still made. Nihari though traditionally cooked all night, is now available all day long and way into the night in the walled city. According to Sadia Dehlvi, a writer and food historian, who can trace her ancestry back to the ‘gulli kuchas’ of the walled city, “a unique aspect of nihari is that a few kilos from each day’s leftover is added to the next day’s cooking. Called ‘taar’, it is believed to be responsible for the unique flavour. There are some nihari shops in Delhi that boast of unbroken taar going back more than a century”. Nihaari and shabdehg, another slow cooked mutton curry containing mutton pieces, koftas, chunks of carrot or turnips, are always ordered from professional cooks.
Dishes like shabdegh, nihari, paya, haleem continue to remain dishes exclusive to winter months. The meat used for nihari is from the hip joint and the accompaniments are cooked along with the beef magaz (brain), nalli (bone marrow) and zubaan (tongue). It is garnished with slices of lemon, finely sliced ginger pieces, chopped coriander, chopped green chilies and freshly ground garam masala.
There is another nihari I have since discovered in ITC hotels and upmarket Moghlai restaurants, places where you generally run up a healthier bill but can still enjoy the authentic flavours of what these dishes must have been like. Involving prize cuts of meat and hours of cooking with the best spices, the nihari here is a huge well chosen shank of mutton with the most delectably soft meat which falls off the bone in a pool of fine salan or gravy. The spices used are gentle, the garam masala, wherever used, is fresh and the gravy or sauce is sublimely smooth without a trace of any ground spice. Some claim this version originated in Old Delhi during the late 18th century during the last days of the Mughal empire, while others say it was born in the royal kitchens of Awadh. This version definitely demands an afternoon nap!
I am proud to say that I have been associated with the popular and very successful Bombay café in London, Dishoom. I helped create the menu and concept for the first one in Covent Garden six years ago. The menu by and large has stayed the same and so has the consistent high quality. New to the menu on this trip I discovered nihari, which is only available at the Kings Cross branch. It’s the brainchild of corporate chef Naved Nasir. I was impressed. It combines a traditional and very refined “curry” with a superlative (and quite large) shank of lamb. It is both flavourful, authentic and yet doesn’t have that familiar layer of oil on top which you often find in Indian restaurants. I could eat Dishoom’s nihari every day (well if I was a size 4). The lamb just falls off the bone and the spice is effective but not alarming. There’s soft brain in there somewhere too and the gravy or salan is velvety with the grainy masalas having been strained out. Ex ITC Chef, Abhijeet Berde and I cooked up a storm in Hong Kong a couple of years ago as part of the India by the Bay festival. I did the chutneys, coastal dishes and dessert and Abhijeet took care of the starters, nalli nihari and Kashmiri morel pulau. I remember him toiling and straining and cooking way into the night over three days just over this one dish. It seemed an awful lot of trouble. Naved shared his recipe for the same dish with me. It’s so simple and appears so quick that I may even attempt it. Served with a fluffy naan, lime, sprigs of fresh mint and coriander fried onions and juliennes of ginger as it should be, I am reminded of an article I once read where the writer said that you often find better quality Indian food in London than in India. I dismissed it as rubbish. Now, I almost believe him.
Dishoom nalli nihari
75ml mustard oil
4 whole cloves
3 cardamom pods
1 bay leaf
350g (around 4) white onions, peeled and chopped
1 kg lamb shanks (6-8 pcs)
1 tsp salt
2 tsp mild chilli powder
1.5 teaspoons turmeric powder
3 cloves of garlic, crushed to a paste
Thumb-sized piece of ginger, paste
100ml Greek yoghurt
500ml lamb stock (or water)
Few drops Kewda (pandan or screwpine) water (available from Asian supermarkets)
50g gram flour
½ tsp garam masala
Sliced green chillies
Crispy fried onions
Fine matchsticks of fresh ginger
Fresh mint leaves
1.Warm a large saucepan over a medium heat and add the mustard oil. Add the cloves, cardamom and bay leaf and let them crackle for few seconds.
2.Add a third of the onions and fry until golden.
3.Add the lamb and salt and sauté on medium heat for three to four minutes.
4.Turn the heat down to a simmer. Add garlic and ginger paste and half a cup of water. Mix everything, layer remaining onion, red chill powder and turmeric powder. Cover and leave for 15 min on very low heat. Mix everything and simmer for another 20 minutes or until onions are completely soft.
5.Add the yoghurt and cook for a further five minutes on high heat, until the fat leaves the yoghurt.
6.Add lamb stock or water and simmer on your lowest heat for 30 minutes or until the lamb is tender but not falling apart.
7.Remove the lamb pieces and strain the sauce through a sieve, discarding the pieces and keeping the stock. Add the garam masala to the stock. Skim the extra fat from top.
8.Heat the butter in a separate pan and add the gram flour and cook for one minute, stirring constantly. Add a small splash of the stock, and continue to stir constantly to get back to a smooth consistency. Repeat this until all of the cooking stock is added and you have a thickened, smooth sauce.
9.Return the lamb shanks to the sauce and let it stand. Finish with Kewda water (if using).
Author Bio: Culinary expert and explorer Karen Anand has been writing extensively on the subject of food and wine for 30 years. Apart from having her own brand of gourmet food products, she has anchored top rated TV shows, run a successful chain of food stores, founded the hugely successful Farmers Markets, and worked as restaurant consultant for international projects, among other things. Her latest passion is food tours, a totally curated experience which Karen herself accompanies, the first of which was to Italy.
This is a fortnightly column. The next edition will appear on December 17.
From HT Brunch, November 26, 2017
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