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Apr 10, 2012 07:50 AM

And God Made Nihari

"I tore a fold of thick, steaming tandoori roti and folded it between my index and middle fingers. The meat gave way as easily as half-melted ice cream, barely distinguishable from the thick gravy around it. Cumin and chillies and nutmeg and mace and God knows what other spices had become virtually indistinguishable one from another, forged into a single flavour of unparalleled depth and density. When I ran out of roti, I used the sides of my fingers to wipe my plate clean.

On the way out, I saw that the man had left his post and the top had been replaced on the handi. They had already sold out for the night."


An ode to one of my all time favorite foods-originally a breakfast delicacy of Indian Urdu speaking Muslim cuisine from U.P. to Hyderabad Dakkan, and nowadays one of the iconic dishes of Pakistan: Nihari.

It's traditionally made with beef shank cooked on a slow simmer for hours and hours until the meat is so tender it is gelatinous and falls apart when touched gently with a naan. It can also be made with lamb or even chicken. The flavors of the gravy come from browned onions and garam masala, with anise and especially fennel being signature spices that give the dish a distinct perfume. In Hyderabad, nihari is eaten with a flaky 'warqi paraatha' and not naan or rumaali roti. In Lucknow, people prefer it with thick, fluffy kulchas. (It is never eaten with plain daily roti, as it is a special, fancy dish.) In India, I could only ever find it served for breakfast at specialty restaurants. In Pakistan, Urdu speaking immigrants from U.P. brought the dish to their new home (it is not indigenous to any of the regions of Pakistan) and it has taken on a life of its own. Though it is not made by all ethnic communities, and mainly found in Karachi where most Urdu speaking families are settled, nihari is one of the iconic dishes of Pakistan. It is available at all times of day and is a fancy dish for special occasions and Eids. As meat and cooking fuel are very expensive, many people prefer to buy it by the plate at specialty restaurants and the most well-known are on Burns Road and in Boat Basin in Clifton.

In the US, I have mostly enjoyed nihari in peoples' homes. The best I have had in a restaurant was in Chicago on Devon. Not at the famous Sabri Nihari (which I don't think is all that great) but in a place called Nehari Palace.

Nihari is meant to be garnished with fresh ginger shards, cilantro, green chile slices, and a squeeze of lime juice. It is soupy and one sops up the luscious, fennel seed-perfumed gravy with a piece of flat bread. It is an amazing dish, and I highly recommend it.

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  1. Terrific reading. I haven't had an opportunity to really indulge in a good nihari since leaving Chicago -- your article makes its absence, that much more felt.

    1. I've had this twice. It's memorable enough that I can place where and when, even though it's been years. One was at a 'hole in the wall' in Seattle calling itself 'Kabab house' or something like that. The other was in Orange Co (California) on a business trip. The restaurant was busy setting up for a wedding reception, and we were the last regular customers of the evening.

      I should make something like this next time I cook shank. One of my favorite shank preparations is peposo, one of the few hot Italian dishes. That heat comes from generous amounts of black pepper. That too is best when cooked until the meat is fall apart tender. Supposedly it originated with tile makers cooking the stew overnight in their cooling kilns.

      1. Have never seen or even heard of nihari, but it sounds delish. I must add it to my repertoire.

        6 Replies
        1. re: Perilagu Khan

          Please do.
          I can't count the number of times I've written "Nihari" in those "favorite foods ever" lists that sprout up from time to time. If you like BEEF flavor, and Indian spicings, Nihari is tailor made for you. I described it once as this:

          "I'm pretty sure I now have a budding new obsession. Even if this version I had would probably be called "bush league" by nihari enthusiasts, I think I now understand how this stuff can be good. I now feel this urge to go try other versions poste haste to see what all the fuss is about, but this version brought it on. This stuff was delectable. My mouth is watering just thinking about it right now, and I'm not even kidding. Juicy, tender, BEEFY chunks of whatever stewing meat they used, in that super spicy, and wildly fragrant sauce. This stuff definitely "tasted like more." The fragrance of the sauce hits you like a freight train, then the mouth watering starts in after a few chews of the beef elicits that tangy sensation, and then the fiery heat sets in, and it all gets rounded out once again by that heavy beef flavor you can only get with those stew cuts. THIS is what the fuss is all about. I'm officially aboard the nihari train."

          LuckyFatima ain't lying (not that luckyfatima ever does) NIhari is insanely luscious, rich food. Most I've had have a bright, up front star anise kick. I find that the Shan brand Nihari masala is acceptable for home concoctions, but you definitely have to cut the amount of the spice mix they recommend in HALF and then boost it with fresh flavors of ginger, and chilies (but, what's new.) I highly suggest anyone try nihari at least three times. If you like beef, heat, and Indian spice profiles, it is one of the great treats, imo.

          1. re: gordeaux

            Though I haven't tried it myself, a lot of people I know like National Brand Nihari Masala and prefer it over Shan's version. Whatever you use, you would end up just using 3 tablespoons or so and then adding in your own garam masala, more fennel, star anise, shahi zeera, or whatever you like. You should also get the meat from a halal South Asian grocer to make sure it is cut up best for this recipe. Just ask for 'nihari beef' and ask for extra bones.

            1. re: gordeaux

              No, Aunt Fatima does not lie. Not about food, anyway. ;)

              Be that as it may, I wonder if a roast of beef could be used in place of the shank, which I cannot acquire easily. Sure, it won't be the real McCoy, but I'd like to think it could be a good approximation.

              1. re: Perilagu Khan

                Actually some people do just use any cut of meat. In Hyderabad people use goat including tongue, foot, and brain in a similar way and also call the dish nihari. You could use goat shank instead of beef, but any stewing beef that softens to a very tender consistency when low-and-slow cooked will do well. Shanks has that connective tissue that releases collagen and gives that gelatinous stickiness. Perhaps some other cut that yields those kinds of results would work best.

                1. re: luckyfatima

                  I think my father would sometimes make nihari with what was probably brisket (large, boneless slab of beef). Bone-in beef added flavor and richness, but for us, the star of the show was the really tender meat after hours of braising and the bright spicing. However he made it, I remember it was my mother's favorite Desi dish and she, not being Desi, would sniffle and sigh her way through every spicy, but satisfying bite.

                2. re: Perilagu Khan

                  no, i'm afraid not. Roast beef is to be roasted and sliced. It does not have the fat running through it like stew beef- that enables it to fall apart and get creamy. sorry. but it doesn't have to be shank. Brisket, oxtail, shortrib will all fall apart if cooked long and low.

            2. I just had to make a pot of this stuff after the article. Came out pretty well, if I am permitted to praise my own cooking. I skimmed off a lot of the oil so there is no oil slick on top. Sacrilege, I know. But trust me it is still pretty fatty, it's unavoidable.

              10 Replies
                1. re: luckyfatima

                  sounds amazing. are you sharing the recipe? would love to see it--thanks!

                  1. re: luckyfatima

                    You have reminded me that I have 4 thick shanks in the freezer that I bought specifically for nihari. Think it's time to defrost them. Hopefully I don't have any more Shan left so I can go buy the National Brand to try.

                    1. re: luckyfatima

                      I wonder if you have any comments on making this in a slow cooker? My thoughts would be to make the recipe and then throw it into a slow cooker? I know you would not get a major reduction in the liquid so maybe that would not concentrate the flavours? Would the temperature be too low that after adding the flour you would have a pasty taste? Any thoughts on this would be most appreciated?

                      1. re: tunapet

                        I actually make it in a slow cooker. It makes more steps, but it is safer and easier to leave the house/not worry about bottom of pot burning when you do the low-and-slow simmer of the meat in a slow cooker. You can do it with a recipe of your choice, I would share one but I don't really measure the spices so I can't properly do so. But here is what I do: First, brown meat in hot oil. Remove, then add ginger-garlic paste to the oil and fry, then add my red-fried onions that I keep frozen. If you are doing the red-fried onions that day, you should do these first, strain from oil and set aside or brown them first, then add the g/g paste. Then add your meat back in, add your spices and fry for a few moments. Then turn off the heat. Add in your yoghurt if you are using it (not everyone uses yoghurt in nihari so it depends on your recipe). Stir well, it will be hot enough to cook the yoghurt a bit but it should not separate. Then dump all of this in the slow cooker and cover with water, just enough to cover the meat. Too much water=flat tasting broth for your nihari. Let cook for 8-10 hours. Remove meat and set aside, toss away bones you have used, keeping any marrow from them to add into the broth. Strain broth through a sieve and throw away an solids (spice bits, undissolved onion) left in the strainer after mashing them down with a spoon. (At this point you could chill the broth to remove some of the fat. When closer to serving time, Fry some chickpea flour and white flour in oil. (some recipes call for cornstarch so you would skip this 'roux' step if so). Mix in the broth in a way that would not allow lumps to form. (I usually whisk the 'roux' and broth in a separate bowl, but if your broth is warm, you can just add it in the pot and whisk. Allow to come to a boil and thicken. Add in meat and finishing spices and allow to cook on very low heat for a little while longer to let the flavors mesh.

                        So you see, crock pot just lets you not have to babysit the flame on the stove but it is still a lot of work.

                        1. re: luckyfatima

                          Thanks so much for you reply...Just got back from the Indian market with a couple of kilos of meat and bones....Nearly came back empty handed thou...told the guy I wanted some meat to make Nihari...clutching Spice box in one hand...and he told me he was all out..and did I know you had to cook this for hours, etc. Lucky for me my husband said I made excellent curry, my Haleem was fantastic but had just heard about this one and was rather excited to try it out...He then remembered that he did have some that I could have and went and cut it. I guess the thought of the meat being ruined was too much for him. :) So looking forward to cooking and tasting this dish...

                          1. re: tunapet

                            Great! I hope it turns out successfully and you enjoy it!

                      2. re: luckyfatima

                        Could you please post your recipe for this? Pretty please with beef sshank on it?

                        1. re: buttertart

                          I will have to make it and measure next time, I don't feel comfortable posting an untested recipe based on guesstimations...I tried to google a recipe in English that is similar to mine but I couldn't find one. I see you here often enough so after sometime I will post one and hopefully you will see it.

                          1. re: luckyfatima

                            I'll have an eye out for it. Thanks a milion.

                      3. At some of the local Pakistani snacks-and-sweets shops in the DC area, it is made on weekends along with a few other specialties. Always a great meal. (though maybe my standards are not as high as yours?)

                        Now I must have some THIS weekend.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: Steve

                          Same where I am. It always seems to be a weekend "special" - although one very large and popular restaurant in the metro area always has it on offer, along with dishes such as haleem, paya and ojri

                          1. re: Harters

                            Nehari is a Lahore dish, cow is not made in hindustan in this fashion... Karachi is not known for this either...