And God Made Nihari

It is more than a mere dish. To this gourmet tourist, it is the axis that holds good while everything else is in a swirl
Soul Food
NURTURING TRADITION Kali Mahjeed Ki Nihari, touted as the oldest nihari shop in Delhi
DOWN TO THE MARROW The precise origins of the delicacy are shrouded in  mystery, though most agree it appeared  first during the period of Mughal rule in  India, maybe 350 years ago

It is more than a mere dish. To this gourmet tourist, it is the axis that holds good while everything else is in a swirl The lanes OF the Nizamuddin basti unspool around the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, dotted with stalls selling roses and copies of the Quran, travel agents advertising journeys to Mecca, and many, many butchers. Beef hangs red and white from their doorjambs, and dogs gnaw at discarded marrowbones. It is a declaration of difference from the wealthy, Hindu neighbourhoods adjacent, the Biblical lamb’s blood on the lintel.

For several months in 2009, I came here almost daily, guided by my friend Kamaal Hassan, a lifelong basti resident. On Thursday nights, Kamaal would take me to the dargah to hear the devotional songs of qawwals, sung in this place for the last 700 years, and to Sufi meeting houses in dim rooms down anonymous alleys.

One night, he took me to try nihari.

The temperature had climbed quickly, heading fast toward the 440 intensity of Delhi spring. Heat and human bodies seemed consubstantial. People had become dense clots of humid shadow, bleeding at their edges into the lurid, yellow and green light cast by storefronts and stalls, and diffracted like halos by dust suspended in the turbid air.

Just where the basti’s easternmost lane begins to merge with the broader roads of the upmarket Nizamuddin West colo

ny to the south, a crowd—distinct from the Thursday night rush at the dargah itself—had gathered around an unmarked threshold. Here, an old man tended a giant handi and sizzling tawa, turning fresh rotis with Sisyphean determination onto an always-diminishing pile.

Kamaal and I took the last open table—at the back, and far from the comparatively cool outdoors. The only ventilation came from a wall-mounted fan, buzzing incompetently in the corner, and probably circulating more dust than air. Soon, a metal dish of nihari clattered onto the tabletop, an unattractive brown sludge studded with marrow beneath a translucent layer of red grease that seemed, in my already overheated state, more like a warning than an enticement.

Kamaal’s soft face twitched into a grin. “Nihari,” he indicated the dish. He raised his eyebrows and nodded: “Makes you strong.”

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.

+++

Three years later, and 1,400 km south, I sat in the crowded dining room of Noor Mohammadi restaurant on Mohammed Ali Road, Mumbai. The kitchen here churns out 80 kg of nihari each day, and has been a neighbourhood institution since its opening in 1923.

Hidden in the shadow of the JJ flyover, Noor Mohammadi has two notable features apart from its food: a pair of goats tied out front (waiting, a Chor Bazaar merchant told me, for the ritual slaughter of Eid al-Adha), and an original MF Husain. The late artist, the story goes, was so impressed by a meal at Noor Mohammadi that he left an original sketch as a gift for the owner, one master’s tribute to another. One art dealer reportedly offered Rs 5 lakh for it, but he was rebuffed. The drawing still hangs in its rightful place over the cash register.

Nihari here is the stuff of legend. Far from its native land, the dish’s origins are shrouded, if not in mystery, then at least in some serious doubt. I asked my server, Ali, where the dish originated.

“Delhilucknow,” he slurred the two names into one, conjuring a new city out of India’s northern plains.

“And what about its history?”

Ali smiled and waggled his finger. “History not available,” he said. The most anyone knew in Chor Bazaar was that the dish had originated under the Mughals, the last period of Muslim dominance in Indian history. And while Mughal heritage is both present and tangible in Delhi, in Mumbai—a city of post-Mughal emergence—that heritage is temporally, spatially and culturally distant.

So in the days following Holi, I returned to Nizamuddin, where Mughal archways are built into brick walls, and small Sufi tombs lie half-hidden under beds and chairs, quotidian objects rather than historic landmarks.

+++

It was a Thursday night again, the night of the saint’s ‘Urs’, when we returned to the Nizamuddin locality’s last lane. My favourite grubby food hall had closed a year earlier, so Kamaal led me past a steaming handi up the front stairs of Monis Kada Hotel. “This place is famous for its nihari,” Kamaal told me as we took our seats, again toward the back. “One night I had to wait half an hour just to sit down.”

Owned by Nadeem Qureshi, a former butcher, Monis Kada opened in 1999 and almost immediately eclipsed all of Nizamuddin’s other nihari-wallahs. “The four best restaurants in Nizamuddin are all owned by Qureshis,” Kamaal told me, including, as it happens, my erstwhile nihari joint next door, owned by Nadeem’s uncle.

Like many Muslim families in North India and Pakistan, the Qureshis have their own recipe for the dish, and the preparation served here at Monis Kada was substantially the same as the one served to me by Nadeem’s uncle three years earlier—fragrant with garam masala, infused with black and green cardamom, and, like all good Delhi nihari, punishingly spicy.

On our way out, Kamaal and I stopped to speak with the heir apparent to the Qureshi food dynasty, Nadeem’s son Sufian, who tended to the steady stream of customers from behind the counter. According to Sufian, the Qureshi recipe requires 32 different spices and cooks for nine hours. Usually, the 40 to 50 kg of nihari disappear within a fraction of that time. At beloved Old City vendors, like the elusive Kallu Nihari in the bylanes of Daryaganj, it sells even faster.

Like the Old City itself, nihari, Kamaal and Sufian agreed, originated some time during the reign of Shah Jahan.

In those days, the meat would cook through the night and be served early for breakfast. The name of the dish, in fact, originates in an Arabic and Urdu word for ‘day’: nahaar. Originally, Sufian claimed, “It was made for royalty, for Mughal kings.”

Eventually, the royal iteration of the dish went the way of the dynasties that spawned it, adopted instead by poor labourers who ate the heavy meal in the early morning to sustain themselves through the hours of work ahead. Today, most people prefer to eat nihari for lunch or dinner rather than breakfast, but at the walled city’s most traditional nihari stands, workers still gather at dawn, a tradition unchanged for centuries.

+++

Standing by the steaming Qureshi handi, it is tempting to imagine the present-day Nawabs of Nizamuddin Cuisine as the descendents of those first royal cooks, their special blend of 32 spices identical to those used in the marble halls of Shah Jahan’s imperial capital. And here in Nizamuddin, where the past is bricked haphazardly into the present, where memory (fanciful and porous and deeply true) trumps history, time really does collapse like this. In Old Delhi and Chor Bazaar, too, the past and present have stewed together for so long that they are indistinguishable.

In these proud neighbourhoods, kites and pigeons still dot the sky, family recipes are maintained across centuries, and old structures, both physical and social, survive despite the giddy growth of the cities that surround them. In guarding these living traditions, these neighbourhoods also guard their extraordinary power not merely to connect the present and past, but to make them seem simultaneous. History, as Ali said, is ‘not available’—because it is here, right now, set in front of you on a silver plate.

It strikes me as fitting that one of the most popular variations on nihari is made with the nalli, bone marrow, our innermost part. Neighbourhoods like Old Delhi, Chor Bazaar and Nizamuddin are the marrow of their cities, no more ‘real’ than the sparkling residential enclaves around them, but closer to the fading past. And traditions like nihari, nurtured through generations, are nothing less than the marrow of these neighbourhoods.

When devotees enter the Nizamuddin Dargah, they often describe their feelings in terms of connection. They refer to the saint as a ‘qutb’, or axis, connecting them to the divine. My first experience eating nihari was of a kind. Rather than connecting me to divinity, that dish became my qutb for a place otherwise changing at a confounding rate.

Change, after all, is what cities and people work for. Poor labourers that we are, we need tradition to sustain us.