The question that is often asked to me is: what IS the BEST Nihari you have had in your life?
However, the real question is, “WHAT exactly is NIHARI?”
There is a reason why I force people to ask this question, preferably to themselves, because essentially I don’t want them to get confused between the two winter staples I love: Paaya and Nihari.
On one hand, Paaya is essentially a soup made out of trotters, while Nihari comes from the word “Nahar” in Arabic, which means “Day”, indicating at the time of day its best served – right after the first prayer. Nahari or Nihari apparently was popularized by the royal kitchens of the last Mughals. A story suggests that the Nahari was a result of ‘hikmat‘ or ‘Unani‘ medicine – one of the various dishes served to improve constitution, increase bone density, and improve muscle growth.
Which is why, the primary aim of Nihari is to produce a collagen-enriched broth that not only has a wonderful depth of flavour and texture, but is also extremely beneficial for your body. Ideally, the collagen part of the Nihari is meant to do the following: Improve the condition of your skin, nails, teeth and hair, increase metabolism, build muscles, add energy to your body, increase the strength of your joints, and finally, reduce the chance of muscle and tissue degeneration. Given the fact that collagen is so beneficial, its no wonder that a lot of parents want their children to eat a bowl of this before going off to school.
I would not talk about which place makes the best Nihari in town. I find that concept banal, because food is subjective. However, I shall give you a few hints which will help you identify the places making a delectable bowl and some of my favorite places to go.
- The meat should have a creamy, soft texture to it.
- There should be a bit of marrow fat in the broth.
- The texture of the broth should not be too thick or too thin.
- The broth should ideally not taste of flour, or feel too sticky – it should have a lot of collagen though, something that can be quite easily examined by leaving the Nihari to cool down for a few hours – the broth will firm up into a gelatinesque structure (something that was tried on ALL the versions I will be discussing).
- There should be an element of pepper in it, since Nihari is used as a cure for common cold.
Located in Ripon Street, right beside Mezbaan, Bengal Hotel has been around for quite some time now, and come winter time, their Nihari is a bowl of hot, spicy broth, with a good deal of ginger and pepper, and a layer of fat (tari). It is accompanied with a bowl of chopped coriander, chillies, and lemon wedges, which, by the by, is what is common for all four places I will be talking about today. The citrus is present to brighten up the broth while the coriander adds a mild crunch and extra layer of texture and flavor.
I like the fact that their version is quite light and affordable (a half plate in 2018 costs 30/- and a full plate costs 50/-), but there’s a distinct taste of lentils in the background, and I suspect that they add that as well as flour to up the texture. Plus, no visible bone marrow. The texture was good though – a nice bowlful of goodness. I wasn’t a very big fan of the meat though – it was on the bone and not quite soft.
A few doors down the lane, Beeru’s offers up a similar dish – the good news is, this is spicy, far spicier than the milder, more bland affair served at Bengal hotel, and is a decent bowlful on a cold winter morning. Drawback? Too spicy, I surmised, for an early morning meal. I would rather want this on a cold, winter night, the lashings of fennel all too apparent. Again, the meat disappoints – the portion size is better, but the meat isn’t really soft.
In Colootola, you would find a couple of places popular for their incredible bowls of Nihari. As per the waiters of Islamia Nehari, they sell around 300-500 plates of Nihari a day. Priced at around 100/-, theirs definitely isn’t as cheap as Ripon Street’s, but its far superior, especially because of the broth.
The broth is collagen-rich, with a mildly sticky aspect to it that adheres to whatever you choose to dip in it – in my case, deep fried puris, but there is an option to get a tandoori roti or two. Squeeze in some lemon, top with a bit of coriander, and this is definitely one of the best bowls of Nihari to be consumed on a winter morning, when your heart wants something with a bit of a punch – allspice and pepper to light a fire your soul. Bonus: a bit of marrow fat and a piece of tender meat that moistly parts to show off silky gelatinous umami laden goodness.
There is a reason why I kept Sufia for the last. If there is a place I am biased towards, it would be this one, possibly because it checks all the boxes for a perfect bowl of nihari – a broth that’s collagen rich and divine, with the rich, beefy flavours dominating the bowl over the spices – the natural umami flavours of the meat taking over the broth. Incidentally, so does Islamia, but the reason why I love it is because the broth is the star of this show.
The spices here are accompaniments to the rich, meaty stock, while the portions of meat are reserved on one side, mostly from the shank region, and large pieces of marrow bones are carefully burst opened and the contents transferred to the hot broth for an added fatty quotient.
The layer of tari on top is partially beef fat, and the meat is the star. The connective tissues are broken down after slow cooking and resting, that results in super soft meat which retains its shape (because overnight cooking and resting turns the meat collagen into gelatin, which holds shape better).
Add a squeeze of lime and some coriander on top, and a perfectly seasoned bowl of happiness is what I go back for and pack away for home every winter. Whether its with a few deep fried pooris or a crisp tandoori roti or two, the broth is the star here, and that’s all that matters. In retrospect, this Nihari freezes really well, and can be left in the freezer for up to two months without any issue (it doesn’t last beyond 1 week, though, just FYI).
Make that ride in the morning. Wake up, this is worth it.