All photographs by Amal Bilal
All photographs by Amal Bilal

Launching a nihari-only eatery in the beginning of summer is not a gamble everyone would take.

One would have to be either really confident about their nihari's taste or just a really reckless entrepreneur as this royal feast is usually a winter favourite.

It's 2:30 in the afternoon and the temperature outside is 40 degrees as I head to Delhi Darwaza - The Nihari Shop located on the ground floor at Beverly Centre, Blue Area. It’s the eatery's first anniversary and 24-year-old Taha is meeting me a day before Ramazan to share his success story.

Where to go

This 12x60ft eatery is adorned with portraits of Mughal emperors and royal palaces on coral pink walls; a blend of red bricks complements the black wooden chairs and benches with blue muzak terracotta tiles. Dilli Darwaza can cater to only 26 customers at a time, so it's take-away for most people.

As I enter the small setup, I was surprised to see the place packed to capacity. It was even more interesting to see the diversity of its nihari-loving clientele. I spotted a multinational company's CEO with a client, a family visiting from USA sitting in burmudas and flip flops, a gym freak couple in their track suits and a few youngsters, savouring the different varieties of nihari on offer.

“A teacher suggested that I consider a opening a start-up when I was in my third year at university. Once I got my degree in business administration, I knew what to do,” begins Taha. “I was 23, fresh out of university with zero experience in the food business, so yes, I was nervous."

The investment and idea was homegrown. Taha's father agreed to put in capital. In order to avert risk, they decided to start off with a single item on their menu — nihari, prepared according to Taha's mother's recipe. Given the dearth of decent nihari places in Islamabad, there could not have been a better option for the trio.

“10 days into opening last year, we were running into a 30- to 40-minute wait for the customers and that too in Ramazan. These customers could have opted for ten other restaurants in the same vicinity, but they were all craving nihari," he informs with a grin.

When to go

On normal working days, Dilli Darwaza opens at 10am and closes at 10pm.

This Ramazan, Dilli Darwaza opens at 6pm and the crowd reaches its peak at 11pm. The rush continues till Fajr as sehri ends.

What to order

Nihari at Dilli Darwaza offers four options in beef and one option in chicken.

“We cook 10 to 12 kilos of beef nihari every day and two kilo of chicken nihari. The beef nihari base is the same whereas it’s the add-ons that differentiate the taste and price from the other options,” explains Taha.

Nihari Aam is their signature nihari, whereas Nihari Khas is with nulli (bone marrow), Mughlai Nihari is with maghaz (brain) and Shahi Nihari comes with both nulli and maghaz toppings. The seasoning, ingredients and masala proportions are all same.

The chicken nihari, which is called Raj Nihari, carries the same ingredients but cooking time is much shorter and taste differs due to the meat difference.

A sizable chunk of beef in a bone china white plate sunken in golden brown gravy looked more like a steak cooked from Kobe beef. The texture of the meat intact, garnished with julienned ginger, mint leafs and desi ghee (organic oil) all over the gravy, was itself a testament of a perfect platter.

The sesame seed nans arrived piping hot in a jute basket as I squeezed lemon on the piece of beef shank. Upon the first bite, you realise the recipe really has a mother's touch. A perfect amalgamation of ingredients, moderate spice level and tender stew beef, it was too good to be true.

“The best feedback I get from my customers is that there is no heartburn or heaviness after eating this nihari,” informs Taha and I totally vouch for this. It was due to his persistence that I agreed to try a few bites of the other nihari options.

The Mughal Nihari was rich and thick in gravy. The maghaz complemented the gravy really well, while the chicken nihari was simpler in taste. The juices oozing out from beef chunk can't be compared with chicken meat and that is why the gravy tastes different.

Since I had used my spice quota, Taha waved to the server for dessert. A clay bowl with Kheer Khas and another jute basket but this time with squarely shaped pieces of meetha nan with sour cream was placed in front of me. The kheer tasted alright; it wasn't as thick and sweet as I expected. However, the meetha nan blew me away. Crispy and thin on the edges, baked in unprocessed brown sugar filling and garnished with funnel seeds and a touch of gold.

Damage on the Pocket

Given that it's located in one of the more expensive commercial hubs of Islamabad, the prices are a bit on the steep side for a plate of nihari. To top it all, the eatery doesn’t have a competitor as most nihari houses are in Rawalpindi.