This piece was originally published on 7 January, 2018.
If you are a true Karachiite, you know Sabri/Zahid/Javed/Waheed nihari like you do the Arabian Sea. Actually, possibly more.
Ah, nihari! What can I tell you about its magic that you don’t already know — its flavour, texture, aroma, colour and yes, the magic! How did it come to be, and why do we love it so?
In my understanding and love affair with food, and writing, I have come to understand that slow-cooked foods have an enhanced flavour and tenderness unlike the everyday fare at our meal tables, and there is a science behind it.
The silkiness and shine of nihari is not happenstance, it’s the deliberate slow cooking that enhances the hidden composition of the meat-cut used in nihari, and the sheen of melted collagen, which mostly goes unnoticed when cooked as a part of, quick, everyday meals.
Tenderness in meat is the result of the melting of collagen, which is the connective tissue protein present in meat. Once it melts it turns to gelatin, a rich liquid that gives meat a lot of flavour and shine, as well as the silky texture.
However, in order for collagen to completely melt, it must not only be heated, but cooked at low temperatures for extended length, ensuring that slow-cooked meats have a unique and unmistakable tenderness and flavour — rich, deep and soul-stirring, much like our delectable nihari.
Slow cooking works best with fatty, tough cuts of meat like beef shoulder, round or leg, and cooked best when exposed to low heat. The cooking method of preparing nihari remains ancient and unchanged.
The lid of the heavy-based deg was sealed to maintain maximum heat and steam for slow cooking. The meat was braised and then left to simmer in the aromatic and delightfully-spicy essence of masala.
Gently the meat would soak the flavour of the spices as they infused the heartiness of the meat and melted in the heat of the moment. It was almost like one was seducing the other to create the magic of nihari.
Nihari is considered a heavy dish to digest, hence it is best eaten early in the morning so the entire day is available to the body for digestion. For this reason, the dish was christened nihari, a derivation of the Arab word nihar, meaning early morning. Needless to say, it is a national favourite.
Making nihari can seem like a daunting task but anyone can make it as long as the recipe is right and they are passionate about cooking.
1¼ cup oil
5 lbs veal or beef shank with bone
Salt to taste
3 teaspoons garam masala powder
3 teaspoons red chili powder
4 teaspoons coriander powder
1½ tablespoon ginger
1½ tablespoon garlic
1½ teaspoon turmeric powder
6 tablespoons white flour
2 medium onions, sliced (1/4 to 1/3 cup oil for frying onions)
2 Nihari Masala Spices
2 sticks pipli (long pepper)
2 ½ tablespoons coriander seeds
½ teaspoon mace powder
½ teaspoon nutmeg powder
2 bay leaves
2 cinnamon sticks
4 black cardamoms
10 green cardamoms
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
4 tablespoons fennel seeds
¼ teaspoon anise seeds
Grind all these to a fine powder
Fresh green chillies
Heat oil, braise meat evenly on high heat for a few minutes.
Add ‘masala 1’ ingredients to the meat, with the exception of flour and onions, and cook on high heat until meat is evenly coated.
Pour 10 glasses of water to the meat, dissolve flour in four glasses of water and add to the meat, ensuring that the meat is covered with water, adding more if required and bringing to boil.
Add finely powdered ‘nihari masala 2’ to the boiling mix. Lower heat to medium and let the nihari simmer for six to seven hours.
Fry onions until golden brown, add to nihari and cook for another 15 to 20 minutes. Garnish and serve with hot naan. Serves 10-12.
The writer is author of Feast with a Taste of Amir Khusro
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, January 7th, 2017