Friday, May 25, 2007

Nihari a la Mexican style

From Hindu Business Line

Asif Noorani

On the trail of a century-old hakeem's concoction that straddles the Indo-Pak divide with gourmet relish...

Of all the Pakistani cities, Karachi is inarguably the most cosmopolitan. Nowhere is this better reflected than in the cuisine it offers. One can find niche restaurants that serve from Korean and Japanese to French and Mexican, not to speak of the many Chinese restaurants. Not all of them are run by the Chinese. A recently opened eatery closed down when the owner migrated to Canada. The Pakistani chef opened the new restaurant and looked for a Chinese to merely man the counter. He failed to find one but the restaurant is doing well!

Karachi is the only Pakistani city to offer South Indian delicacies like idlis and dosas, and, of course, has enough gourmets to enjoy the fare on offer. Goan cuisine was once served by the Pereira brothers, who ran a bakery and a restaurant. The two fell out and the restaurant dropped shutters. Later the bakery, which sold succulent chicken patties, closed down too. Now one only gets prawn balchao, which is made by a couple of old Goan ladies, but on a limited stage. But Parsi delicacies, such as dhansak, are available in at least two restaurants.

Vegetarian thali, Gujarati style, has been a favourite of Karachites for a long time. Pioneer Coffee House used to serve it on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, which used to be meatless days, but it closed down when its proprietor Merchant's children migrated to North America. Merchant was an obliging person. When the noted Indian sports writer Kishore Bhimani, accompanying the Indian cricket team on its 1978 tour, was looking for a vegetarian restaurant, I took him to Pioneer. It was not a meatless day but Merchant said he would improvise a veggie meal for his Indian guest. He needed an hour, enough time for the visitor to look for Pathani chappals and audiocassettes of Munni Begum and Mehdi Hasan. The hot meal was ready when we returned and it came on the house! Incidentally, the Karachi Press Club serves good veggies and daal too. But you have to be a member or a member's guest to enjoy the fare.

Bhimani wrote that Pakistan was a nightmare for vegetarians but Ajmal Noorani's house in Karachi was an oasis. My wife learnt to cook the veggies from her mother-in-law and the party that we held for two Indian and several Pakistani journalists threw up a surprise. One half of the table was served pooris and a wide variety of bhujyas, while the other had Mughlai delicacies. No one touched the otherwise mouth-watering biryani and kebabs. We had to quickly make additional dough for the pooris, which were in great demand.

Nihari mania

But if there is one dish that migrated from Delhi to Karachi and became a roaring success then it is none other than nihari, a curry with lots of red meat, a sprinkling of bheja (brain) and garnished with thin slices of ginger. It was concocted at least a hundred years ago in Delhi by a hakeem. It was called nihari (meaning morning) and was supposed to be taken on winter mornings. Initially the chefs from Delhi who opened nihari restaurants in Karachi after Partition served the dish only in the morning but soon they discovered that there was a lot more demand at night, so they offered it for dinner too and even made arrangements for takeaways. Commercial interests prevailed over principles. They also reduced the chillies in the curry and the move paid off. Now nihari is available round the clock at restaurants that remain open 24x7. Even poor people have it, though without the expensive bheja. One nihari joint in an upmarket area has made arrangements for home delivery too.

A few years ago when I was visiting Delhi, a friend asked me what I wished to have for dinner. I said "Nihari", and the man looked at me in amazement. "You have to come to my house early in the morning to have it, which is when it would be available," he said. I didn't want to further shock the puritan by saying that nihari was available in Karachi — morning, noon and night.

Today nihari is also available in most cities of the US and the people who have helped it cross the seven seas are Karachites, and not Dilliwalas. As a nihari-buff I have tried it in Pakistani restaurants in New York, Houston, San Francisco and Chicago, but found the best in a place called Devon Avenue in downtown Chicago, full of sub-continental restaurants and boutiques. The place is called Sabir Nihari House. One has to wait half-an-hour to get a table. But it's worth the wait.

And you know who cooks the nihari? Many prizes for guessing... he is a Mexican, once an understudy of a Pakistani chef. He is an illegal immigrant and, for all you know, he may some day move back to his country and start a nihari joint there. Mexicans take spicy food and nihari has the potential to tickle their palates.

From Delhi to Mexico City, via Karachi and Chicago. What an exciting journey it would be!


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