Given that my name originates from the same root word, it seems a destiny of a sort that I would one day write about nihari, the signature meat broth dish of the Indian subcontinent. Naher and Nihari, both come from the same root Arabic word 'nahar', which means day or morning.
As the name suggests, Nihari is supposed to be eaten at the earliest hour or in the morning, especially on chilly winter mornings for breakfast. Unfortunately, we, the modern night owls, have turned the table and the trend is to eat nihari in the evening now.
A long-braised stew, nihari is rich but not too fatty necessarily, and you should be able to almost taste the slow-cooking when eating the dish.
One of the biggest misconceptions about nihari is that it's cooked only with the 'nalli' or the leg bones of cow, lamb, mutton or buffalo. But that is not the case.
In reality, it can be cooked with any part of the animal that takes a longer time to cook. For example, the shank and the bones. But a balance of meat pieces, bone marrow and meat gelatin makes it rich.
History of nihari
It is believed to have originated during the era of Shahjahan, the sixth Mughal emperor in Delhi, or the then Shahjahanabad. Some believe that it originated in the kitchens of the Nawabs of Awadh, in the latter part of the 18th century during the decline of the Mughal Empire.
Despite the royal association, the dish originally used to be eaten by the general public before it made its way to the royal kitchens. Some believe that nihari was the only subcontinental grand dish that didn't originate in the royal kitchen, as the nihari was not found in recipe books and documents from the Mighal era.
Take 'Ni'matnama' (The Book of Delights), a 15th-century manuscript for example, which features Indo-Persian diet-inspired recipes like paliv (pulao), sikh (skewered meat or fish), yakhni (spiced meat broth), kabab (skewered or roast meat), and even khichri (a dish of rice and lentils), but not nihari.
My hypothesis is this – meat was a frequent component of the royal menu. Korma, kabab, sikh, galauti kabab, etc were royal delicacies that required good, soft and firm meat pieces. And when the pieces were delivered to the emperor's kitchen, the remaining carcass and the shanks were left for the servants or the commoners.
According to Bisma Tirmizi, a Pakistani journalist and a food enthusiast, "The high protein meat allowed for a progressively slow increase in blood sugar and therefore, resulted in decreased cravings throughout the day", hence making it a perfect food to serve the labourers and workers.
The remaining pieces were then cut and in the evening, mixed with spices that were cooked in a large pot or 'daigh', which was then braised for the entire night. The next day, after the fajr prayer, when the workers got ready to go to work, they had breakfast with nihari which gave them enough warmth and energy to work till noon.
Nevertheless, winter is almost here. So, no matter which hour you pick to dig into the rich meat broth, it will keep you warm.
And to weight watchers who hate to eat the meat gelatine saying that's just more fat, you should be glad to know that it's collagen, something you need for tight skin. Before you pick up your retinoids, grab a bowl of nihari and then later you may walk off the excess calories.
How good are nihari dishes served in popular Dhaka restaurants
To me, the perfect plate of Nihari is spicy but not overpowering; rich with a perfect ratio of bone, marrow, meat gelatine and meat. It should be exploding with the right spices that tingle your taste buds, but not so much that the meat loses its flavour. It should be tempered with fried slices of onion and garlic.
Apart from the most common nalli nihari, the nihari alleys of the capital have a few more options – 'gosht' or meat nihari, 'magaz' or brain nihari, 'rog' or meat collagen nihari, mutton paya nihari, etc.
As winter is knocking on the door, here's an overview of niharis from five top places in Dhaka.
Nihariwala, a take-out restaurant, came into prominence after its strong online promotion and promise for delivering authentic nihari taste.
The moment you open the circular lid of their nihari bowl, the bright red oil tempering is the first thing that you will notice. And it reminded me of the famous nihari recipe by Indian chef Ranvir Brar. Although they forgot to deliver the naan we ordered, so we had to order it from some other place.
Currently, they are delivering on Friday, Saturday and Tuesday. You have to pre-order the previous day. They have two packages – a half portion (for two persons), which is priced at Tk800 and the full portion (for three to four people) which is priced at Tk1,200.
But their nihari bowl was so loaded with meat, gelatine and nalli that a half portion was more than enough to feed 3 people.
Half Nihari: Tk800
Full NIhari: Tk1,200
Nihariwala Address: Banani, 1213 Dhaka
Mia Bhai Restaurant
Run by two brothers, this restaurant serves nihari at an affordable price. Every day, starting at 5:30 pm, this place serves the best gosht nihari. And this is the star of the menu.
They serve nihari in steel bowls which is convenient because that way the nihari stays warm for a long time. I sensed the use of store-bought box spice mix in it. Even if it is the case, they did a good job bringing out a good taste that is balanced.
Their Special Beef Nolli is priced at Tk300. Even though you won't find any meat pieces in it, and only a big bone with marrow, the portion is big enough to feed three people.
And if you are on a budget, get the One Gosht Nihari, which is Tk 170 per bowl, and indulge by dipping a butter naan in it. It's worth the price.
Special Beef Nolli: Tk300
One Gosht Nihari: Tk170
Mia Bhai Restaurant: Plot 8, Block-K, South Banasree, Dhaka
Situated on the old Dhaka's aristocratic lane Wari, Peshawarain is a satisfying nihari place that serves good nihari at a good price.
Although the meat quantity in the Tk230 worth Nolli Gosht Nihari seemed not enough, their soup was perfectly balanced, not overpowering at all. The soup was a bit thicker compared to other restaurants. But later I realised that they added flour to thicken the soup which is brilliant in my opinion.
What I loved the most was their naan. It was soft, flavourful and spongy enough to soak up the meat juices perfectly. You can either take out or dine in. But remember, it's a pretty cosy place that they have and by cosy I mean small and it's generally packed in the evening. So, prepare yourself to wait outside for a bit to get an empty table.
Nolli Gosht Nihari: Tk230
Peshwarain Address: Rankin Street, Wari, Dhaka
Grand Chandu Shahi Nihari
Chandu nihari is a nostalgic place for me. During my university days, we used to dine out there whenever we wanted to celebrate something. It's the most student-friendly nihari ever.
But this one disappointed me the most. Not because of their quantity or price. For the Tk160 price, you do get a big bowl of soup and a huge buffalo nalli which is full of marrows and gelatine.
But the moment I started eating the steamy hot soup, I got a taste of store-bought spice mix in it. Not that I hate store-bought spice mix, because those spices are a part of our rushing modern life, but you do expect something that doesn't taste like packaged food.
Maybe I expected more from a 30-year-old Bihari descendant's nihari shop or I wanted to taste the nostalgia. But after checking out all the nihari places of the town, I will not be very tempted to have nihari here again.
They open up at 6:30 pm every day. With the nihari soup, you will get fried luchis here.
Buffalo Nalli Nihari: Tk160
Grand Chandu Shahi Nihari Address: Near Bihari Camp Rd no. 6, Shagufta New road, Dhaka-1216
Maa Shahi Haleem and Nihari
Keeping up with the original tradition, this place is the only one that serves nihari in the morning. Every day starting at 7 am, their special nihari gets sold out by 8 am. And every Friday they have a special Nihari feast that starts at 10 am. While their regular nihari costs Tk150 per plate, the special one costs Tk250.
According to the owners, the old Dhaka once had nihari cooked with nut oils as soybean oil was not in common use at that time. "During the Pakistan period, oil was rationed and it was mostly mustard oil or nut oil that was used. Soybean oil was not so popular. We had nihari that was cooked with nut oil and it was divine," said one of the owners.
Regular Nihari: Tk150
Special Nihari: Tk250
Maa Shahi Haleem Address: Subal Das Road, Lalbagh, Dhaka-1205
Nihari cooking tips from the chefs
Try to cook the dish with mild oils like flavourless vegetable oil, soybean oil or almond oil. Not ghee or mustard oil.
It's best if you can braise it for 24 hours. If that's a bit long, try to keep it on the stove for at least 6-8 hours.
Go easy with long pepper or nutmeg, because it can be overpowering which will completely ruin the taste.
Temper your stew at the end, even if it's with a basic fried sliced onion and garlic garnish. The tempered oil on top adds to the ultimate taste.
Don't omit the coriander and the lemon slice. They do make a difference.
It's best enjoyed with flatbread that is on the dry side. For example, Khamenei roti, naan or tandoori roti work best because the dry, yeasty bread soaks up the soup very well, unlike fried luchi or porota.
The best way to recognise good quality nihari is that it won't be too fatty. So, even if it is kept for a while without heating, it won't curdle up.
Use spices that give warmth to your dish. For example, ginger and garlic, cinnamon, black pepper, long pepper, nutmeg, etc.