Dispatches: Nihari Redux

Last week, Abbas posted a little video I made of a journey to Karachi’s Burns Road to have one of my very favorite foods, nihari.  So I thought I would supply some more information about this gastronomic epiphany.

Nihari is a dish of spiced, braised meat that has achieved sentimental status for many Pakistanis and Indians.  Shanks, which can be beef, lamb, or goat, are simmered overnight in a broth flavored with red pepper, black pepper, garlic, mace, coriander, and other spices.  Often they are left to braise in a pot covered in embers to maintain an even and low temperature.  After six to eight hours of simmering, when the shanks have tenderized, the cooking liquid is thickened and flavored with fried onions, and the finished stew is served with chopped coriander, minced green chilies, slivered ginger, lime wedges.  It is eaten with plain fresh naan, usually for breakfast or brunch – especially after long nights for its restorative qualities.  I think its combination of deeply flavored, earthy meat, the fresh zest of the toppings, and the perfection of a proper tandoori naan is one of the greatest bites there is to eat.

The nihari shops of Karachi and Lahore do bustling business, but mention it to many expatriate Pakistanis and you will hear consecutive sighs.  (I hold that Pakistani nihari is better.  Why?  Because Pakistan is better.  Kidding.  It’s because it’s best made with beef, which is uncommon in India.)  Good nihari is not commonly available in this country.  The great wave of Indian restaurants that colonized the US and Britain, mostly run by Bangladeshi entrepreneurs starting in London’s Brick Lane and New York’s Sixth Street, denatured a group of regional dishes into a standardized scale of chili heat: vindaloo, jalfrezi, do piaz, madras, etc.  Nihari, a much more singular dish, didn’t make it into this list, and is thus only found in restaurants catering to South Asian immigrants, and even then usually only available as a weekend special.

The number of cultures that have restorative dishes made from long-simmered, gelatinous cuts of meat served with fresh seasonings makes one wonder about the possibility of a universal index of deliciousness.  In Mexico, so similar to the subcontinent in ingredients and general approach to cuisine, there is goat’s head stew as well as  the great hangover cure, posole (hominy corn in pork and chicken broth topped with fresh radishes, lime, and salsa).  In Italy, osso buco combines braised lamb shanks with gremolata, or lemon zest mixed with chopped parsley.  In Turkey, tripe soup is a weekend brunch special.

The shanks, or lower legs, of cows, lambs and goats have richly marrowed bones surrounded by a ring of stringy, tough meat.  Opposite in texture to more usual star cuts such as tenderloin, shanks require long cooking to become edible and also contain large amounts of gelatin.  That’s why they are usually used in luxury Western cooking for stock.  But shanks, like many humble cuts of meat, have enjoyed a popular renaissance with the vogue for peasant foods.  So maybe it’s time for nihari to take its place alongside osso buco and barbecued ribs in the list of foods considered by gastronomes as honest and authentic regional delicacies.  As Abbas mentioned, I bet Anthony Bourdain would love it.  For many Pakistanis and Indians, it occupies that place already: its rarity in restaurants only contributes to its aura.  You might say that in the social imaginary it represents the streets of home themselves, in all their remembered specificity.  Taste, memory.

With most such foods, the genius of the place supposedly cannot be transported – if you’re meant to taste authenticity, you can’t take it with you.  Here is the point in the story where I’m supposed to admit that my grandmother cooked the greatest nihari, or that I fondly remember youthful trips to the nihariwallahs of Burns Road.  That would go along with the mythologizing impulse that we often give in to when talking about such talismanic foods.  I’d rather use the example of nihari to rebut that idea.  Actually, I tasted it for the first time at the age of about twenty at my aunt’s house, in Baltimore.  I was immediately hooked, and started cooking it for both my family and anyone else who expressed an interest in trying it.  Surprisingly, it was quite easy, and the results were always good.  There were a few early periods where I ate it every day for a week.

It was only in 2004, when I visited Pakistan for the first time in ten years, that I had the chance to try the real deal.  And so I toured the famous specialist shops (in case you’re going, I especially love Zahid’s of Saddar, Karachi and the little shop outside the Lahore’s Lahori gate, where my mother and I had a memorable lunch).  So for me the dish doesn’t hold the kind of retrospective nostalgia it does for many people.  So just as I think it’s a bit silly to wait in line for two hours with a bunch of trainspotting foodies to have a slice of Di Fara’s admittedly delicious pizza, I think one shouldn’t overly romanticize a foodstuff’s most legendary purveyors when you can have it in your own home.  This is also because I know that nihari is not hard to make, and so you can have it anytime.  Here’s how:

NIHARI

4 tablespoons oil
4 lbs. beef shanks (I think beef provides the best flavor for this dish)
6 garlic cloves, minced
4 tablespoons nihari masala (you can use a packet of Shaan, or use the one below)
2 onions, halved and sliced
1/2 cup flour
naan, made yourself or from a good restaurant (no butter!)
for garnish: chopped coriander, limes wedges, minced bird’s eye chilies, slivered ginger

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat and brown the meat in two batches.  Then fry the garlic until just coloring, return the meat and add the masala to the pot and add ten cups of water.  Bring to a boil, then cover and turn down to the lowest simmer.  Go to sleep.  When you wake up, or about six to eight hours later, test the meat for doneness – it should be fork-tender and the marrow should have melted out of the bones, leaving them as clean white rings in the broth.  Remove a teacup of the broth and whisk the flour into it, removing lumps.  Reintroduce the floured broth to the pot.  Now fry the onion until browned with a little more of the masala, then pour this mixture into the broth.  Turn the heat up and boil rapidly with the cover off until you reach a slightly thickened texture, though still a bit watery.  Taste for salt.  Serve with fresh naan (if bought, ride your bike back from the restaurant quite fast to maintain their heat) and small bowls with the garnishes.  Make sure to squeeze plenty of lime juice into your serving.  You won’t be sorry.

NIHARI MASALA

2 tbl red pepper
5 tsp salt
2 tbl of paprika (for redness)
2 tbl ginger powder
1 tsp powdered nutmeg
2 tsp black peppercorns
2 tsp fennel seeds
1tsp black cumin seeds
1 tsp kalongi (um, either onion or nigella seeds, can’t remember)
4 bay leaves
1 tbl whole mace

Grind the last six ingredients into a powder, then mix with the above.  This will make more than you need for one dish.

All my dispatches.

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