This is one of the strangest winters possible in Kolkata. First there was a steep fall in temperature somewhere in the second week of November. Then again, the mercury soared and then this untimely rainfall for the last few days. As someone said, it’s a deliberation to wear either raincoat/ wind cheater or to wear a sweater.
What are the traditional/ characteristics for winter foods in Kolkata? My top draw will be Phulkopi and be it the Phulkopir roast which Ma cooks or Harabhara Gobi. How can one forget fulkopir Shingara. There are many many more like the cakes from legendary places like Nahoums or The Lalit Great Eastern Bakery but Nihari is like the baap of all perhaps. An eleborate slow cooking process, rich in taste and flavours, ingredients oriented (almost 50 spices go onto making an authentic Nihari) and interpreted in different ways in diff places; all make Nihari more than a mere dish.
Winter also means Rashopuli – Read the recipe here
I think most know by now that Nihari comes from the word ‘Nahar’ meaning day. Cooked for almost 6 – 8 hours overnight in large vessels sealed with dough, the richness of the spices in the gravy definitely calls for a comparison with a wild stormy affair. It is believed that Nawabs used to have Nihari after the sunrise prayers or Fajr and would sleep till afternoon for the afternoon prayers or Zhuhr. I wonder how could one go off to sleep after having a plate of Nihari. It is nothing much a rich stew with eseential spices. Perhaps that’s the reason that Nihari was also used as a breakfast to be given to labourers at construction sites in lieu of the daily wages.
Some call it the national dish of Pakistan (debated) and as per some, the dish was discovered in Delhi during the Mughal empire and post 1947, when lots of immigrants settled in various parts of Pakistan, the recipe and the dish also travelled to Pakistan. The origin of Nihari has also some clout as most claim it from the back alleys of Jamia Masjid but there is another belief that this was from Lucknow under the Awadhi rule. Even it’s said that when Bada Imambara was getting built in 1784 – 85, the then Nawab Asaf Ud Daula used to feed the labourers with Nihari.
With so much of Nawabi and Mughal influence in food and some of the best Bawarchis and Khansamas coming to the city as a part of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah entourage, it is obvious that Kolkata will also have its dose and share of the Nihari joints. Sufia restaurant in Zakaria street is one of the most prominent ones where to get a piece of their Beef Nihari, tiffin carriers are sent on the previous night by the Nihari lovers. Ahmed Rasool, who has been running this restaurant for more than 50 years has the recipe as a close guarded family recipe.
There is Jadid Islamia Hotel, which is again 75 years old at Colootola. Haji Hafiz Ali Jabbar founded the restaurant 80 years ago and now this place is run by Muhammad Zubair Zaman. The recipe is a secret but in the gravy, they use browned onions with various herbs like Mulethi, balchar, and ratanjot. The trail does not end here.
UP Bihar Restaurant in New Market is more than 70 years old and known for its Beef Nihari and then there is always the famous Paaya Nihari at Zeeshan Restaurant in Park Circus. I have only tasted the Paaya Nihari and liked it a lot but will like to go on a trail for these and come up with a separate blogpost for sure.
As I discussed this with food writer and friend Anoothi Vishal, she highlighted a very important aspect. Because the dish originated to feed the construction workers and the not so well off strata of society, it is Beef Nihari which is the authentic one and Mutton Nihari was more consumed by the rich and middle class of the society. Although some may claim that they use Kareli or lamb shanks in their Nihari, the origin of Nihari may not justify that. Most of the times, it is unsophisticated meat cuts which used to go to the making of the Nihari. When it’s a dish like this which has a rich history and traces its root to many places, the discussion will go on and on but as of now, an attempt at Nihari will be worth.
In case you wanted to know what happens in Delhi with Nihari during winters, please read this wonderful article by Saad Ghani – Link here