…And the legend lived

…And the legend lived

From an antidote to the morning favourite of the royalty to an all-season indulgence, nihari has an interesting history, writes Madhulika Dash

Served with fermented bread earlier, the consistency of the original nihari was that of a thick soup that flowed much like velvet down the throat, had a robust taste yet was thin enough to soak up the bread.

Of all the culinary innovations of the Mughals, perhaps the most intriguing and addictively balmy indulgence remains the nihari. Such has been the fascination with this Mughal antidote-turned-treat that it has spooned up a fair bit of legends and versions, with each claiming to be the ‘true’ recipe.

So how did a spiced, gelatinous bone-meat broth that is said to have its ancestry in Afghani shorwa rise to become the centre of gastronomical evolution? The story, many believe, began in Shahjahanabad – Old Delhi. Foodlore has it that while building the city, many workers started falling ill. Work stopped, and the cost mounted. Worried, Emperor Shah Jahan called upon his vaids and hakims to find a resolution. The army area kitchen became the epicentre where the gosht shorwa that is said to have come to Agra with Babar was chosen as the base of administering the antidote. The idea was simple: to create a broth that not only satiated the workers but also built their immunity and strength.

A spice mix was created that not only covered the overpowering meatiness of the sticky beef broth but also added aromas and flavours that the tongue would get used to with ease. Consulting chef Nimish Dubey says, “This is how spices like mint (for coolness), yoghurt (for probiotic and slight creaminess), saffron, clove and coriander made its way into the dish that was once considered to be the equivalent to China’s yellow warrior soup.”

Like soup, but better

Ritesh Sinha, executive chef, Biryani By Kilo adds, “Served with fermented bread then, the consistency of the original was that of a thick soup that flowed much like velvet down the throat, had a robust taste yet was thin enough to soak up the bread.” It was more of a meal that could sustain workers for hours — but based on its sheer taste soon found takers among the nobility. This, many chefs now believe, was the first phase of the many niharis that would populate the country. Nihari went from a beef broth to a mutton broth where beef pieces and bones that were promptly replaced with mutton (of course, those of an older lamb), and then came extra spices like khus ki jhad, paan ki jhad, javitri, and more aromatic spices.

Nihari that reached the court, says Chef Sinha, who has worked with some of the royal families of Lucknow and Bhopal to understand nihari, “was a more refined version of the rustic, brownish shorba served to the workforce. For starters, the nihari went milder with an exotic mouthfeel and the broth which was earlier made with trotters, fat and bones now had meat pieces as well.”

Rajiv Malhotra, corporate chef, Habitat World, says, “Lamb shanks, the fatter ones, became the choice of meat for making nihari, which gave it a better body and a luxuriant feel.”

Chef Dubey says, “This addition of more aromatic spices, meat chunks, itar and besan to give the broth a body turned the light broth into something that wasn’t only filling but heavier on the stomach, too. And could be enjoyed with khuska as well.”

Spice mix for nihari
Spice mix for nihari

Given that nihari’s new form led aristocracy into a deep siesta, hakims and vaids worked hand-in-glove again to work out a spice mix that would also help the broth digest itself slowly with minimal labour. It was here that not only the cooking time increased from 8 to 12 hours, says Neeraj Rawoot, executive chef, Sofitel BKC, “but also the inclusion of itar.”

It was somewhere between the bylanes of Chandni Chowk to the royal corridors of Sheesh Mahal that the concept of a garnish with slivers of ginger and chillies also appeared to be a part of the nihari that had transformed into a gastronomical masterpiece.

Evolving deliciously

Fascinatingly, it was this nihari that reached Awadh in 1784 where it took on yet another avatar. “Nihari”, says Chef Sinha, “again took the shape of a delicious antidote, this time not to save people from a disease — but dying. And saw the addition of paan ki jhad, khus ki jhad and the use of gilla masala, which was made with brown onions, ginger and other spices.” The idea behind was to help people survive the 1784 draught that egged Nawab Asif-ud-Daula into building the iconic Bada Imambara.

The hakims and rakhbadars went on to create a one-bowl meal that could keep the workers satiated, energised and yet stay off the vagaries of a natural calamity. This needed the shorba to be thin enough not to create thirst. This, believe experts, was the real beauty of the Awadhi nihari, which was much smoother, mild and aromatic than its Shahjahanabad cousin. And unlike the beef broth that was the base, the Lucknow version used nalli (lamb shanks) and paya (trotters) to give nihari its sticky broth and unique flavours.

What never changed was the cooking style. Chef Dubey says, “Meat bones, fat and mutton were still slow-cooked in a copper lagan (a wide mouth vessel) till the fat melted and the bones gave way to a good bite. Brown onions and besan gave it that ‘dunk-in’ consistency and the mustard oil finish its slight pungency that created a better mouthfeel.”

Awadh nihari moved to Bhopal, where it became the work meal for the Begums of Bhopal. Curiously, the begums who liked their broth thinner did little change to the nihari apart from taking off the besan. The presence of bread-makers in the vicinity, especially sourdough-makers, ensured that they could have it the traditional way: “With the Bhopal royalty, nihari once again was thinned down so it could be had in the traditional fashion,” says Chef Dubey.

Taste that matters

Awadhi nihari also reached Calcutta with Wajid Ali Shah, who took it as it was served in the court and was mostly made with nalli and served with kulcha. Says Manzilat Fatima, great-granddaughter of Wajid Ali Shah and cook, “The one served in the bylanes of Metiabruz is a close cousin of what was served in the Awadh household. The only difference is instead of kulcha, here it is served with baqarkhani or dalpuri. Though the consistency allows even a yakhni pilaf to go along with it well.”

The version that reached the food lanes of Kolkata (then Calcutta) was, of course, even a lighter version that could be served with double bread and became popular around the Nakhuda Manzil as a Ramadan treat.

It wasn’t till the iconic broth reached Hyderabad with Aurangzeb that nihari took its more modern feel. It was here that nihari took on the fiery red colour, which was thanks to the brown onion paste, yellow chilli and a dash of mustard oil in the end. Many believe it was Golconda’s ancient meat broth made of hing, jeera and sea salt that became the inspiration behind the change, but it did give nihari a spicier avatar where the rich broth was made from paya primarily.

Given that Hyderabad didn’t enjoy the cooler seasons of North, the broth was given a body that could pair with bread, rice and loaves. And with that, the Hyderabad nihari set the stage that eventually, says Chef Rawoot, “became a playground for chefs in the future to tweak theirs to get the desired result.”

What benchmarks a good nihari today? Says Ajay Anand, culinary director, Pullman Aerocity, “A mild, flavoursome curry where the only layer of oil is the melted meat fat with the shorba broth that is finger-sticky.”