RAWALPINDI/ ISLAMABAD: When the call for Fajr prayer sounds in the streets, most of the garrison city is still in bed and there is hardly a soul on the roads that are chock-full all day long. Nowhere, that is, except for the food districts of Kartarpura and Sabzi Mandi, where it is time for slow-cooked nihari to be served.
The unmistakable aroma of fresh kulchas overwhelms you, and even the most diet-conscious would be hard-pressed to resist a plateful of that breakfast of champions.
Most people come out to feast on this Mughlai treat over the weekends; crispy kulcha with sesame seeds and a beefy stew topped with generous helpings of thinly sliced ginger, fried onions, green chilies and lemon juice.
In the old days, nihari and siri paye were popular breakfast fare in the winters months. But with time, such cuisine became so popular that it is now available round the clock all year round.
For those who feel that it is far too ‘heavy’ too eat for breakfast, there should be some clues in the name of the dish itself. The word nihari literally means ‘early morning food’ – derived from the word ‘nihar’, which means ‘first thing in the morning’. This could also be a reference to the way the dish is made; chefs would start slow-cooking nihari the previous night, until Fajr prayer.
But, to paraphrase the great poet John Keats: “A plate of nihari is a joy forever,” and this is perhaps why nihari has become quite popular as a lunch and dinner item as well.
The twin cities are no slouch when it comes to good nihari to suit every palate. In Rawalpindi, the more traditional vendors open shop at the crack of dawn and are usually sold out by the time the sun comes out, so one has to be an early bird to catch this worm.
From Majeed Nihari in the Sabzi Mandi, Pehalwan Nihari in Kashmiri Bazaar, Mohammadi Nihari in Commercial Market and Saddar, Kala Khan in Kartarpura to Khurram Nihari on Khayaban-i-Sir Syed (Khurram Nihari), one can find nihari nearly anywhere in the city. Sajid Majeed, owner of Majeed Nihari in Sabzi Mandi, makes arguably the best nihari in the twin cities. “We make two daigs (cauldron-full) every day and it finishes within two to three hours. The recipe was inherited from our ancestors who used to live in Amritsar,” he says.
“Other outlets will add flour to the stew to thicken it, instead of slow-cooking it on a low-flame, like it is supposed to be thickened,” he claims, before an impatient customer cuts him off.
The capital city is not otherwise known for its culinary brilliance, but one may be surprised by the variety of nihari on offer here.
The foray by Cheema and Chattha, purveyors of quality spices, into the restaurant business has been a lightning rod for lovers of traditional desi food. Their nihari in particular, draws a crowd so large that the modestly sized establishment struggles to accommodate them all.
The establishment’s claim to fame is their liberal use of desi ghee in everything from the nihari to the tandoori parathas that come with it. The nihari here is definitely a class apart from any of its commercial competitors, and the owner Khalid Cheema proudly boasts that he uses only the finest ingredients, meat portions and homemade spices.
“I don’t really try to cater to customers’ tastes; I prefer to serve what I would like to eat,” he says, explaining his mantra.
The outlet, hidden away in a small market in Sector F-11/2, has taken the capital’s food scene by storm, but there are still some who aren’t completely convinced that this is the best nihari that the city has to offer.
“This may be an unpopular opinion, but desi ghee does not make everything better,” complains Amena Raja, a Lahori who has lived in Islamabad for several years now.
Perhaps this is why, on the other side of town, another set of entrepreneurs have set up a small nihari shop that caters to those with a more refined palate.
Dilli Darwaza may just be another cramped eatery in the Beverly Centre in Sector F-6, but the food on offer is definitely something to write home about. Here, the flavour has an air of the homemade about it.
“We use a traditional family recipe from Delhi. Since I am originally from Karachi, my taste is more attuned to spicy food. But the nihari here is made just like we would make it at home,” says Tahir Abbas, who runs this diminutive establishment along with his son, Taha.
Mr Abbas explains that his target market was both, the businesses of Blue Area and the residents of the more upscale sectors in the city. “We discovered that there was space for a good nihari place and so we decided to fill that gap.”
Even though they haven’t spent much on advertising, the outlet is kept buzzing through word of mouth via social media. But if you’re tempted to have a meal there, make sure to call ahead and reserve a table.