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Nihari: A Tradition, A Tonic

Maliha Adams explains the mystic and delicious history of a spiced Pakistani stew.
Maliha Adams
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Maliha Adams
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I crossed my arms atop the dining table, laid my head down, and closed my eyes. The air was thick, its moisture carrying the scent of spices and smoke and city. “She wants it again,” I heard my uncle chuckle next to me. “Again?!” That was my mother. She was likely amused, but I took her exclamation as a potential protest. I lifted my head up only to nod in affirmation before resting it back on the table, fighting jet lag and conserving my energy to eat. It was the winter of 1998. I was 10 years old and we were on a family holiday in Karachi, Pakistan. For the third night in a row, I requested Nihari, an intensely spiced meat stew topped with fresh ginger, green chili, and coriander, spooned by hand with chewy bites of naan or roti. I had discovered it several winters before--my mother recalls coming home to find me sitting at the kitchen table, panting and sweating from the spice but steadily making my way through the bowl. Its history began many years ago, traveling through time and space, gathering pieces of cultural inheritance before snowballing into the consciousness of a little American girl.

Historians trace its genesis back to 18th century-old Delhi, India--a green and gated metropolis. Poet Letitia Landon mused, “thou glorious city of the East, of old enchanted times, like mosque, and minaret, and tower, the clouds were heaped on high, I almost deemed fair Delhi rose, a city in the sky.” For centuries, it was ruled by the Mughal Empire, whose Indo-Persian influences enriched Delhi’s cuisine. One could say, it indeed was a foodie capital. Nihari was originally eaten for breakfast--the root of the word, “Nahar,” which means “morning” in Arabic, as it was cooked slowly overnight so that the meat and masala melded into the deeply flavored stew. Its energy-boosting spices were considered a tonic for the cool wintery mornings, a stick-to-your-ribs meal that nourished and powered Mughal warriors who conquered lands and laborers who built the city’s forts and palaces. By the mid-1800s, the vestiges of the empire were smothered by the British raj, but Muglai cuisine left a lasting imprint on Delhi, and Nihari was eaten by the masses.

Following Partition of India in 1947, while Muslims and Hindus scrambled to find themselves on the right side of the newly drawn border, a bright and beautiful Delhi woman left her home for Karachi, where she met a dashing economist from Aligarh. Abida and Mohammed married and had three daughters, moving their small family every couple of years to follow Mohammed’s career in the army. Their eldest, a feisty, wide-eyed warrior in her own right, was my mother, Sadia.

CREDIT: IMAGE OF AUTHOR AND MOTHER IN PAKISTAN, COURTESY OF AUTHOR

Having grown up with a household cook, my mother did not know how to cook herself and promptly enrolled in culinary school during the early years of my parents' marriage. Her notes from class included a neatly inscribed Nihari recipe, the very one she’d reference in the years to come. My brother and I grew up watching her cook, hovered over the pot, throwing in spices with seeming haphazardness, like a sorcerous concocting a potion. Bright red chili, powdered cumin, ground mace, all nose-tickling and tear-inducing if you stood too close or got in their flight path from palm to pot.

Nihari’s rich and tangy properties would come to hold magic for me--a recipe my mother instinctively knew to make during my times of need. A miracle elixir when I was depleted, “You need the vitamins,” my father would affirm; the antidote to heartbreak, “Look what I made you,” my mother would whisper in an embrace as if to say, “All will be well.” Each bowl, holding my origins and childhood, takes me back to that winter of 1998, my head in my hands, waiting for supper. Yes, I wanted it again.

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