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Paya-Nihari under the shadow of Jama Masjid.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Shahjahanabad was a city of emperors and courtesans, kaftans and the Kohinoor, beef and ghee. This morning I am searching for its past splendor. The ancient alleys of Matia Mahal bazaar, under the watchful eyes of Jama Masjid, are redolent of morning meals. Kesar-flavored milk. Sewai. Jalebis. Soon a rich, meaty aroma tempts me. Paya-nihari. But it is burra - Buffalo meat. (I don't like burra meat.) A true nihari carries the upper thigh of a cow. In its absence, I will perhaps have to resort to goat instead. I continue walking.
My quest ends at Jawahar Hotel. A no-frills eatery, it is teeming with breakfast people. Men in skullcaps and pajamas are supping on paya and nihari. I too place my order. The cashier claims that Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated the restaurant around sixty years ago. Hence the name. As we chat, the steward appears. Nihari (Rs. 90) and paya (Rs. 90) are glistening in a pool of oil. The roti (Rs. 3) is fresh off the tandoor and the extra plate of lime wedges, chopped chillies, and slivered ginger completes the meal.
I don't really miss the beef. The boneless mutton nihari is supple and succulent. The garlicky gravy, liberally spiced with javitri and dhaniya, is hearty. Its warmth is believed to have restorative qualities. This is true. Each bite of the tender flesh is infusing my own flesh with a vigor that easily explains why nihari came to be a morning food for the 'working-class' men. In truth, however, the delicacy originated in the genteel dastarkhwans of Muslim Delhi, before it percolated down to other classes, following the decline and fall of the Mughal Empire.
Like the nihari, paya (or trotters), is also a wonderfully satisfying winter dish and prepared in a similar fashion - simmered overnight in a stew until the marrow is softened and the bones free of gelatine. I'm told that two cooks start their nihari preparation in the freezing cold of the night. They leave as the sun rises.
In my portion, the chunks of meat (so soft they instantly melt in your mouth) have already parted from the bones. Yet, I lick off all the juice from the latter. The stew is also so fulfilling that it is a meal in its own right. As I reach the end, I use the last piece of khameeri roti to polish the plates clean of the remaining broth. I'm now content. This was truly a kingly breakfast that has long outlived the kings.
Where Street Stalls Matia Mahal, Jama Masjid (Bura nihari available between 6am-10pm); Jawahar Hotel 9-10 Matia Mahal, Jama Masjid (23269241; 7am-11am) Karim's 16 Gali Kababiyan, Jama Masjid (23269880, 7am-9pm); Kallu Nihari Shop No. 80, Chattan Lal Mian, Jama Masjid (6am-7:30am); Haji Noora Near Hindu Rao Hospital (7am-9am); Haji Shabrati Nihariwale Shop No. 722, Haveli Azam Khan, Jama Masjid (6am-9am); Saeed Nihari Baradari, Ballimaran, Jama Masjid (6am-10pm)
7 am, Jama Masjid
One More Roti, Please
No One is Tempted?
Do Not Disturb