I crave salty and spicy foods, especially for breakfast—or what passes as breakfast time for a non-morning person like me. The hotter the better. Eggs? Add habaneros and some Sriracha, please. (If I’m hungover, double the heat and I’ll sweat out the booze.) I, of course, blame my mother for this—she perfected the art of spicy, slightly curried eggs. She’d be up hours before us, cooking. Hold the cheese, use cumin and cayenne instead. When I cook masalas and curries for dinner, I enjoy them doubly so the next morning. Lamb in a throat-scratching masala? Oh, yes. Cow’s feet cooked until they become what I used to call "sticky meat?" Bring it on.
So when I remembered there’s actually a breakfast curry, something salty and spicy, chock full of at least ten different spices, I was on board. Nihari, a centuries-old dish, is a mix of meat that’s cooked for hours, with a heavenly gravy, and eaten with naan. Day laborers used to chow down on it because it kept them full for hours. I’m certain it’s my new go-to hangover remedy: spicy, fatty, full of meat, and the starch from naan counterbalancing the grease factor.
One problem: I had no idea how to make it. I have some of my mother’s recipes written down, but not all. She knew how to make samosas, gulab jaman, and five different types of daal (at least) by heart. But she never took notes, only cooked, adding a bit of this, some of that. Measurements were for amateurs.
My mom entrusted me to be her kitchen helper, and there I was at the age of four, rolling out rotis. As I got older, I’d roll my eyes instead, and stomp into the kitchen, annoyed that I had to watch her, yet again, making pulau.
But when she got sick, I started paying more attention, writing every single teaspoon down, sometimes taking photos of ingredients so I could replicate them later. After she passed, I made it my mission to cook her food as a way of grieving and honoring her. But Nihari? That wasn’t made often and I had no point of reference. No one else in my family had a recipe, and with my mother gone, I had to fend for myself. That wouldn’t dissuade me, however. After googling Nihari for days, I settled on a video tutorial site Cook with Faiza. The video is in Urdu, so following along made me feel like I was in my mother’s kitchen for a moment.
The recipe seemed a bit... intense. I was expecting difficult; I wasn’t expecting to use three cups of ghee. (The mere thought made me gag a bit.) I compromised and used a shit-ton of oil (maybe two thirds of a cup) and got to work. Every recipe I found had different ingredients: chicken, shank, mutton, brains, marrow—I went with shank and marrow. I chopped my ingredients and ground my spices. (My counter tops turned yellow temporarily.) And I pressure cooked everything instead of letting things simmer overnight.
The result: A total disaster. Everything went wrong. My pressure cooker decided to not work that day, instead, boiling the meat in an oil-water mixture. I had to try two more times before the hard shank became soft and delicious, cooking it for over an hour longer than the recipe stated. I had clearly messed up—it looked nothing like the perfect meat in the video. I stared at the oil in the pot, glistening like a disco ball, with annoyance. My mother rarely used that much oil—she was extremely health-conscious. And the fatty marrow had added to the oil slick.
But perhaps the next step—adding a flour paste—would help? It would thicken everything as it’s supposed to. Never give up hope in the middle of a recipe, right? The flour turned into little tiny globules soaking in spicy oil. I couldn’t whisk anything because the meat and bones got in the way. Did I really want to eat this for breakfast?
Despite my many failures with this dish (I could envision my mother laughing at me), the meat tasted delicious. And eaten with caramelized onions on top and a spray of lemon juice, it was filling, hearty, and the spices played just the right way. It may not have been a proper Nihari (not even close), but it wasn’t bad. And yes, I ate it for breakfast—twice—and I liked it.