x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The classic South Asian beef stew

On the hunt for authentic Nihari in Abu Dhabi.

I'd like to think that Indians and Pakistanis suffer from cross-border envy. Food, tailoring, jewellery - I think the Pakistanis do it better, and my Pakistani friends like to correct me every time I say that, to let me know that the Indians are the masters. Maybe we're all being polite and trying to get along, but I am pretty sure that's not the case.

In the markets of Abu Dhabi, there is no visible demarcation of where the craftsmen come from. But if you know any better, you can be, well, a bit judgmental. There are few places that exclusively advertise Indian jewellery or Pakistani fabrics, but when it comes to food, and certain delectable Mughal dishes at that, I'd side with a Pakistani chef any day.

When I seek out a good restaurant that serves biryani, or nihari (a beef shank stew), the first restaurants that I list in my head are Pakistani joints in Abu Dhabi. The nihari is one of those really hard-to-describe dishes. There is nothing elaborate about it. It's a stew so it's not complicated, but the way it is made and who makes it is where the difference lies.

This weekend I woke up with a craving for nihari. I was to make it for friends for a dinner party, but the idea that I would have to sit in my apartment and smell it cooking all day long was enough to get me out of bed and on to the streets of Abu Dhabi in search of a quick fix. I didn't venture far. Sahar Restaurant, located behind the HSBC building on Airport Road, advertises itself as "The Best Nihari in the town (sic)" and so there I was, staring into a plate of nihari before I knew it. The only problem with that is after polishing off a plate, wisdom dictates taking a nap but I had cooking to do. More nihari!

Typically, nihari is cooked overnight. And eaten as an early morning meal. But nowadays, it is just as favoured as a late-night snack after a fun night out.

Of course, there is an Indian version, mostly made with lamb. And I am sure the Bangladeshis have adapted their unique take on it too, but to me, the spice combinations that go into a pot is what makes the difference.

Stories abound as to how nihari became a Pakistani dish, with some evidence suggesting that the dish was brought to Pakistan by Muslim Indian immigrants. But I like to think that, even if it were introduced across the border, it was the Pakistani cooks on the streets of Lahore and Karachi whose stalls sell only one dish who perfected it.