Andrew Buncombe: Delhi's best kept culinary secret

Nihari is a meat porridge that sets its eater up for the day
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The Independent Online

"If you eat this three times in a week, your face will be looking very healthy," announced my friend Mr Singh. "And it is also very good for sex. Very strong."

Even before such a hard-to-ignore sales pitch, I'd heard about the wonders of nihari, a Moghul-era meat dish which is cooked at a bullock-cart pace and sends its foodie fans into raptures. Traditionally prepared using special spices and the shank bones of beef or lamb, the dish is cooked overnight until the meat acquires the constituency of near-liquid. Typically this Muslim dish is traditionally eaten for breakfast – a meat porridge that sets its eater ready for whatever the most testing day may have to offer.

I made inquiries among friends in Delhi. Everyone, it seemed, had their favourite outlet for this legendary food, where the owners used secret, passed-down recipes. I was told than that in Hindu-majority India, beef nihari would almost certainly be made with buffalo meat (though apparently in cow-sacred Delhi there is a world within a world that dabbles in illicit supplies of the real thing) and almost always cooked in a scruffy, backstreet eateries rather than anywhere fancy. Word had it that patrons of five-star hotels often dispatched taxi-drivers to scruffy restaurants in Old Delhi to bring back a fix.

I learned that a dhaba, or café, hidden in a narrow alleyway in a small Muslim neighbourhood near my apartment also cooked nihari. The following night I set out to bring some home for dinner, along with a stack of flat rotis cooked in a tandoor clay oven. It was remarkable – succulent, melting meat in the richest of sauces. And whether I was imagining it or not, after eating the nihari I did feel oddly revived after a tiring day. As to whether or not it really provides the full benefits as promised by Mr Singh, I'll need to go back. Twice more.

Better than caffeine

I have to take an early morning flight to London. At 5.30am, the man at passport control at Delhi looks exhausted. He keeps asking where my visa is. I tell him, but he appears not to notice. Then he asks again. I look up. Between asking to see the visa and turning the pages of my passport, he has dozed off. I watch as his eyelids gently glide shut. What time do you finish? "8.30am," he yawns back. "It's a 13-hour shift." Of course, I know the obvious solution for his lack of energy. If only I'd packed some nihari.

Getting there on time

A race is on to make sure that Delhi is ready to host next year's Commonwealth Games. Unfortunately a government committee reports that the sports facilities and additional infrastructure are way behind schedule. One of the few places where construction is going on round the clock is at the airport, where a new international terminal is being built. At least people will be able to get here.