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A plate of nehari against a painting of Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid, by William Carpenter, 1852 (source: Wikipedia.org)

THIS IS A HOMAGE TO the pan-India standing & understanding of spices; their evolution and refinement on the plate. Biryani is the high point of this insight. One class of biryani emerged from the development of nehari, through its contribution to quarma. For this we go to 17th Century Delhi – Shajahanabad. Jahanara, daughter of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, loves her poetry, art, Sufi meditations, Shiraz, and good food. On some days she has the pleasure of walking in disguise through the main street of Chandni Chowk, a thoroughfare of her own planning.

This evening however, nihari is on her mind. She briefly stops by a stall preparing a spicy broth whose preparation she had discussed with hakims over a month ago. Her beloved city is in the grip of an influenza outbreak and the hakims had been consulted to come up with their understanding of the predicament. The city’s water lines had been poisoned. There was no reasonable way to identify the source of the contamination. Even if they did know the exact source and point of entry of the contamination, it would be next to impossible to clean up the waterways.

The only reasonable course of action would be to develop a dietary solution that would boost the immunity of the cityfolk. Towards this end, they formulate a strongly spiced, slow cooked broth which is named nihari. They also promote a few new spices into Delhi’s culinary milieu. Chilli – introduced centuries back by the Portugese who continue to drop into the Mughal Court – is a frontrunning spice of the moment. Nihari calls for slow cooking trotters overnight in a strong broth of assorted spices. The hakims recommended the consumption of nihari at least once a day. While this would have been out of the reach of the common man, market vendors operating out of hole-in-the-wall enterprises would be trained to prepare this specialised broth and make it available at a modest cost. By all accounts, the city overcame the crisis and continued its commitment to nihari, which is defined by the gelatine and marrow drawn out from the bones, skin and connective tissue, through hours of simmering over embers. The farmaishi (refined) version uses prime cuts such as the shins or even the tongue, while the misquind (common) edition goes for the trotters.

Nihari would go on to inspire qorma. In qorma, the meat is cooked till it is tender while still remaining on the bone. This gives it a defined texture, a definite bite. It has a similar spice profile and most often incorporates a dash of cream/yoghurt.  But while the nehari is prepared over embers, qorma is cooked over a fire. In both cases, as with all Indian dishes prepared in the earlier traditions, the source of heat never comes into direct contact with the vessel; there is a gap of at least 4-6 inches between the fire/embers and the vessel. Diffused heat is the hallmark of traditional Indian cooking. Both nehari and qorma are defined by this.

The qorma combined with pulao/ pilaf would create the curried rice dish we call biryani. The origins of pulao are claimed with equal basis by Persia and India. The 10th Century Persian scholar Abu Ali Ibn Sina is the first to formalize the recipe. Pulao also finds mention in the Mahabharata. Pulao marks a coming together of a Persian approach and Indian spices. The restraint of pulao and the effulgence of qorma, combine to give this class of biryani.    

In the end, biryani, in its many forms, is a child of evolution, a product of inspired association in the land of India. While the idea of biryani may well have predated the Mughals, the patronage, poetry, indulgence and stability offered under the golden era of the Mughals, created the ideal environment for the emergence of a special dish at its most refined. In Shahjahanabad, Delhi became the envy of the world. A city whose Emperor commissioned lavish works of function and beauty, including the Taj Mahal in Agra. This was a city that was guided by a sensitive prince in Dara Shikoh, a city fashioned to the faultless aesthetics and sensitivities of princess Jahanara. Both had plans for the future of the capital, alas both were to be overttaken by the ruthless ambition of their more determined brother, Aurangzeb, and Delhi would only be able to look back and wonder at what was. Thankfully, the flavours of glory remain.