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Pakistan's National Dish, Beloved by Construction Workers & Nobles Alike

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Even though the country is only 70 years old this year, Pakistan’s distinct cuisine has been in the making for centuries.

Growing up in Pakistan, I never appreciated the subtle differences that defined my homeland’s cuisine. But when I moved to the United Kingdom over a decade ago, I quickly realized how under-represented Pakistani food was around the world, be it either by misinterpretation or merely because our dishes are usually thrown into one regionally labeled basket. Nowhere could I find the unique recipes and aromas I grew up with.

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Diversity describes our cuisine best because of the varied history, land, and people that influence it. This is a region of the sub-continent that saw the northern invasion of Alexander the Great, the entry of Islam and the Arabs from the Arabian Sea in the south, and the infiltration of Persians, Afghans, Central Asians over centuries, embedding their cuisines into the land that makes up Pakistan today. In the north, there are dumplings and noodles influenced by Central Asian culture. In the south, recipes are headily spiced. The eastern borders boast flavors of the Mughal empire, whereas in the west, Iranian and Afghan influences have given rise to barbecued meats and saffron-spiced rice dishes.

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But by far one of the greatest impacts on the development of our cuisine was after 1947: With a mass migration of Indian Muslims to newly formed Pakistan came nawabi (nobility) cooking. The spices, slow cooked recipes, and ceremonial dishes of the Muslim aristocracy merged with local flavors throughout Pakistan, which gave rise of a new cuisine: Pakistani.

My father’s mother was from Uttar Pardesh, in Northern India; her family had been cooking in the nawabi style for generations. She’d always hand-grind spices, then spend hours laboring over the stove to produce subtle yet hauntingly spiced layers of flavor. This is one of the key techniques in nawabi cooking—I remember her telling me that it was the only way to cook with spices because nawab cookery celebrates spice and nurtures them in the way they are intended (the saying sounds much better in Urdu!).

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She would oftentimes make Nihari, a slow-cooked, spiced, on-the-bone lamb or mutton marrow stew that clearly shows how Pakistani cuisine evolved after 1947. I’d watch her cook it as a kid—she was unaware of how I picked up her recipes vicariously. To make the stew, she’d dry roast and grind the spices, then cook the spices in ghee (a key for getting pronounced spice) and add the meat.

Halfway through the cooking, she’d take a small amount of hot juices from the cooking nihari and combine it with chappati flour to eventually thicken the sauce. My grandmother would slow cook nihari for 7 to 8 hours, which is the traditional way, but I find that 3 hours usually infuses flavors just as well. As long as the meat falls off the bone, you're there.

Pakistani Nihari (Slow-Cooked Spiced Lamb Stew)
Pakistani Nihari (Slow-Cooked Spiced Lamb Stew)

There are many stories regarding the dish’s exact origins, but its history dates back to 18th century late Mughal era, Lucknowi and Delhi nobility. It was typically served at sunrise, as its name comes from the Arab word “nihar,” which means morning, but now is eaten at any time of day. It is both a celebratory dish and an everyday one, a street food as well as a home-cooked comfort food. It found its way to the working class because of the “energy boosting properties” of the spices used. As such, it became popular with construction workers and was given free to laborers by rulers.

The Pakistani nihari has evolved from use of local flavor preferences: In Karachi, in the south of Pakistan, it is made rather hot and even more spiced. In the eastern province of Punjab, there is a city called Chiniot where a dish called Kunna gosht is popular and clearly inspired by nihari. The spices are slightly different (it uses black pepper and cumin seeds) and there’s the curious addition of milk, but the technique and ultimate flavor is very similar. You will also see nihari made with different cuts of meat, including chicken or goat brains, marrow, and tongue.

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When eating nihari, the stew juices are usually mopped up with naan, kulcha (leavened bread found in Lahore and Amritsar), or roti (flatbread). It is always topped with individual garnishes that enliven the flavor, including ginger, garam masala, lemon, caramelized onions, cilantro, and/or mint.

Nihari will always be, to me, one of the recipes that best defines Pakistani cuisine, as it’s a confluence of migration, integration, and an evolution of individual flavor through produce and preference. It is no wonder that nihari is considered the national dish of Pakistan.

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Pakistani Nihari (Slow-Cooked Spiced Lamb Stew)

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Serves 6 to 8

For the spice blend:

  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 1 cinnamon quill
  • 2 black cardamom pods
  • 10 green cardamom pods
  • 2 star anise
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 2 mace
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons poppy seeds (ground in a mortar and pestle and mixed with 2 tablespoons hot water)
  • 15 cloves
  • 3/4 tablespoon black peppercorn (or 2 to 3 pippali long peppers)

For the stew and condiments:

  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons ghee
  • 1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and grated finely
  • 1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 3 large lamb shanks
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or 1 1/2 tablespoons Kashmir red chile powder)
  • 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1 tablespoon whole wheat flour, sifted (I prefer atta flour, which is used to make chappatis)
  • 2 cups chopped cilantro
  • 2 -inch piece ginger, peeled and julienned
  • 2 green Thai bird chiles (or another thin chile), chopped finely
  • 2 cups fried onions
  • 4 lemons, cut into wedges
  • Naan bread, for serving
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Tell us in the comments: Which dish reminds you of home?