Some of my happiest childhood memories are associated with the time i used to spend with my maternal grandparents and cousins during the summer holidays. All ten of us-the cousins-from different parts of the country use to descend annually on to this huge,sprawling house, where my beloved naana and naani ma used to live in Darya Ganj-in Old Delhi. This house was very typical of the olden days and had a huge,open central courtyard with fountains, a variety of birds in their cages,low seating areas with lots of colourful cushions and all kinds of trees like Jamun,Mango,Banyan from which swings and hammocks dangled. This courtyard was surrounded by a maze of large,spacious,airy rooms with high ceilings which were all interconnected and where we used to play hide and seek,'chor sipahi','dark room' etc hiding behind and under the heavy,antiquated teak furniture.
But my favourite room,if it could be called a room, in this house was the mammoth, old 'Rasoi' or kitchen with the olden style 'chulas',full scale tandoor,an ancient wood fired oven where rusks and biscuits were baked and an open fire where the pit roasting was done. This room was completely redolent with the most divine aromas where the 'khansama' or the cook who had been with the family for decades,churned out delicacy after delicacy to feed ten very hungry mouths! And my God what insatiable appetites we had!!! We would barely finish a hearty breakfast and then wanted our mid morning snack and when that was done, would start enquiring as to what's cooking for lunch and then once lunch was done would start requesting for Pakoras,Samosas,Jalebis and Sandwiches for tea!!! Gosh! It was never ending and i really pitied the old man and his assistant in the kitchen! They really earned their keep when we were around during the holidays!! But the best bit was when my naani ma used to step into the kitchen and weave her magic with her 'karchi' (ladle) and 'kadhai' (frying pan)!
I still remember the thrill of anticipation that used to run down our spines when we were told that naani ma was making something special for us for the next meal. She was the most awesome cook ever and transformed the simplest of dishes into the most divine creations. For example let's take the humble 'daliya' (porridge) which we used to have for breakfast everyday,she would cook it with raisins,pistachios and milk on a very low flame and once done instead of adding sugar,she which would mix jaggery into it and top it off with thick,clotted cream.The end result would be a breakfast dish fit for a king!! It would be that delicious and wholesome.
She was also a fabulous non vegetarian cook and made the most delicious aromatic 'Dum' Biryanis, tender,spicy,floating in 'asli ghee' Roghan Josh,fragrant,hearty, broth like Haleem with the over riding smell of freshly roasted Garam masala and Adrak, Raan which would be marinated a good twenty four hours with all kinds of exotic masalas and spices and then cooked over an open flame till the tender meat actually fell off the bone,melt in the mouth,buttery,velvety Kakori kebabs and the list goes on and on!! I can feel the drool in my mouth as i recount all this but her all time popular speciality was undoubtedly a superlative curried mutton creation called 'Nihari'!!!
Now without further ado, let me explain to the uninitiated as to what this dish is all about!!! It's basically mutton-the best,most tender pieces preferably taken from a kid not a full grown goat(as that meat can tend to be a bit tough)-which is 'bhunaoed' lovingly and painstakingly in 'asli ghee' with ginger,garlic,onions,'besan' (gram flour) and to which then a whole variety of 'khada' (whole) and ground spices are added ,some water and then it's sealed and left to simmer overnight on a very low flame. It is the best example of slow cooking that there is in Indian cooking and believe me it's worth the effort and toil!!
It's not an exaggeration to say that when my naani ma used to unseal the 'haandi' in the morning and add the juliennes of ginger and slit green chillies, bits of coriander and lemon juice as garninshing to the pot,the entire street or 'gali' used to get infused by the aroma and we had hungry,greedy neighbours knocking on the door to partake of the feast. 'Nihari' surprisingly is a typical breakfast dish and so obviously consumed in the morning (which is a good idea since it's so heavy and rich and you actually need the whole day to digest it). It's usually paired with a kind of sweet,salty,buttery ,flat,round bread called 'Sheer Mal' which are cooked with milk,sugar and saffron!! This combination is worth dying for and is part of our family's most treasured food folk lore!!
But alas!! We don't get to taste such heavenly delights anymore because my naani ma is now unfortunately very sick and ailing. She's suffering from severe diabetes, cardiac problems, has a steel ball in her shoulder from an accident that she had, has had pelvic surgery and needs urgent knee replacement surgery as well .She's barely hanging in there but i still admire her never say die spirit,independent nature and devoutness!
She still offers 'Namaaz' five times a day and reads the 'Koran' and fasts all through the entire month of 'Ramazan' even though she has been firmly advised by her doctors not to do so but she refuses to listen and does not abandon her beliefs and the routine that she has been practising all her life. She stoically and steadfastly holds on to her pride and dignity and is stubborn and obstinate as hell.May Allah bless her and take care of her. However old,weak,sickly and frail she might become, i will always remember her as this alive,super energetic, supremely efficient,radiant,potent figure always bustling around in the kitchen and giving ten instructions simultaneously to the minions around her and preparing feasts for ten very greedy,rowdy and hungry mouths!!!