Nihari is a traditional Pakistani dish with cubes of tender beef served in a bubbling, aromatic brown stew. Boneless beef is slow-cooked for six hours with julienned ginger and jalapeños in a fragrant sauce of peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, cumin seeds, and cardamom seeds known as garam masala.
It's a recipe that varies but is always sweet, spicy, and delicious, topped with cilantro and lemon, with complex notes of citrusy coriander and hot cinnamon.
"It differs in every household," says Pakistani native Syed "Sam" Chishti, chef/owner of Indian American Restaurant. "My mom and my aunt make different versions -- my mom gets mad, because I say I like my aunt's variation better," he says with a laugh. "It's everywhere in Pakistan; even five-star hotels have it on the menu."
The nihari is just one of the Pakistani specialties on the diverse menu at the Davie restaurant, which offers an array of fare from South Asia and the United States.
While working a ten-year contract supervising a cafeteria for the Arabian American Oil Co. in Saudi Arabia, Chishti was invited to visit some of his American colleagues in the States.
After spending time traveling with friends in 1983, Chishti knew he wanted to immigrate.
"I had lots of American and British friends [in Saudi Arabia] and an American girlfriend for a while," says Chishti. "I had a great time with them. We went to the Kentucky Derby when I came to visit, and I said, 'Man, I want to live here.' "
Upon arrival, Chishti, who has spent most of his life in the hospitality industry, landed a job as a server at Denny's. Within a month, the district manager sent him up to manager training. Since then, he's worked at numerous American chains, such as IHOP and KFC, and has even owned a number of his own franchises and original restaurant concepts.
Though he specializes in authentic Pakistani cuisine, Chishti's love of American food is evident on the menu.
He serves a wide selection of breakfast fare like pancakes, omelets, waffles, and even crepes in addition to sandwiches, burgers, and pizza.
However, it is the traditional South Asian dishes that are the reason to visit this eclectic eatery.
Puri is a typical Indian breakfast of fluffy deep-fried dough served with chana masala (curried chickpeas), and halwa (a sweet pudding) is also available.
Chishti uses a tandoor, a cylindrical clay oven, to cook chicken tikka legs, marinated in yogurt and spices. The dish is offered by the piece or platter, which comes with a selection of beef or lamb kebabs.
The oven is also used to cook house-made naan.
The springy bread is perfect for sopping up aromatic butter chicken. Made with garam masala, coriander, cumin, and other spices, it's simmered in a combination of butter and cream. The curry is pungent without being overly spicy, an ideal option for those looking to break into peppery South Asian cuisine.
A typical Indian dish, the butter chicken is prepared earlier in the day, allowing the flavors to marinate longer. The rice and sauce are cooked separately.
This is the main difference between Indian and Pakistani cuisine, says Chishti.
"Pakistani makes each dish from scratch, as ordered," says Chishti. "It takes a little time, but there's more flavor. Everything is cooked in one pot. The spices are basically the same."
Biryani is made the Pakistani way. Chunks of chicken on the bone are served with fragrant, long-grained basmati rice with turmeric, ginger, chili flakes, cardamom, and other exotic spices. It's another well-seasoned dish that isn't going to scorch your internal organs -- if that's what you're looking for, try the vindaloo.
Even less common than the Pakistani fare is the Bombay-style Chinese cuisine.
After learning the basics from an Indian-born Chinese friend, Chishti interpreted the cuisine to his own liking.
The regular American-Chinese suspects like shrimp fried rice, chicken lo mein, and garlic chicken are cooked with garlic and ginger as well as a healthy dose of Indian seasonings like garam masala, chilies, and coriander. The vibrant spices add a whole new level of depth and dimension to what is usually average takeout cuisine.
While the menu here certainly has an odd assortment of international fare and dishes, for Chishti, it's all about being able to cook what he likes best.
"You have to love what you're doing," he says. "And you can cook good."
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