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Sheermal, a Festive Favourite for Ramadan

While poori, paranthe and phulka have been amongst the oldest flat breads of India, the tradition of tandoor-baked breads came into the Subcontinent only in the Medieval period with the advent of the Turko-Afghan rulers.

Sheermal, that beloved of connoisseurs, however, is a more regal bread with slightly different origins. In the bazaars of Lucknow, this would just be the right time to go looking for some, to be had with spicy qormas and kebab as the devout break their Ramzan fasts every evening and the gourmand simply go looking for epicurean pleasures.

The Persian tradition is at once apparent even as you take your first bite of the slightly sweet bread. There is the richness of saffron, of milk and ghee mixed into the dough (made from refined flour – maida) that suggests the refinement of the Persian culture (that influenced much of the Arabic world and seeped into India’s syncretic fabric through the Mughal kitchen and later through the kitchens of the Nawabs and the Nizams). Both saffron and a tinge of sweet (though no sugar is added in the original recipe) in the bread are giveaways to this Persian connect.Sheermal – the Sweet Bread

Naans and tandoori rotis may now be popular as restaurant foods that in countries outside India, people recognise these as the only breads from the Subcontinent, but the first reference to naan-e-taanur was only found in the works of Amir Khusrau in the 13th century during the Khilji period in Delhi.

Mughal Delhi, in the subsequent centuries, saw a rich bazaar tradition of naanbhais, or bread bakers, from who households and caterers would order their breads daily. This was pretty much like other cultures in central Asia (and Europe), where bread till today is not baked at home but fetched from the market.

Till even two decades ago, shaadi caterers from Shahjahanabad, restaurants and bhatiyaras (cooks who worked at the bhatti, or the indigenous oven) ordered their breads from the naanbhais and used these at large caterings. Breads like the khameeri roti, kulcha (that you eat with nihari and matara alike) and so one owe their origins to this medieval tandoori tradition of the common man.

Sheermal, as its name suggests (‘sheer’ meaning milk and ‘mal or maal’ meaning loosely connoting “rich food”), was an upper class food tracing its history to the Nawabi kitchens and those of the Avadh aristocracy. Initially, chefs and accounts suggest, it was made on a hot iron griddle and was not really a tandoor/bhatti baked bread which would have suggested a more plebeian origin.

As a slightly sweet and soft bread, this was perfect contrast to the spiced but delicate stews of Awadh and to Shami Kebab. That tradition still continues. Because it used ghee in the dough, it could be reheated on the tawa in the mornings and made for a breakfast dish in itself, with tea or milk-much like the parantha of upper class Hindu homes.

Today, however, it is bazaar-baked and many different recipes have crept up in different parts of the country. I asked Awadhi chef Mujeeb Rehman, who is quite popular with his caterings in different hotels and runs a restaurant in Lucknow, for the ingredients that go into a legit Sheermal and he told me: maida, saffron, milk, ghee with a pinch of baking soda.

This last, used as a leavening agent to make the Sheermal softer, seems like a recent addition to the recipe by chefs. Jiggs Kalra’s meticulously researched cookbook on Awadh has a recipe that uses flour, sugar, milk, ghee, saffron and two drops of kewra essence (another quintessentially Awadhi aromat, but which in my opinion should be optional here) without the pinch of baking soda.

As far as I can tell, this recipe seems the most accurate and in keeping with the historicity of the bread.Leavened bread did not make an appearance in India until the time of the Europeans. Pao in Goa and the subsequent “Double Roti” (because the bread expanded to double thanks to yeast action) are the two examples of this mixed tradition.

Sheermal may have begun as a home, unleavened bread and then gradually turned into a slightly leavened one in the bazaars as the Colonial culture met the older Mughal one.