City Food – Sheermal Roti, Around Town
Bread from Lucknow.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
This sweet milky roti (bread) is found in every Muslim-dominated neighborhood of the capital — from Okhla in south Delhi to Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti in the central district to Matia Mahal Bazaar in the Old Quarter. It is said to have been first made in Lucknow.
“An unidentified Lucknow bazaar cook is credited with creating a bread called sheermal, in which water is replaced by egg, and milk, ghee and a little sugar are added,” wrote Charmaine O’Brien in The Penguin Food Guide to India. “The finished dough (consisting of refined flour) is rolled out in thin rounds, pricked with a fork, brushed with saffron-infused milk and cooked in a tandoor.”
Rarely made in home kitchens, the sheermals, stacked on top of each other, are displayed by bakers on their street-side counters. Very often the rotis are covered with a net-like material as if that will keep them safe from the drain-wet flies.
According to the 1883 book A dictionary in Oordoo and English compiled from the best authorities, and arranged according to the order of the English language, sheer is a Persian word meaning milk, and sheermal implies “bread made with milk.”
Sheermal is also called Bakarkhani – as claimed by Priti Narain in her book The Essential Delhi Cookbook. She asserts that the bakarkhani bread was “reportedly named after Bakarkhan, one time governor of Bengal.”
But author Sadia Dehlvi, who herself is writing a book on Delhi’s traditional cuisine, says that the bakarkhani bread was created by a Delhi resident who lived during the days of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, and that the cooks in fact needed to get a license from the Red Fort to be allowed to duplicate it. Conceding Sheermaal’s origins to Lucknow, she says that many Delhiwallas tend to confuse it with bakarkhani. She maintains that both rotis are different.
“A bakarkwani (sic) is dry and soft, while a sheermal has more ghee mixed into the dough, and is firmer and richer,” e-mailed Irfan Husain, a Karachi-based columnist who often writes about food in Pakistani newspapers.
In an ideal world, sheermal is served with a generous amount of ghee glistening on its top. However, most humble eateries in our city – and sheermal rotis are usually available only in humble eateries – tend to cut costs by sponging the rotis with cheap refined oil. Some bakers don’t even use eggs in the dough.
The bread is traditionally paired with spiced gravies such as korma or nihari, and is always sighted in wedding banquets. But I know a Greek Delhiwalla, a sheermal devotee, who always eats his favorite roti with nothing else but a raw juicy tomato. And, being from a Mediterranean island, he likes his sheermal to be liberally doused with olive oil.
Sweet and buttery