Between Breads: Ramcharitamanas, Mughals and Age-Old History of Breads

“Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.” 
― Omar Khayyám, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Bread, the quintessential side dish that goes with most the dishes we eat, from Pasta to Vada Pav, and Roganjosh to Pizza. It’s hard to imagine our lives without these baked dough. For me, bread itself is a complete meal and always comes handy. It’s wonderful to see how these bread shops have become omnipresent, in no time!

Interestingly, this palatable piece of bread and I too have a history. I remember preparing my first dish at the age of 9. My Ammi was sick and instructed me to cook only vegetables. But I tried my hands on roti as well as I wanted to serve a complete meal to Ammi and my brother Shabi in the absence of Abbi. My hands on that rolling pin and board, struggling hard to shape them round, I ultimately resorted to that lid of the steel box lying in the corner near the kitchen window. Of course, Ammi and Shabi were dismissive of my thick, disc-shaped, undercooked rotis easily qualified to be used to knock off the enemies instead.  I think from then onward, my pursuit to make perfect rotis under Ammi’s guidance began.

Roti is so basic and essential that even, the Great Mughal Emperor Akbar was fond of it as we find its mention in Ain-I-Akbari. Although, the humble dish also got introduced to other leavened and unleavened forms of Bakarkhani, Sheermal or Kulchas, popular in the streets of Old Delhi, Lucknow, Hyderabad and Bhopal to mention few.  People mostly prefer these breads with curry to enrich their dining experience.

IMG_20180607_211317_Bokeh-01
Bread from Old Delhi | Picture Courtesy: Sadaf Hussain

In 2004, at an excavation site in modern-day Israel, scientists found 22,000-year-old barley grains caught in a grinding stone showing the early use of grains by our ancestors to prepare their dishes. According to Howard Miller, a Food historian and Professor at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, there might be a possibility of early humans eating unleavened flat breads either cooked on hot stones or baked in direct fire. The first leavened bread was however, made in 1000 BC with semi-domesticated yeast but the time and origin is debatable.

When we hear about bread, we talk about the European and Middle-Eastern countries like France and Israel respectively to trace its origins.  But back in India, there is a mention of ‘paratha’ denoting stuffed bread called ‘purodhashas’ which were offered to deities during Vedic rituals. The word ‘roti’ finds a mention in Ramcharitamanas, the 16th century epic by Tulsidas. Kannada literature written between 10th and 18th century also have mentions roti.

In India, we have wide range of breads which are specialty of the region they originated from, like khubba roti from the desserts of Rajasthan, or Akki Roti from Karnataka, Luchi from Kolkata, Litti from Bihar, Taftan from Uttar Pradesh or Sheermal from Delhi/Lucknow. Each bread has its own story to tell but behind every kind of bread there is the usage of same ingredients; flour, water, salt and sugar, which when kneaded together bring out different qualities and flavor in the breads depending on the kneading technique.

Famous Mughal bread
Javed Famous Nahari, Okhla | Picture Courtesy: Sadaf Hussain

As we step forward, we realize, bread is a perfect example of amalgamation of pancha mahabhuta, or five great elements as per Ayurveda. We need the flour which comes from the mother earth, knead with water, incorporate air to make it fluffy, bake it in fire and then let it rest and give it space under an open sky to mature the flavour. This is purely a magic for me.

As per the available literature, ‘naan’ was first mentioned by Amir Khusrau as ‘naan-e-tunuk’ and ‘naan-e-tanuri’ which was often consumed with keema and kebabs for the Mughal breakfast. The later Mughals further popularized the bread, with ‘stuffed kulchas’ and ‘palm-sized rotis’ being introduced in Shahjahan and Aurangzeb’s reign respectively. The dish was further experimented in the colonial era, with ‘phulkas’ taking an important seat in the British platter. The present day combination of roti and jaggery consumed widely in the North-Indian rural households can be rooted to the 1857 revolt ( Pal, Sanchari).

When I was searching for breads, stores and stories, I learnt that Mughals loved their breads a little too much. To explore this, I went exploring the beautiful and poetic lanes of Old Delhi, a space stuck in time. If you walk a little ahead of Karim’s, on Matia Mahal road opposite Jama Masjid, you will see bread shops beautifully lined and waiting for the customers and bread lovers. One can get their hands on baked or fried breads, sweet or semi-sweet and it was amazing to learn that the area serves twenty-five kinds of breads, all of them which can be derived from the era only found between the pages of history book, today. Then we have paratha wale gali which serves whole range of parathas and stuffed kulchas. My Naani tells me that paratha comes from two words, ‘parat’ which means ‘layers’ and aata which means ‘flour’, so basically breads with different layers and then fried on a griddle.

In the yesteryear, we had naanbais and bhatiyaars. Naanbais were the people with proper shops selling breads in bulk and bhatiyaars were for household who’d prepare rotis on a small scale. They’ll either collect the raw material from the houses or just make breads on order.

I remember, my chote mamu (Uncle) in our ancestral home in Bihar, used to call bhatiyaars during Eid. They’d come home in the evening and take all the ingredients to bring us freshly baked khamiri roti in the morning, wrapped in red or green clothes. We used to pair them up with Nihari.

For a lot of North Indians, breads are limited to Khamiri or Roomali roti or Tandoori Naan, while they are important and go beautifully with dishes specially curry based but we must not forget the other few breads little less popular in the mainstream food world.

Fresh Sheermaal at a store in Nizamuddin, New Delhi
Fresh Sheermaal at a store in Nizamuddin, New Delhi | Picture Courtesy: Sadaf Hussain

Sheermal

Sheermal comes from two Persian words ‘sheer’ meaning milk and ‘mal’ (or maal) meaning expensive ingredients like dry fruits. As the preparation suggests, this was rich man’s food and was served in the royal kitchens of Avadh. Unlike nowadays, instead of tandoor these breads were cooked on a hot iron griddle. This is a slightly sweet bread with multiple layers like a French pastry and the delicate flavour goes well with Indian ishtoo(stew) or any other curry based spicy dish.

Kulcha

Amritsar is, without doubt, the food capital of Punjab. One of the most famous forms of street food in Amritsar is the Amritsari Kulcha. These are stuffed mashed potatoes inside a naan, cooked till it’s crispy, enjoyed hot with a lot of butter on the top.

History tells us that Mir Qamruddin (an old courtier in Mughal court) went to meet his spiritual Guru, the Sufi mystic Hazrat Nizamuddin Aurangabadi after he got appointed as the “Subedar-e-Dakhan”. Hazrat Nizamuddin invited him for a meal and offered him kulchas and asked hungry Qamruddin to eat much. Mir Qamruddin stuffed himself with seven kulchas. Post this, Hazrat Nizamuddin prophesied that one day he would be the king and that his descendants would rule for seven generations. This prophecy came true. Soon after Mir Qamruddin came to Deccan, Nadir Shah invaded and sacked Delhi. All vestiges of Mughal power were gone. The Nizams, who were simply governors, declared their de facto rule in the Deccan, and became the richest kings of the biggest kingdom in India. And with that, the kulcha, which was a humble replacement of the naan, earned its place in royal cuisine.

Bakarkhani

This is one of the most un-explored breads of the Mughal era. People don’t get the real flaky and puffed bread, but the tradition is still alive with a few naanbais in old Delhi, Lucknow and its place of origin, Hyderabad. According to an interview of Sadaf Yasin published in Times of India, she says the secret of bakarkhani making is in the way it is baked. She said, this bread is not native to Hyderabad and hence, there were only a few trained bakers in the city who would bake only for special occasion owning to the labor it asks for. Although, Anoothi Vishal says it perhaps has originated in Hyderabad, she quotes Chef Mujeeb Rehman “and was always a baked bread, made in the bhattis. It also uses fresh yeast and baking powder for leavening”.

Reema Islam in her article published in Epicure and Culture, narrates a beautiful folklore about bakarkhani

Legend describes how Aga Bakar, a general in the army of Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah in the 1800s, fell in love with a courtesan called Khani begum, who was also the love interest of a rival general. She was eventually murdered as a result of her two feuding suitors, and the distraught lover Bakar is said to have inspired bread-makers to name his favorite bakery item as an ode to his love. The name thus morphed from “Bakar-Khani” into “bakarkhani.”

The tale is popular in Bangladeshi folklore, and the old part of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, still follows an age-old tradition of waking up to the smell of freshly baked bakarkhanis with sweetened milk tea.

On this 9th day of December, we celebrate Indian Bread’s Day to relook at our rich cultural history of breads. The is a huge variety of breads available in Indian markets which go good with dry or gravy-based dishes. The flavours of bread enhances the dining experience of the main dish and often it is the humble bread which becomes the main dish.

Let’s get breakin’.

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