Made from almonds, sugar and saffron, the beauty of these sweets lie in their simplicity
Every Indian city has culinary jewels which they guard with fierce pride and honour. Hyderabad is no different and in 2019, it even received international recognition for its efforts as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy. Conversations about Hyderabadi cuisine are usually steered by biryani and haleem, but there is also a rich history of traditional sweets that are woven into the fabric of the city. Winding by-lanes and back alleys are where these traditions are being nurtured and up until the 1940s, home chefs and Nizami royal kitchens were the hubs of their preservation. One such item that you can only find in a handful of the most special places is the sweet dish Ashrafi.
Made from a mix of sugar and almonds, coloured with saffron and stamped with the imprint of a Nizami coin, the making of Ashrafi dates back hundreds of years and those skilled in making them are few and far between. The process is labour intensive, long and also delicate which means they’re rarely ever seen on regular menus, and more often only on festivals and special occasions like Eid or Muharram.
The name itself reflects their luxurious nature, as it's named after the Ashrafi gold coin that was issued by Muslim dynasties in the Middle East and Asia. It was introduced in 1725 by Ashraf Hotak, the Shahanshah of Hotak Empire which he named after himself. It was the Persian inscription on these coins that still grace the Ashrafi moulds today. These coins, recipes and by extension the moulds were handed down over generations and are carefully guarded by families like the Hussaini's, which also contributes to the elusive and exclusive nature of these sweets.
The memorable texture comes from the slow-cooked almond meal, which is heated until it forms a smooth paste which is then rolled out on powdered sugar, stamped and shaped. The almonds are prepped to perfection by soaking overnight and completely peeled clean to ensure the purest, smoothest texture. In ingredients, it’s similar to another popular sweet store staple – Badam Ki Jalli – but unlike the sweet almond biscuits, Ashrafi isn’t baked just set at room temperature.
There is some debate as to who made Ashrafi first. Many believe it was created during the Nizami era by migrants coming into the city, while others say it came to Hyderabad via Madras when Nafees Hussani’s mother-in-law brought the recipe and started making them in her house for her family. Over the years, the recipe was passed down through the womenfolk of the family, giving them a means of employment and financial independence.
Today they can be found at places like the 100-year-old Hameedi Bakery or the more modern Meethe Miya in Banjara Hills, but arguably the best Ashrafi are the ones that come from homes and families that have treasured its secrets for generations.