Sheermal: The Story Of The Saffron-Scented Bread
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One story goes that sheermal originated in Persia and travelled to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan through the Silk Road. However, legend has it that the flatbread was the result of an experiment during the reign of the first king of Awadh Ghaziuddin Haider, when he requested a new type of bread. Sheermal was born, made by a local baker called Mahmood, who is also credited with the invention of the nihari. 

Within the Indian subcontinent, the Mughals carried sheermal with them. Galouti kebabs, which were made for the Nawab of Lucknow, a toothless king, were stuffed inside the sheermal. Made with all-purpose flour and saffron, this flatbread is softened with milk (sheer means milk in Farsi). It has a delicate flavour and goes well with a spicy nihari and or salan. 

Different Indian cities have different versions of sheermal and it is usually found in the older areas. Indian sheermal is round, garnished with strings of saffron. In Bhopal, however, it takes on a rectangular shape. Buffalo milk is a natural sweetener and is used to prepare a softer dough for sheermal. Some cooks also add kewra essence to it, and in Bhopal, cloves are also added.

Sheermal accompanies the array of stews that are eaten at iftar during the holy month of Ramadan and this is why the flatbread is most common in Muslim-inhabited areas. It’s also very popular in Kashmir and Lucknow. 

Lucknow is also home to Sheermal Wali Gali, which was established during the reign of the nawabs and is an entire street filled with bakeries that let out the aroma of freshly baked bread. The street is also home to other types of flatbread like naan, baqar khani and taftan. There is a Persian saying which goes, “Nan-e-Lucknow, shireen ast”. It translates to “Lucknow’s sheermal is the sweetest bread”. 

Today, sheermal is baked commercially and different recipes have cropped up in different parts of India. Some chefs even use baking soda as a leavening agent to make the bread softer. Despite the addition of ingredients that the original recipe didn’t include—like baking soda, cardamom and other spices—sheermal still remains a sweet reminder of the aristocratic days of the nawabs.