In this day and age of patisseries and bakeries, we often tend to disparage our desi desserts and prefer Western confectioneries. One such underrated desi dessert is ‘Shahi Tukda’. I first came to know about ‘Shahi Tukda’, (literally, ‘royal piece/royal bite’), during my teens, through a cookery show. The recipe seemed easy enough and the result looked delectable. Hence, I and my sister kept on pestering our mother to make it until she gave in to our demand. Made with frying small pieces of bread in ghee (clarified butter used in South Asian cooking), soaked in chashni (sugar syrup), infused with a hint of cardamom, topped with rabri (sweet, condensed-milk-based dish) and garnished with dry fruits, the ‘shahi tukda’ lived up to its name. It was indeed royal, in every sense of the word. Thereafter, it became a dessert that we occasionally indulged in.
As my academic career took me to JNU in Delhi, I found this old favourite in the twisted lanes across Jama Masjid. Huge lads of ghee-fried, chashni-soaked bread, covered in thick layers of pillowy rabri, jewel toned dry fruits and chandi varq (silver foil), tempted my taste buds to the extent that I became a regular. Just a bite of that mouth-watering dish would brighten the bluest of my days. On my quest of finding the perfect ‘Shahi Tukda’, I once landed at Zakir Nagar. To my surprise, I found that akin to Jama Masjid, the place was filled with small eateries serving the scrumptious dessert in small paper plates.
HOW DID THIS DELIGHTFUL DESSERT COME INTO BEING?
Considered to be an integral part of Mughlai and Awadhi cuisines, Shahi Tukda’s origins remain debatable. According to some, it is a variant of Middle-Eastern bread puddings like ‘Eish es Serny’ and ‘Umm Ali’. There could be a plausible link between the baked Egyptian bread dessert Umm Ali and Shahi Tukda. There are several narratives pertaining to the origin of Umm Ali. According to one such version, when an Ottoman Sultan and his troupe were on one of their hunts, they stopped at a village by the River Nile, to have some food. Umm Ali, a woman, locally renowned for her culinary skills, was called upon by the ecstatic villagers to prepare a meal for the royalty. With the help of ingredients such as stale bread, cream, milk, sugar and nuts, Umm Ali whipped up a dessert which had the hungry guests licking their fingers. The Sultan liked the dessert immensely and named it after the woman. Within a short span of time, this pudding travelled across the Middle East and became quite popular. As per this narrative, ‘Shahi Tukda’ is a descendent of ‘Umm Ali’ and was brought to South Asia by Babar (founder of the Mughal Dynasty) in the 16th century.
Contrarily, according to another anecdote, Shahi Tukda is merely the Mughal take on the English Bread Pudding which was brought by British East India company officers in the 17th century. Initially the dish was made by frying ‘roti’ or even ‘clotted cream’ in ghee. However, nowadays, it is almost universally made with sliced packaged English Bread. Thus, for many, the dessert is a demonstration of the culinary creativity with which South Asians adapted themselves to Colonialism.
THE HYDERABADI SIBLING OF SHAHI TUKDA:
Shahi Tukda also has a Hyderabadi sibling called ‘Double ka Meetha’. Resembling each other in taste and presentation, the two are not much distinguishable, except in terms of thickness, ‘Double ka Meetha’ is slightly fluffier. In Hyderabad, bread is colloquially called ‘double roti’ and hence the name of the dish- ‘Double ka Meetha’.
While Shahi Tukda’s origins are up for debates, its deliciousness is certainly not. Foodies can find this heavenly dessert in the lanes and streets of the older parts of Delhi, Lucknow and Hyderabad. One can also find contemporary versions of the classic dessert at upscale restaurants across India. However, I still prefer the classic version of the dish. Be it, ‘Deconstructed Shahi Tukda Shots’ or Shahi Tukda inspired sandwiches, nothing can beat the absolute royal nature of the original.
For my take on the ‘Shahi Tukda’, I opted to not get veered away from the original recipe and tried to make it as authentic as possible.
(Author is a research scholar at CSRD, JNU with a keen interest in history, food, lifestyle & society. She can be reached on Instagram at @super_sanskaari_naari https://www.instagram.com/super_sanskaari_naari/?igshid=ywlamc0ffptr )