Star-crossed lovers, a murderous villain who tore them apart and a heartbroken Diwan who wrestled a tiger to save his life are the special ingredients of a flatbread that immortalises true love.
Called ‘Bakarkhani’, the recipe of this crispy, spiced and layered bread relished in parts of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan was cooked up by an aristocrat from Bengal, Aga Bakar Khan, in memory of the woman he loved but could never have, Khani Begum (Bakar – Khani).
It was cooked up by an aristocrat in memory of the woman he loved but could never have
Travel anywhere in Bangladesh and people will tell you of the tale of Bakarkhani, which could well be a potboiler made for the silver screen. The flatbread itself is not as ubiquitous but can be found if you know where to look. In Kolkata, for instance, it is available in the old parts of the city although we stumbled upon it in a more urban location. It is a point of inclusive conversation at food events like ‘Breakfast with Bakarkhani’ organised by Know Your Neighbour, a campaign that promotes communal harmony.
The Bakarkhani legend dates back to the 18th century and is rooted in two protagonists who came to Mukhusabad (later Murshidabad) and went on to create history. One was Murshid Quli Khan, later the first Nawab of Bengal who lent his name to ‘Murshidabad’; and the other was his young protégé, Aga Bakar Khan.
According to historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar, Murshid Quli Khan was born a Hindu in the Deccan in India, in 1670 CE. He was sold as a slave to a Persian noble who raised him as a Muslim and named him Muhammed Hadi. Later, he travelled to Persia with his master and finally returned to India, where he worked under the Diwan of Vidarbha in 1698.
Hadi’s expertise in administrative matters drew the attention of Aurangzeb, who promoted him as Diwan of Bengal in 1700 CE. Now known as Murshid Quli Khan, he was accompanied by a young protégé who had travelled back with him from Persia, Aga Bakar Khan. He trained the young man to be a warrior, army commander and an administrator.
Indeed, Aga Bakar was a remarkable young man, and apart from being a military strategist, he was also a scholar in Arabic and Persian. The story goes that Aga Bakar was first posted as a military commander in charge of the Chittagong district in present-day Bangladesh by Murshid Quli Khan. While serving as Diwan there, he became deeply enamoured of Khani Begum, a beautiful dancer from Arambagh near Dhaka.
Unfortunately, theirs was a love destined to fail. A local kotwal or police chief, Jainul Khan, was also relentlessly pursuing Khani Begum. In what is akin to a Bollywood blockbuster plot, Aga Bakar once rescued Khani Begum from the ‘clutches’ of Jainul, only to fall into a trap hatched by Jainul and his police team. While Jainul escaped, people were led to believe that Aga Bakar and Khani Begum had killed him.
Despite the lack of evidence or a witness, Aga Bakar was arrested and produced in the court of Murshid Quli Khan, who was by then the Nawab of Bengal. Being a just ruler, the Nawab condemned Aga Bakar to death. Even though he had literally raised him, he sent Aga Bakar into the cage of a hungry tiger to meet his deadly fate. But, in a dramatic turn of events, Aga Bakar killed the tiger and emerged a free man.
Meanwhile, taking advantage of his absence, Jainul Khan kidnapped and killed Khani Begum before Aga Bakar could return. A devastated Aga Bakar settled in his jagirs in the parganas of Umedpur and Salimabad in Barisal district of present-day Bangladesh in 1742 CE, in an area that later came to be known as ‘Bakarganj’.
Under his rule, Bakarganj went on to become an important trading hub, visited by merchants from as far as Armenia and Persia. Apparently, it was at this time that Aga Bakar, who was fond of cooking, developed his own special flatbread or roti, which he named after the woman he loved – Khani Begum.
The new, layered, crispy bread became very popular and was called ‘Bakar-Khani-Roti’ to immortalize their tragic love story.
Later, the name was shortened to ‘Bakar-Khani’, ‘Bakarkhani’ or 'Bakorkhani’.
While Aga Bakar died in 1754 CE, his ode to the love of his life – Bakarkhani – survived, thrived and travelled across South Asia. Even though the flatbread originated in the area around Murshidabad, Dhaka, Chittagong and Barisal, all part of Bengal before Partition, by the beginning of the 19th century, it had travelled far and wide along with people, troops and traders. Apart from Bangladesh/West Bengal, Bakarkhani is extremely popular in Kashmir as well.
Interestingly, Bakarganj, the seat of Aga Bakar Khan, was once the hub of Kashmiri and Armenian merchants who traded in salt and hides. It is believed that Bakarkhani was introduced to Kashmir by these merchants, even though there is no documented evidence to support this claim.
As the Bakarkhani travelled, it also evolved. In some parts, it is a circular flatbread stuffed with cheese, dry fruit or sweet semolina, while in others, it is made with clarified butter or ghee, and it even looks and tastes like biscuit in other places. So, the Bakarkhani can be sweet as well as savoury!
Interestingly, this flatbread was once a part of the cuisines of the rich and powerful but is today the food of common folk. It has also has gained social importance, being served at weddings in Kashmir and Hyderabad.
However, with changing tastes and times, Bakarkhani is fighting for survival. Once easily available as street food, it is now found only in some pockets in cities like Dhaka, Chittagong, Rajshahi and Kolkata. In places like Lucknow and Patna, it is available only during the holy month of Ramzan. Interestingly, the Bakarkhani of Patna is made by Hindu bakers.
In Kolkata, a variant of Bakarkhani is a breakfast staple served along with hot tea in old areas of the city, like Mominpore. A small bakery, K Ali Bakery on Mominpore Road, has been baking this flatbread every morning for more than 80 years and selling it at Rs 2 a piece.
Despite the looming threat from fast-food joints, local delicacies like Bakarkhani have survived in small pockets – allowing the legacy of the grief-stricken Aga Bakar Khan to live on.
Cover Image Courtesy: Anik Hasan
Madhuri Katti is a Kolkata based physics teacher, heritage enthusiast and an aspiring writer.