The Nawabs of Awadh were known for their love of all things good. Their refined sensibilities made them patrons of the arts, performing arts, architecture and music; it also led to the evolution of Awadhi cuisine that is savoured and celebrated by foodies across the world.
This signature cuisine originated in the royal kitchens of Awadh’s capital, Lucknow, and is a blend of Mughal, Persian and local influences. The bawarchis or raqabdaars (royal chefs) would use rich spices like saffron and cardamom in their cuisine and cook the food on coal-fired tandoors. Among the most famous dishes of Awadhi cuisine are Dum Biryani, Yakhni Pulao and Galawati Kebab.
Lucknow is also popular across the food world for its rich and spicy Awadhi curries. But these curries wouldn’t be quite as mouth-watering if it weren’t for their accompaniment Sheermal – a mildly sweet, tandoori, flatbread garnished with saffron.
According to legend, Sheermal was prepared for the first time as part of an experiment during the reign of the first King of Awadh Ghaziuddin Haider (1818-1827), when the Nawab wished for a new type of bread for a special occasion. News spread like wildfire, not only among the royal chefs but also local cooks, who competed to make new varieties of bread to please their King. On the day of the result, all the different types of bread were lined up. As soon as the Nawab arrived, his eyes fell on this yellow bread kept on the dastarkhwan(Table cloth). He immediately snapped off a piece and tasted it, and it was clear that the Nawab had made his decision.
This yellow Sheermal was made by a local baker called ‘Mahumdu’ or Mahmood, who ran a small restaurant at Firangi Mahal for travellers in Chowk. He is also known to have invented the Lucknow Nihari (a slow-cooked stew with meat), which was equally popular in those times and even today.
For the competition, Mohammad had prepared Sheermal in milk, added zafran (saffron) and desi ghee, and cooked it in a tandoor. The Nawab loved it so much that he added Sheermal to his menu. Even today, Lucknowi cooks cut off a bit of the Sheermal before they bake it, as a reminder of the Nawab who broke off a piece and instantly fell in love with the flatbread.
At the time, the head chef of Mahmood’s restaurant was Ali Hussain, who later set up his own bread shop which does thriving business even today. It is located at the historic Akbari Gate in the Old City, in the popular ‘Sheermaali Wali Gali’, where an entire alley is filled with the aroma of bread and confectionery sold at bakeries and shops arranged cheek-by-jowl on the street. Ali Hussain’s shop started as Mohammad's ‘Jaanashin’ in the early 18th century and is believed to be the oldest shop to continuously sell Sheermal in Lucknow.
The current owners of the shop, Mohammed Umar and Junaid, say they are the sixth generation to own this business and the families of their bakers and other workers have also traditionally worked for them. At Sheermaal Wali Gali, you will also find other special varieties of bread such as Baqar Khani, Naan and Taftan. The ingredients of the royal bread have changed over time and today Sheermal has richer ingredients and includes milk, cardamom, zafran, meetha ittra, ghee, and some secret spices that are mixed into the flour.
Sheermal is one of Awadhi cuisine’s favorite flatbreads and is served along with Nihari, Korma or Galawati Kebabs. It is baked in an iron tandoor on tamarind (imli) coal. Milk is sprinkled inside the tandoor and this allows the flatbread to stick to the walls. It takes about 8 to 10 minutes for the Sheermal to bake.
Sheermal is so cherished that there’s a tag line in Persian which goes, ‘Nan-e-Lucknow, Shireen Ast’, or ‘Lucknow’s Sheermal is the sweetest bread’. Indeed it is, a flatbread that has gone from being eaten only on special occasions to one that has a place in every Lucknow-walay’s hearts.