21. HYDERABAD, IN­DIA

A DE­CLIN­ING TRA­DI­TION OF ED­I­BLE METAL-WRAPPED TREATS STILL SETS THE STAN­DARD IN THE IN­DIAN BAK­ERIES OF HYDERABAD

SAVEUR - - Contents - BY SARAH KHAN PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY NISHAT FATIMA

Sil­ver-topped sweets,

YOU HEAR THEM long be­fore you see them. The lanes off Charmi­nar, the sepia-toned arch in Old City that de­fines Hyderabad’s sky­line, pulse with the en­ergy of thou­sands of peo­ple on a thou­sand mis­sions: some brows­ing for ban­gles, oth­ers deal­ing del­i­cate crys­tal bot­tles of it­tar per­fume, many sim­ply search­ing for a good plate of biryani. But if you lis­ten closely, amid the honk­ing rick­shaws and en­treaties of women bar­gain­ing for lace, you can hear a mea­sured beat: tak-tak-tak-tak, tak-tak-tak-tak.

In a hand­ful of work­shops—most so tiny that you’d miss them en­tirely if you sneezed while walk­ing past—work­ers ham­mer at slen­der, non­de­script book­lets, cre­at­ing a per­cus­sive clat­ter­ing. All day long,

kari­gars, or ar­ti­sans, pound cubes of sil­ver into warq, the whis­per-thin sil­ver leaf tra­di­tion­ally draped on dishes in Hyderabad and be­yond. These shim­mer­ing veils were long a fix­ture atop both sweets and sa­vories, with gos­samer flakes cast over heav­ing plat­ters of biryani, qorma, and shahi tukda—lit­er­ally “royal piece,” a fa­mously deca­dent bread pud­ding.

Some credit Per­sian ha­keems, or doc­tors, with in­tro­duc­ing the tra­di­tion cen­turies ago; oth­ers say its roots are home­grown, in­spired by Ayurvedic medicine, with the del­i­cate met­als doled out as a salve for ev­ery­thing from in­fer­til­ity and de­pres­sion to mem­ory loss and in­di­ges­tion. The prac­tice thrived in the royal courts of Delhi and Luc­know in the 19th cen­tury, and soon, in­flu­ences from North and South In­dia, Cen­tral Asia, Per­sia, and Turkey com­min­gled in the royal kitchens of the Nizam of Hyderabad, where gold leaf was con­sid­ered an aphro­disiac, and sil­ver was val­ued for its an­tibac­te­rial prop­er­ties.

In a princely state such as Hyderabad—the sev­enth Nizam, Mir Os­man Ali Khan, who was anointed the wealth­i­est man in the world in a Time cover story in 1937, used the 185-carat Ja­cob di­a­mond as a pa­per­weight— blinged-out food was as im­por­tant as a blinged-out desk. The deca­dence of the state was ap­par­ent even on the din­ner plate. “The big en­ter­tain­ment was food—the food was so beau­ti­ful,” says Javed Ak­bar, a Hy­der­abadi food his­to­rian who de­vel­oped the culi­nary pro­gram at the city’s op­u­lent new ITC Ko­henur ho­tel. “On a rich man’s table, warq was a kind of pre­sen­ta­tion, to make food look richer, more at­trac­tive.” After In­dia gained its in­de­pen­dence in 1947, how­ever, and princes were stripped of their pow­ers and do­min­ions as the coun­try tran­si­tioned to­ward democ­racy, the en­su­ing decades also saw a de­cline in ex­trav­a­gantly gar­nished foods. To­day, you can still find warq on desserts such as

badam ki jaali, an al­mond cookie that’s a sta­ple in Hy­der­abadi sweet shops; qubani ka meetha, an apri­cot pud­ding; barfi, a milk-based con­fec­tion; and In­dia’s beloved betel­nut snack, paan. But warq’s ubiq­uity has di­min­ished, and is more of­ten rel­e­gated to elab­o­rate wed­ding dishes. “Now the use is very rare,” says Ak­bar. “The peo­ple have for­got­ten about it. The nawabs have gone, the raja-ma­haraja days are over.”

The dwin­dling pop­u­lar­ity of the trade is ev­i­dent near the Charmi­nar, where warq work­shops once num­bered in the dozens and now just a hand­ful re­main. “They all closed up,” a shop­keeper laments. “There’s no busi­ness left.” The in­tro­duc­tion of ma­chines that dra­mat­i­cally re­duce both the time and cost of pro­duc­ing warq are some­what to blame, as they’re edg­ing out the ar­ti­sanal com­pe­ti­tion from the kari­gars. But the ma­chines aren’t trans­form­ing the busi­ness; they’re merely eat­ing into what’s left of it: As im­pure im­posters laced with alu­minum or nickel en­ter the mar­ket, peo­ple are be­com­ing wary of the qual­ity of the warq they’re con­sum­ing. “Those with the ma­chines are giv­ing us a bad name,” one shop­keeper tells me in Urdu. “If they give us a bad name, their busi­ness in­creases.” What’s more, a void of wealthy pa­tron­age has caused a dwin­dling in­ter­est in car­ry­ing on the cen­turies-old tra­di­tion. Re­li­gious un­der­cur­rents might play a role too, with the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate fo­ment­ing ten­sions be­tween Hin­dus and Mus­lims, the lat­ter of whom dom­i­nate the hand­made trade.

Tiny warq op­er­a­tions, such as Charmi­nar Warq Shop, MA Warq, It­te­had Warq, and UTC Leaf, are still ply­ing their wares, and the kari­gars con­tinue to help set the rhythm for the city’s sound­track. The vol­ume has de­creased in re­cent years, both in num­bers and noise, but the beat goes on—for now.

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