“Hum mukammal khaana aur meetha vark ke bina nahi’ chakhenge, khaansaamao’ ko kehelwa dijiye”.
What if this was exactly how the exacting Mughal rulers decreed their royal cooks when it came to food? A decree because they intimately understood that food was as much about sight as it was about taste. Food as an entity is pregnant with histories that go above and beyond mere flavours and aromas. Food has always been a live storyteller. It has lived through eras, carrying with it stories that have aged but are still very much alive. One such story is that of Vark.
As you read this, let that word sit on your tongue - Vark. How many times have you heard the word?
Does it jog any memories from your childhood? Perhaps a Holi celebration that was incomplete without that Gujiya ka Dabba? And that one Gujiya that was indeed the last to be picked because it lacked that silver coat flirting with your vision and calling you over for a juicy-sweet bite! That silver flirtatious culinary masterpiece is the Vark, sometimes also pronounced as Varaq or Warq. An embellishment that adorns culinary delights ranging from the Biryani to the Shahi Tukda, Vark came into being during the Mughal Era when constant attempts to create something different, unique, and royal were executed in order to keep the King satisfied. From the Nawabs of Hyderabad to Lucknow to Rampur, every baadshah wanted food that would be a treat for the eyes even before one could taste it.
Vark is a simple sheet that is made with primarily Silver/Chandi (and sometimes gold) that is pounded in order to make it into a thin paper-like sheet which can then be pasted onto a delicacy, a sweet-dish or even the universally loved Paan. Vark, the word, has Persian origins stemming from the word ‘varaqa’ which means a sheet, a leaf, or a foil. Historically, the making of Vark involved beating it with the intestines of an Ox because of the elasticity and sensitivity of the silver being used. However, as time progressed, this process was considered utterly unethical and hence, an alternate route was taken to beat it and store it into book pages so the finished product could be transferred directly from paper to the dish for embellishment.
In present day Lucknow, around the by lanes of the Chaarminar and the Laad Bazaar, there still thrives a community of Vark-making artisans. It is almost like a legacy that was once established and has been handed down for generations, even though the larger existence of the Vark has visibly diminished. In Delhi if Vark has to be sourced for anything ranging from a religious requirement or as a culinary essential, one needs to travel all the way to Chandni Chowk to procure this precious strip. The search for the Vark-makers becomes a whole religious trip in itself.
At Irfan Bhai we ceaselessly work at preserving all that has made us, every riwaayat, every inch of a cultural legacy we have inherited. Much like how the pages (varaq) of love adorn the book of poetry, we adorn our Phirnee and Shahi Tukda with the age-old yet sublimely beautiful Vark.