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Baqar Khani: Bread of sweet and salty love story

Food 11 Feb 2021
Eat-Well
Baqar Khani
© Umme Salma Alam | Dreamstime.com

Talking of flatbreads, or ‘naan’, as they are known in Persian, besides the ones drawn directly from Persian culinary traditions, Islamic culinary culture exclusive to the Indian subcontinent created two fabulous flatbreads that must figure in our series on ‘naan’: Baqar Khani and Shir Maal. Today we will journey in search of the intriguing history of Baqar Khani, a lovely soft salty bread with a dash of sweetness.

Love story behind Baqar Khani

A story that floats all around on the net regarding the creation of this bread, is about a tragic love affair. Murshidquli Khan ruled the province of Bengal, in eastern India, between 1717-1727. One of his brave military commanders, Baqar Khan, it has been claimed, angered Nawab Murshidquli by falling in love with a dancer named Khani Begum, of dubious moral character. The angry Nawab got Khani Begum killed and imprisoned Baqar Khan. In a daring escapade, Baqar outstripped the prison guards, rushed to save his lover, sadly, however, it was too late. The bereaved commander, goes the narration, ordered his chefs to create a unique bread, unsurpassed in taste, and named it Baqar-Khani in memory of their tragic love.

Baqar Khani at the royal table

Thrilling as it is, the narrative doesn’t, however, stand close historical scrutiny. I have in my possession a cookbook, written in Persian by an anonymous writer. Titled Nuskha-i-Shahjahani it was published Madras Government Oriental Manuscripts Library in 1956. The editor of the cookbook, Sayed Muhammad Fazilulla informs us in the introduction to the book, that this version of the cookbook was created by close comparison of two very similar manuscripts: one preserved in Madras, and the other in London’s India Office Library.

And there is little doubt about its being a recipe-collection of Emperor Shah Jahan’s imperial kitchen, as the title itself suggests: Nuskha-i-Shahjahani, recipes of Shah Jahan’s era. The first chapter of this fabulous book is on ‘naan’s. It lists 16 varieties of Naans, the name of the fourth one being naan-i-Baqar Khani. Now, if we remember that Shah Jahan ruled between 1617 and 1666, we can safely discount our love affair thriller. Clearly Baqar Khani had reached the royal table straight one hundred years before that story seems to suggest.

Mention in cookbooks

Now the question is, was there a bread named Baqar Khani previous to Shah Jahan’s times. I haven’t found. Two imperial cookbooks are available before the era of Shah Jahan. The first one was compiled right at the end of the 15th century: Nimat Nama. Compiled between 1495 and 1505, it is a recipe book of the kitchen of the Gyasuddin Shah, the Sultan of Malwa, in central India, who ruled between 1469-1500. This book has no mention of Baqar Khani bread. The other is not really a separate cookbook, but a fairly elaborate description of the facilities, administration and food cooked in emperor Akbar’s kitchen, in Abul Fazal magnum opus Ain-i-Akbari. Akbar’s reign was between 1556 and 1605. This book also doesn’t mention Baqar Khani.

Hence we may safely guess that the bread came into being sometime during the reign of Shah Jahan, i.e. in the first half of the 17th century. But why such a name. Well, cuisines in medieval royal Indian kitchens often caught the name of the ruler in whose kitchen it was either first or best prepared. And we do know that there was an important nobleman who adorned the courts of both Shah Jahan and his father emperor Jehangir. His name was Baqar Khan. And if I have to really put my money, I would put it on this nobleman, guessing, without any direct evidence, that this wonderful purely Indian flatbread came from the kitchen of this Baqar Khan! Should be an adventurous cook, here’s the recipe from Shah Jahan’s royal recipe book.

Recipe

Wheat flour: 1Kg

Ghee: 250 Gms

Cow milk: 250 Ml

Chicken egg: 1

Salt: 20Gm / according to taste

Mix salt in flour. Keep kneading the flour by pouring the milk into it little by little. Make balls from the dough that fits the palm of your hand. Twist each ball into a thread. Keep twisting until small bubbles appear on the surface of the dough. Cover them with a cloth and set aside. Heat the ghee and cool it down. Pour it on the dough. Cover it and set it aside again. After a while take each ball and turn it into a flat round sheet by pressing with your palm.

Smear ghee on one side of the flattened round dough (‘chapati’s) pieces. Set them aside at the bottom of the kneading tray. After a while sprinkle dry flour on the chapatis and again set them aside. Then toast the chapatis in a frying pan and half-cook them. Mix the egg-white with milk and promptly smear each chapati with the liquid. Increase the heat by fanning the embers. Watch carefully to cook it well but keeping it soft.

 

(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)