Shir mal: Irani name and Awadhi taste
Etymologically the name of this amazingly tasty bread may indicate its origin being in Iran, I however, didn’t find Shir mal anywhere in that country, even as I toured across north, central and eastern Iran. Shir in Persian means milk, and ‘mal’ certainly is a derivation from the Persian verb ‘malidan’ meaning to mix.
Origin and documentation
Shir mal of course requires milk, but unlike Iran this bread is widely available particularly in two Indian cities, Lucknow, the capital city of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, and Bhopal, the capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh. According to my research, while this bread is a derivation from a Persian-origin flatbread named Naan-i-sheer, in taste it is very different, and was created by the great chefs of the Awadh province sometime in the first half of the 19th century.
Two important books explore Lucknow cuisine in the 19th and the early 20th century. Both are written in Urdu. The first one is titled, in English Translation, is Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture. Written by Abdul Hamil Sharar, it describes in great detail various aspects of Awadhi culture. Chapter 29 of this book is titled: Delicacies and Confectionery.
This fairly longish quote from the chapter clearly clinches the issue of the origin of Shir mal, “At the time of Nasir ud Din Haidar, a non-Lakhnavi who was generally known as Mahmudu, opened a food stall in the Firangi Mahal quarter. His Nahari (a kind of meat stew breakfast) was so celebrated that even the greatest nobles and princes used to show their appreciation of it. This stirred him to further efforts and he started a new preparation called shir mal which is the pride of Lucknow to this day.
Varieties of Shir mal
Many kinds of bread were known and eaten in various towns… In Lucknow, Mahmudu made great improvements on the baqar khani by producing the shir mal which in taste, scent, lightness and delicacy was very much better than baqar khani and other luxurious bread.” Nasir ud Din Haider was the second king of Awadh who ruled between 1827 and 1837. Well, that settles the issue of the creation of Shir mal. Abdul Halim Sharar lived between 1860 and 1926. So when he says shir mal “is the pride of Lucknow to this day”, it clearly means early 20th century.
The second book titled, in English translation, The Classic Cuisine of Lucknow: A Food Memoir, was written by Mirza Jaffar Hussein, who was born in 1899. Therefore, it can well be said that Jaffar Hussein took off from where Sharar left. His book has a whole subsection Shir mal itself. He reminisces that when Shir mal was invented it was known as Amiri Roti, i.e. flatbread for the hoity toity. According to him two things distinguished this special bread from the ordinary lot, rubbing and absorption of pure ghee and yoghurt on top of the bread.
How to make Shir mal ?
This is not really a recipe, but true culinary adventurers may try their hands from this description of shir mal cooking: The method was that some yeast was added to one seer (roughly one kilogram) of refined flour, which was kneaded with one seer of milk. The kneaded flour was then tied up in a cloth and left in a warm place for three or four hours… After that one seer of ghee was rubbed and absorbed in the dough. The process took at least one hour. At the most four shir mals were made from this dough.
After rolling the bread yoghurt was rubbed on top of it. Finally the bread was cooked one at a time in a Mahi Tawa ( a frying pan with a heavy bottom and raised edges). The Mahi Tawa was smeared with ghee, and milk was sprinkled at intervals. The Mahi Tawa was covered with a lid and with embers below the pan, and on top of the lid. When ready saffron was ground and applied to the shir mals.
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)