Lucknow is a city of nawabs, naqqaash (artist), and nafasat (exquisiteness). You will witness it all when you walk in the lanes of Aminabad, Nakkhas, or Chowk. The age-old bazaars are full of zari, zardozi, chikan, kebabs, perfumes and people. You will likely run into one or all. Towards the end of the lane at Chowk, if you enter from Akbari Gate, you will find a small shop tucked in the shadow of the original Tunday Kababi. In this hole-in-the-wall shop, there sits an elderly man on the floor, all by himself, surrounded by four walls, small floor mats and thick floor cushions pounding little pieces of silver into dazzling edible sheets of silver or chandi varq.
His name is Mohd. Hafeez who runs the shop of Javed Ahmad, a distant relative. A bundle of 75 sheets of varq can cost anywhere between ₹500-600 which makes him a profit of ₹ 300 daily.
Mohd Hafiz, 62, a native of Uttar Pradesh, sat in this shop wearing a neat white kurta, engrossed in his thoughts and busy bundling up the sheets of chandi varq when I met him. “Before knowing about the shop and me, you must learn about Hakim Luqman,” he said. It is believed that trees and plants would talk to Luqman, and share the nuskha (formula) to heal. He was an wise man who had a cure for all problems and illnesses, but nothing to heal one’s vahm (self doubt)). Hence, the saying in Hindi, vahm ki davaa Luqmaan ke pass bhi nahin (even Luqman doesn’t have the medicine for self-doubt). It’s believed that Hakim Luqman thought of using silver in food to treat multiple illnesses. Mohd Hafiz said it was the wealthy who started using silver in tobacco and paan. But, now it’s an essential ingredient in desserts, savoury dishes and opulent food menus at royal weddings in the city.
In fact, Hafiz has been producing these sheets for more than three decades now. Unfortunately, modern technology is gradually killing this art form. A relative trained him in this craft, and led him to a job. He acknowledges that demand for hand-beaten varq still exists, although sweet stores and restaurants are moving to machine-made edible silver foil. In Lucknow, it is not uncommon to see food lovers placing chandi varq on galawati kebabs or even a plate of halwa. The sweets of Lucknow, from nimish, laddus, barfis to malai gillory must be garnished with chandi varq.
A small 8-10 gms of nimkara (silver stone) makes one sheet. Each nimkara is placed between nylon sheets, and put inside a leather pouch. It gets beaten lightly with a wooden hammer for about 3-4 hours on an iron panel. This process yields a thinner-than-paper squarish sheet, sallaq, that can measure upto 20 feet in length and breadth. The thinner the sheet, the easier it is to digest. Then it's cut into about 150 pieces. (Unbelievable, I know.) Each strip is carefully picked up by a fawda (metal tong) and placed on a newspaper or butter paper. The end product is delicate and only an expert artisan knows how to handle it. The final product is then packed in individual sleeves with 10-12 sheets and readied for delivery or pick-up.
Because of the widespread use of varq, several larger businesses now produce it using machines that complete the task in 5-10 minutes rather than the hours it would take Hafiz. For him, this is a huge problem, because it takes away from his income. Although he taught his children the art, he does not want them to follow in his footsteps. The reason:"Chandi varq mein tajurba aur sabr maayne rakhti hai jo naujawano mein aaj hai hi nahi; aur paisa bhi kahan ha (crafting edible silver leaves takes experience and patience, which our youth lacks; also, this profession has no money). These days, he says, it’s only the wealthy who seek out and appreciate this art form.
Silver and gold do not have any flavor, but they enhance the beauty of a dish. In Lucknow, people prefer quality above all else. Even though machines are taking over, there is an unmatched quality in hand-beaten varq, which only craftsmen like Mohd Hafiz can make.
After our long conversation, Mohd Hafiz offered me kali gajar halwa from the store in front of his workshop. He topped it with one of his masterpieces. As he said, it has no flavor, but silver on black carrot halwa felt like Mumbai’s Marine Drive on a dark night.
Sadaf Hussain is a chef and author of the book Daastan-E-Dastarkhan.
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