At 5 in the evening, the streets of old Bhopal are fragrant with the smell of saffron-laced bread. Men in skullcaps and white kurtas (tunics) stop at bakeries on their way back from the mosque to pick up a loaf of bread to dunk into the meaty stews that are the mainstay of Bhopali cuisine.
The bread they buy is called sheermal, or milky bread. Rectangular in shape and soft in texture, this bread is baked with milk, all-purpose flour (called maida in India), saffron, and unusually for this recipe, cloves. It’s easy on the eye and soft on the tongue. Locals use it primarily for dunking into rich mutton niharis and green pepper salans. It has a subtle flavor on its own, but mostly it’s a carrier of taste.
I don’t necessarily associate India, the land of my birth, with breads. Flatbreads, yes. There are over 40 types of flatbread in India, ranging from garlic naan that's baked flat in a tandoor oven to the parathas stuffed with anything from paneer cheese to potatoes. My favorite are the puffy fried puris, in part because of a Rajasthani story associated with them. Legend has it that the Maharajah’s cooks would put tiny birds inside the fluffed puris. Break it open and the bird would fly out. It is a fanciful tale, isn’t it—but how does one fry a live bird?
There are only two places in India that can rightfully claim an ownership of bread. One is Pondicherry with its French influence and the other is Goa with its Portuguese influence. Bhopal, where I am now, is an anomaly. It’s a completely Indian city with a tiny touch of France.
But we are getting ahead of the story.
The tale of sheermal is really a tale of the Silk Road. In Persia, where this bread originated, it was often softened with milk (shir means milk in Farsi, Urdu, and also Sanskrit). Sheermal made its way through the Silk Road to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Within the Indian subcontinent, it followed the Mughals, who carried it with them as a comforting carrier of food. Tender galouti kebabs, for instance, were stuffed inside the sheermal. Made for a toothless king—the Nawab of Lucknow—this kebab, made with minced lamb and a supposed 150 spices, melted in the mouth, as did the bread.
Today you can find sheermal in most Indian cities, typically in the older Muslim-inhabited areas. Each city has a different take on it: Indian sheermal is a round flatbread with strings of saffron on top. In Bhopal, however, it’s rectangular, more like the Goan pao bun.
For Indians raised on spicy stews and layered biriyanis, sheermal is refined and elegant like Persian calligraphy. “It has a subtle flavour of saffron, milk, and cloves,” says local historian Sikander Malik. “Other parts of North India bake sheermals, but only in Bhopal are they flavoured with cloves. The cloves are an addition created by the French Bourbons who came to Bhopal at the behest of the royal family.”
The Bourbons of Bhopal began with one man, Jean-Philippe de Bourbon, who sailed to India after having killed a high-ranking French relative. After a circuitous route through many Indian cities, the family ended up in Bhopal, where, over successive generations, they became second only to the ruling kings. They served as prime ministers, took on Muslim names, and amassed land, wealth, and power. Their influence over the culture and cuisine of Bhopal was subtle yet unmistakable. Currently, one family still lives in India and are called Bourbon-Bhopal.
The Bourbons flourished under the ruling queens of Bhopal. And here begins the strand that creates another twist in the history of this state: Bhopal, unlike many Indian states, was ruled by women. Muslim women to boot. Not for a year or two, but for over a century.
The Women Rulers of Bhopal
India is at an interesting stage in its evolution as a nation. The #MeToo movement has taken root here. Laws that once criminalized homosexuality have been done away with. Feminism is finding its voice in the subcontinent with more and more women questioning norms and seeking office.
Power, however, is still a male purview here. There are very few women leaders and those who exist are dynastic. In that sense, the story I am about to tell you is at once very Indian and very not.
The Begums of Bhopal, as they were called, were Muslim queens who ruled successively for 107 years, an improbable turn of history given that India was under Islamic rule and later, the British.
Jehan Numa Palace, where I am currently staying, belongs to descendents of the erstwhile royal family. Lining the walls of the lobby are photos of these ruling women in improbable situations. Here is Sultan Jahan Begum, the last queen of Bhopal, fully covered in a burqa, receiving an English viceroy. There is Sikander Begum, her grandmother, with a headdress and sword.
While the world knows Indian royalty as the Maharajahs, these were Maharanis (queens) who played polo, hunted for tigers, and governed with tough love. These were formidable, not only because they were a female dynasty, but because they wielded power successfully. Their rule ended when the newly created Indian government abolished the whole Maharajah system.
In 1819, the then Nawab of Bhopal—a man, naturally—was at a family picnic when a gunshot rang out, killing him instantly. In his lap sat his infant daughter, Sikander Begum. Standing nearby (clutching the proverbial smoking gun) was the Nawab’s wife’s brother, just 8 years old. A week later, as the power brokers and Imams of Bhopal held a prayer ceremony in memory of the late Nawab, his widow, Qudsia Begum, all of 19, took off her veil and announced that the throne’s rightful heir was the infant daughter of the Nawab: her baby girl, Sikander Begum.
Murmurs broke out in the crowd. Could a woman be the ruler? After all, the prophet’s wife, Ayesha, had gone to battle.
Young Qudsia spoke in chaste Urdu about how she would be the regent to her daughter. And so it came to be that four generations of women ruled over Bhopal: Qudsia, Sikander, Shahjehan, and Sultan Jehan.
Niloufer Rashid Khan’s great-grandmother was the last queen of Bhopal. I am in her dining room for tea. Her family owns the nearby Jehan Numa Palace and Retreat, which have been converted into—what else—a luxury hotel. Together with Sikander Malik, she is writing a memoir that weaves her life with the food of Bhopal.
Over cups of Suleimani chai, we talk about her love for fabrics, her education in Christian convents (an entire wall is adorned with baroque art including paintings of Christ on the cross), and her love for her city and state.
Cumin-scented biscuits line the table. Hot fried wafer-thin fritters arrive from the kitchen. The most interesting is carom leaves dipped in a light batter and fried. In Ayurveda, carom seeds, called ajwain (Trachyspermum ammi) in India, are viewed as a digestive.
“The cuisine of Bhopal is not as spicy as other Indian food because we had a variety of influences,” says Niloufer (as she preferred to be called). “You can really see the Ganga-Jamuna synergy here.”
Ganga and Yamuna are two fabled rivers in India. They serve as a metaphor for Hindu and Muslim. In Bhopal, the two rivers and two of India’s largest faiths: Islam and Hinduism, co-exist. Thanks to the French connection, Christianity took root and flowered here.
On the streets with a historian
The best way to experience the melting-pot cuisine of this city is to go into the tiny lanes, or gallis, of old Bhopal. There are meaty biryanis slow-cooked for hours and layered with rice and whole spices. There are vegetarian foods of different kinds. But what I’m most interested in is that most humble of dishes: the breads and biscuits that form the mainstay of the young and hungry.
At Munna Bhai’s Biscuit Corner (the entire sign is written in Hindi), a man in a black cap serves a variety of “rusk” biscuits that women buy by the bagfuls. Costing a few pennies, these biscuits are part of India’s collective subconscious. I had rusk with milk when I returned from school. Bhopali schoolchildren, presumably, are buying the same thing: some plain and some speckled with white sesame seeds.
Munna, the shop owner, points to the other circular biscuits. There is one from Kashmir, made with pistachios and coconut. Others are like shortbread cookies with cashew nuts on top. There are some with almonds, scented with rose water. The sheermal is, of course, his bestselling item. I ask him about the bread. Why is it so popular in the Muslim world?
“Sheermal is like a mother,” he replies. “It holds everything together. You can dunk it in masala chai and have it for breakfast or you can dip it in mutton broth for dinner. A lot of Muslims like it because it is quick, flavorful, and light. You can have it after prayers.”
With that, he hurries away to the Jama Masjid mosque nearby, built by one of the queens, for his evening namaz, or group prayer.
Sheermal goes with the whole array of stews to be eaten in the evening during the holy month of Ramadan. Called haleem, nihari, or paya, these are shanks of meat—lamb, chicken, or beef—slow-cooked for a whole day with bone broth to be opened for the evening meal. Fragrant and flavorful, they're eaten by the devout and the hungry after communing with the divine inside a mosque built by female rulers.
To experience the full range of Bhopali cuisine, you have to dine at Under the Mango Tree at the Jehan Numa Palace. The chefs at the property are sent to the erstwhile royal family for training in select recipes that have been passed down through the generations.
One evening, I share a dinner with a woman from London—a solo traveler like me. We are seated beside each other at the same table. Being vegetarian, I can only smell the fragrant meats cooked with spices. The vegetables are deftly cooked and lightly spiced. Best of all, again, are the breads. This time they take a different avatar. For dessert, I opt for shahi tukda, a fried bread that is topped with a thick milk custard and layered with mixed nuts and saffron.
Later, I order a sheermal to be had with light Suleimani chai. I dip the soft bread into my tea, just like I did as a kid. I take a bite and smile in delight at my new British friend. As a carrier of scents, tastes, and stories, this humble bread would forever be linked to my memory of Bhopal.
I could have recreated it in my home kitchen in Bangalore. But I chose to carry back four loaves from Munna Bhai. They were light and spongy, so I could stuff them into my carry-on backpack with no ill-effect.
After all, they had traveled all the way from Persia. They would do well on a domestic airline flight.