The sound of punching holes into a perfectly made piece of sheermal bread before putting it into a burning tandoor (clay oven), is quintessential to the symphony of many kitchens in Pakistani restaurants.
Hungry visitors wait with their piping hot plates of qorma (a type of spiced curry) and nihari (spiced meat stew) and don’t dare dig in until a warm pile of sweet sheermal bread with soft centres and crispy edges is brought to the table. After all, the bread makes for a perfect pairing with these hearty curries, balancing out the meatiness and spices with its sweet, milky flavour.
Chef Jahangir Alam has mastered making the bread for over six years in the UAE at Dubai’s Daily Express Restaurant.
Every day, the restaurant starts making these breads at around 8am, because baking in a tandoor is time consuming and they usually receive bulk orders for sheermal, back to back. While Alam admits he often loses track of how many he makes daily, on weekends, he makes over 60 pieces of sheermal a day.
The Bangladeshi chef said that when he first arrived in the UAE, he learnt how to make the bread from his “ustad” (teacher), another chef, who is an expert from Pakistan at making the delicacy.
The soft round bread, mildly sweetened with scents of rose water and saffron with its iconic holes made with a metal fork-like tool is clearly a favourite amongst the eatery’s regulars, and its versatility is what truly accounts for its popularity amongst food lovers.
Special bread eaten on special occasions
This milk bread can be enjoyed as a snack with a piping hot cup of karak, or made into a meal with a spicy salan (curry). You can even pair the warm bread with chilled kheer (rice pudding) for a scrumptious dessert on a hot day.
While the bread is enjoyed in various ways, many note that it’s a treat, which is usually served during special occasions or at restaurants and bakeries. It is rare to see sheermal being made every day at home, perhaps because it requires a tandoor.
Shahzaman, manager at one of the branches of Daily Express Restaurant, said that sheermal is one of the most popular breads sold at his restaurant.
"Nearly 80 per cent of our total orders during Eid are for sheermal, along with salan or nihari,” he said.
Shahzaman, who recently moved to the UAE, said: “I think sheermal is more popular with the Pakistani community in the UAE than it is in Pakistan.”
For 53-year-old Gulzar Ahmed, a Dubai-based banker from Pakistan, sheermal is his favourite bread. Ahmed fondly shared what makes him like sheermal so much: “Growing up in Pakistan, I remember eating sheermal with qorma, because that’s how they are typically paired, especially as a main course at weddings. Sheermal was always special for us. Sometimes, my friends and I would grab a few sheermal and hide them in our pockets to eat later. If there were leftovers, we would have them with chai (milk tea) the next morning.”
The sheermal holds history and memories
Often, rows of main dishes at wedding buffets in Pakistani weddings end with the bread section, in which, glistening pieces of freshly made sheermal are a favourite. The sugar in the dough brings the iconic shine to a cooked piece of sheermal.
So, for many Pakistani expatriates in the UAE, sheermal represents a festive tradition. Many from the Pakistani diaspora across the world have this bread to evoke memories of home.
Growing up in Pakistan, I remember eating sheermal with qorma, because that’s how they are typically paired, especially as a main course at weddings. Sheermal was always special for us. Sometimes, my friends and I would grab a few sheermal and hide them in our pockets to eat later.
For the Iranian community too, this bread harkens childhood memories. That’s because, over the years this bread has travelled along the Silk Road (an ancient trade route that linked the Western world with the Middle East and Asia) from Iran to Pakistan and further.
Even the name ‘Sheermal’ is a compound of two Persian-Urdu words – sheer means milk and mal translates ‘to rub’.
According to many online publications, this sweet milk bread was first made in the then Greater Iran, which today covers the regions of Western Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, Xinjiang, and the Caucasus. The bread then travelled along the Silk Road with traders, who carried with them several culinary traditions, to present-day Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent.
Another significant indicator of its historical roots, is the presence of saffron and sugar in the recipe, ingredients widely used in Iranian cooking historically, as emphasised by American-Iranian Chef Najmieh Batmanglij, in her book ‘Cooking in Iran: Regional Recipes and Kitchen Secrets’.
Over time, the culinary habit of using the two ingredients made its way into the kitchens of several neighbouring countries, too, as cited in the New York Times article – ‘Persian Cuisine, Fragrant and Rich with Symbolism’.
Sheermal, perhaps, is the best example of the use of these two ingredients being popularised in the region. The recipes may vary from country to country, but the love for sheermal is common, especially within the Iranian and Pakistani community in the UAE.
Speaking to Gulf News Food, Jr Vatandoust, General Manager of Farsi Restaurant, Dubai, said: "Sheermal is something my parents would usually treat us with over the weekends. We often went on hikes in Iran, and on our way back, we would be tired but happy because we would stop at pastry shops or local bakeries for a sheermal."
Vatandoust, who was born in Tehran, Iran, moved to Los Angeles, USA in his early teens, said: “Sheermal happens to be very popular in Los Angeles too, thanks to the Iranian community there."
For Masoodi, a 38-year-old Iranian expatriate based in the UAE, who works in the hospitality sector, the sweet milk read also reminds him of his childhood in Iran. He shared a fond memory with the Gulf News Food team and said: "Sheermal takes me back to my school days. Back then, my mother would pack sheermal in my lunchbox. I loved the sweet taste and soft texture back then and still do."
Pakistani expatriate, 38-year-old Naveed Ahmed, who is the owner of Nujood Sweets, Dubai, explained the two types of sheermals that are commonly made.
He said: "We have the plain kind, which is simply sprinkled with sesame seeds, and the other type has nuts as toppings. The latter is more expensive. You could say that sheermal recipes have been adapted with times with some variations.”
Growing up in the hilly terrains of Pakistan, sheermal was Ahmed’s favourite bread, especially during the cold months. He added: “The warm and sweet taste went really well with chai or tea and I have fond memories of eating them during my childhood." He recalls how people would gather at local bakeries and pastry shops after evening prayers to have chai with sheermal.
How is it made?
One of the key characteristics of the sheermal are the columns of holes poked into the surface. This method of poking holes in the dough with a fork-like tool is called docking.
According to Chef Alam, the holes are made to ensure that the bread cooks evenly, especially since it’s a relatively thick piece of flatbread. “The bread is quite thick in the center, so we poke these holes to make sure it’s cooked in the centre as well.”
The practice of docking is commonly used in bread making for various reasons. Poking holes or slashing the bread with razor-like tools also prevents rising while in the tandoor.
The holes also prevent steam from creating large puffy spots that leave an uneven surface in pie crusts for instance, according to lifestyle website oureverydaylife.com.
The bread is quite thick in the centr, so we poke these holes to make sure it’s cooked in the centre as well
Sometimes, these scoring techniques are used to direct the rise of the bread and prevent cracks, according to weekendbakery.com.
While sheermal is usually made in a tandoor, you can try to make it at home. Chef Alam shared the recipe he uses at the restaurant:
1 kg maida or all-purpose flour
4 tbsp sugar
250 gms milk powder
½ cup ghee or clarified butter
5 to 6 strands of saffron, soaked in 2 tbsp warm milk
½ cup water
In a pan, pour water and add sugar to it. Let the sugar dissolve completely. Then, in a bowl, add refined flour, milk powder, sugar syrup, and ghee and knead them well to form a soft dough. Cover it with a damp cloth and keep it in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 hours.
Then, knead the dough again after taking it out of the refrigerator and make equal-sized balls. Roll them into a thick and round shape. Use a fork to make holes on top. You can also make them on a griddle or tawa at home. You will just need to cook them longer on both sides, for about 15 minutes on medium heat.
Then, remove the bread from the griddle and brush on saffron milk. Traditionally, once the bread is removed from the tandoor, it is dipped in rosewater or screwpine extract water and then served.
Recipe courtesy: Daily Express Restaurant, Dubai
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