Food Stories: Shahi Tukray

Updated December 23, 2013

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Photo by Fawad Ahmed
Photo by Fawad Ahmed
My husband has two great passions in life, and one of them is meetha. Thus begins the story of my search for his favourite dessert, Shahi Tukray cooked to perfection.

What is it about Shahi Tukray that we love so much, like Biryani this baadshahi dessert can also be traced to the Mughlai kitchens*. However it somewhat remains a mystery as to how this twist on bread pudding came to the subcontinent?

Did Babur bring it with them in the 16th century when travelling to India, as most believe, or the British East India Company ate it in the form of bread pudding which later evolved into Shahi Tukray, a delectable Mughlai meetha seeped in the royal aromas of cardamom and saffron, sweetness of sugar and nuts and the smooth texture of milk and cream, a dessert definitely created for kings by kings.

In my quest to find the perfect Shahi Tukray I had to go further back to find how savoury bread become a sweet dish and that too a favourite of the desis of the world. Bread is a staple that goes back millenniums, it is commonly believed that chefs from yesteryears disliked, like modern times, throwing away leftover bread and therefore created innovative recipes both sweet and salty in taste to get complete use out of a cooked loaf of bread.

Photo by Fawad Ahmed
Photo by Fawad Ahmed

It was used to thicken broth and sweet pudding, used as croutons in soups, stuffing and coating as bread crumbs, stale bread could be baked, fried or stove cooked, or used as an edible bread bowl. In the middle ages a hollowed loaf, now referred to as the bread bowl, was commonly used to drink hot or cold sweet milk, puddings, broth, eggs; and this is how the bread pudding came to be, a rustic utensil stumbles upon the simple sweet goodness of milk, eggs and bread and the world has its delictable bread pudding.

There are many who claim that Shahi Tukray evolved from Um Ali an ancient Egyptian bread pudding. Legend has it that a Sultan with a group of hunters was hunting along the River Nile when they stopped in nearby village for some food. The villagers called upon their local cook Um Ali to cook up a meal for the hungry guests. The chef mixed some stale wheat bread, nuts, milk and sugar, and baked it in the oven. And thus the delicious Um Ali came to be. Another legend claims Um Ali to be a victory dessert made to order by a succeeding king.

Similar to Um Ali is the Middle Eastern bread pudding called, Eish es Serny, also called the palace bread. To make this dessert a loaf of bread is dried, sliced and then gently brought to boil in honey and sugar syrup, and garnished with Arq-e-gulab and golden caramel, this palace bread sounds almost baadshahi, and as we travel further east on the world map we can proudly boast our very own royal pieces, popularly known as Shahi Tukray.

Shahi Tukray, literally means royal pieces, shahi means royal in Persian, and tukray is a Hindi-Urdu word meaning piece, bite or scrap. So why did the royal khansamas decide to do away with eggs in this Mughlai dessert?

My guess that they wanted a textured softness in the bite instead of the fluffiness of eggs, therefore the un-crusted bread was first fried in ghee, or butter and then baked in sweetened creamy milk flavoured with saffron, cardamom and rosewater and garnished with almonds, pistachios and raisins, and finally decorated with chandior sonay kay warq. Legend also suggests that initially a little bit of khoya, milk thickened by heating (currently referred to as condensed milk), was used in the making of Shahi Tukray.

It is popularly believed that Shahi Tukray was a favourite of the Mughal emperors to break fast with in the month of Ramazan, thus the practice continues even today making it a very desirable dish at iftar, and a meetha famously served at the festive occasions of Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Azha.

History tells us that the Mughal emperors took a keen interest in elegant dining, where the spread was laid to sensory perfection. They played a key role in evolving the food of the sub-continent by merging the flavours of Middle Eastern and Western cooking with spices and ingredients indigenous to South Asia, thus gifting the region the magnificent Mughlai cuisine.

It is believed that the regal kitchen of the Mughal Dynasty was home to khansamas who were connoisseurs of world cuisine and developed dishes that were influenced by Persian, Turkic and Central Asian foods reflecting North Indian cooking, distinctly from Delhi, Bangladesh, Uttar Pradesh, Lahore and the Indian state of Hyderabad.

Double ka Meetha is a sweet dish quintessentially Hyderabadi. It is made using sliced thick bread, fried or roasted and dipped in rose water and infused with saffron and cardamom syrup. Butter, sugar and milk are combined with almonds, cashews and a variety of dry fruits added to the pre-soaked bread, served with a side of fruit sauce or a topping of cream or malai. This dessert appears to be a Hyderabadi version of the Shahi Tukray and is served at a range of occasions; from informal afternoon teas to formal wedding receptions.

Hyderabadi Double ka Meetha and the Mughlai Shahi Tukray are very similar in texture, or maybe one and the same as far as taste and presentation, but the kind of bread used in the two desserts can vary in thickness. Bread is called double roti in Urdu and Hindi, and it further fluffs after baking, thus earning the sweet dish its name in Hyderabadi language.

I want to share with you a truly luscious recipe of Shahi Tukray. It’s quick and easy and my dear friend Mrs Iffat Anwar, who whips it to perfection, generously shared it with me. She has made it for dinner parties countless times and a couple of years ago Imran Khan was seen enjoying this very delectable dessert in her drawing room as we sat over an intimate lunch at her home. I served the same Shahi Tukray for a birthday dessert, where the main course was Hara Masala Biryani, it was an instant hit with the birthday boy. Here it is from my kitchen to yours:

Photo by Fawad Ahmed
Photo by Fawad Ahmed

Shahi Tukray

Ingredients: (serves 6 to 8 people)

12 slices of white bread (un-crusted)
1 ¼ cups canola oil
23 ounces whole milk
6 ounces sugar
1 to 2 tsp yellow food colouring
½ tsp cardamom seeds (ilachi dana)
4 ounces of condensed milk (canned)
15 to 20 blanched almonds, cut in slivers lengthwise
Chandi warq (if available)

Method:

Heat oil and deep fry un-crusted bread until light golden brown, put in sieve to drain oil, pouring drained oil back in the pan. Double stack bread in a baking dish, and in a separate bowl mix sugar with cold milk, adding food colouring to your preference. Sprinkle cardamom seeds on fried bread, pour milk and sugar mixture and bake in a pre-heated 400 degrees oven for 20 to 25 minutes. Take out from oven, sprinkle blanched almonds, pour condensed milk and bake in oven again for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool and serve, warm or cold.