While poori, paranthe and phulka have been amongst the oldest flat breads of India, the tradition of tandoor-baked breads came into the Subcontinent only in the Medieval period with the advent of the Turko-Afghan rulers. Naans and tandoori rotis may now be popular as restaurant foods that in countries outside India, people recognise these as the only breads from the Subcontinent, but the first reference to naan-e-taanur was only found in the works of Amir Khusrau in the 13th century during the Khilji period in Delhi.
Mughal Delhi, in the subsequent centuries, saw a rich bazaar tradition of naanbhais, or bread bakers, from who households and caterers would order their breads daily. This was pretty much like other cultures in central Asia (and Europe), where bread till today is not baked at home but fetched from the market. Till even two decades ago, shaadi caterers from Shahjahanabad, restaurants and bhatiyaras (cooks who worked at the bhatti, or the indigenous oven) ordered their breads from the naanbhais and used these at large caterings. Breads like the khameeri roti, kulcha (that you eat with nihari and matara alike) and so one owe their origins to this medieval tandoori tradition of the common man. Sheermal, that beloved of connoisseurs, however, is a more regal bread with slightly different origins. In the bazaars of Lucknow, this would just be the right time to go looking for some, to be had with spicy qormas and kebab as the devout break their Ramzan fasts every evening and the gourmand simply go looking for epicurean pleasures. The Persian tradition is at once apparent even as you take your first bite of the slightly sweet bread. There is the richness of saffron, of milk and ghee mixed into the dough (made from refined flour – maida) that suggests the refinement of the Persian culture (that influenced much of the Arabic world and seeped into India’s syncretic fabric through the Mughal kitchen and later through the kitchens of the Nawabs and the Nizams). Both saffron and a tinge of sweet (though no sugar is added in the original recipe) in the bread are giveaways to this Persian connect.
Sheermal, as its name suggests (‘sheer’ meaning milk and ‘mal or maal’ meaning loosely connoting “rich food”), was an upper class food tracing its history to the Nawabi kitchens and those of the Avadh aristocracy. Initially, chefs and accounts suggest, it was made on a hot iron griddle and was not really a tandoor/bhatti baked bread which would have suggested a more plebeian origin.
As a slightly sweet and soft bread, this was perfect contrast to the spiced but delicate stews of Awadh and to Shami Kebab. That tradition still continues. Because it used ghee in the dough, it could be reheated on the tawa in the mornings and made for a breakfast dish in itself, with tea or milk-much like the parantha of upper class Hindu homes.