The beauty about Indian cuisine is that each and every dish that is a part of its culinary dictionary is addictive. Flatbreads for instance. Though they are the perfect (and necessary) accompaniment to any dish, they have their very own unique identity and fan-base. We Indians are perfectly adept at turning any of our flatbreads, by which I mean roti, chapatti, paratha, naan or kulcha, into a roll or taco or burrito in an instant with as little a filling as a generous layer of ghee (clarified butter), cream, sugar et al.
Yet, if there is one single flatbread that has been the front runner in terms of addictiveness across India is the Naan. Developed around 2,500 years ago, Naan originated by virtue of an experiment, after the arrival of yeast in India from Egypt (where the yeast was being used to brew beer and make leavened breads since 187 BC).
However, in India, the breads were mostly chapattis and thick rotis that could survive for at least a week and were developed during the Harappan culture, when wheat was also cultivated. But it took the civilization another 100 odd years to come up with a tandoor-based fermented bread variation. Due to its pairing with Mughlai and North Frontier cuisine, many believe Naan, like kebabs that came from Persia, was developed by the Persians and the Mughals. However, the first recorded history of Naan found in the notes of the Indo-Persian poet Amir Kushrau, dates this unleavened bread to 1300 AD. Then Naan was cooked at the Imperial Court in Delhi as naan-e-tunuk (light bread) and naan-e-tanuri (cooked in a tandoor oven). During the Mughal era in India from around 1526, Naan accompanied by keema or kebab was a popular breakfast food of the royals.
For most part of the glorious independent India, Naan, due to its kneading technique and use of yeast, which at that time was limited to the richer section of the society, remained a delicacy that was made in royal households and those of nobles. And though there are sparing mentions of the naan reaching the common man by the end of the 1700s, Naan did remain, and still does, a specialised art that only a few were privy to, and fewer mastered it. What however the naan did was help develop yet another common yet lovable flatbread on the culinary table – the tandoori roti made of the dough of maida and atta in the common tandoor. And while it didn’t have that softness of the naan, it came out as a crunchy flatbread that complimented the succulence of a meat or vegetarian dishes.
Another invention that naan initiated was that of a kulcha. Made using self raising flour with raising agents like baking soda, it almost replicated naan in its chewiness and soft bite. Plus it was easy to cook on a tawa or a brick kiln, which made it easily accessible to the masses and royalty. And while this led to its popularity in North of India – unlike Naan which did reach Southern India but remained in the confines of the royalty – it also spewed a whole new era of innovation. This is how the famous Amritsari kuclha was born, which many say was a take on the aloo ke paratha. Of course other variation had the Kashmiri and Peshwari naan, which essentially was kulchas stuffed with fruits and dry fruits along with the meat. Khansamas in the royal kitchen would often serve kulchas stuffed with vegetables and meat in place of the famous naan that had turned into the official bread for breakfast and lunch by the time Shah Jehan took to the throne. In fact, the king, during his exile, preferred naan to biryanis. Aurangzeb too was fond of naan as it went well with all the vegetarian fare, especially the variety of dals prepared for the vegetarian king.
So who popularised kulcha? The Nizams. ‘Kulcha’ was in fact the official symbol of the Asaf Jahi dynasty and even appeared on the Hyderabad state flag till it became a part of the Indian subcontinent post independence. A state known for its shorbas, niharis and kebabs gave kulchas an exalted status than any other food product. Kulcha appeared not only on their Coat of Arms but also on the official flag of Hyderabad state. Which brings us to the question to why the humble kulcha was chosen as the emblem with the rest of the princely state choosing the lions and elephants and the mythological Gandha berundha (Mysore)?
Story has it when Mir Qamruddin, an old courtier in Mughal court, was informed that he was appointed the “Subedar-e-Dakhan” or the Deccan Governor, he head straight to meet his spiritual guide, the Sufi mystic Hazrat Nizamuddin Aurangabadi. Hazrat Nizamuddin invited him for a meal and offered him kulchas tied in a yellow cloth. Mir Qamruddin apologised for his hunger, on which Hazrat said that he could eat as many kulchas as he wanted. Hearing this, Mir Qamruddin wolfed down seven kulchas. On his apology, Hazrat Nizamuddin prophesised that one day he would be king and that his descendants would rule for seven generations.
This prophecy came true. Soon after Mir Qamruddin came to Deccan, Nadir Shah invaded and sacked Delhi. All vestiges of Mughal power were gone. Soon the Nizams, who were simply governors, declared their de facto rule in the Deccan, and became the richest kings of the biggest kingdom in India. And with that the kulcha, which was a humble replacement of the naan, earned its place in royal cuisine.
However, on the streets, it still remained a first choice of the masses. So much so that in 1930, over-looking the hustle and bustle of Regent Street, Veeraswamy, Britain’s oldest Indian restaurant serving Naan on its menu introduced the kulchas as well.