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Lucknow Edible Silver Foil

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Edible sterling silver foil decorates Indian food at weddings. Here is how they make it in Lucknow and how you can use it on a leg of lamb to eat like a Nawab.

Indian chefs decorate their pièces de résistance with sterling silver foil. We don't get this in Europe because Indian silver foil does not conform to Western health standards. It is easy to understand why. If you want to make silver malleable, you have to mix it with another metal. In Western edible silver, we use gold or another edible metal to mix with silver. But in India, only Lord Shiva knows exactly what they mix in their silver. You can buy really edible foil from shops which sell professional confectionery ingredients such as www.mora.fr. I have both. But before you think I'm selling out Indian Cuisine for thirty silver coins, read on and see how Indian varaq is made and how it's used.

Lucknow is my favorite city in India: no tourists, great food, beautiful monuments and a muslim culture similar to that of Pakistan in some respects but very friendly to us foreigners.

Consumer therapy is cheap at the Chowk - most wares are for professional garment makers and you're unlikely to find anything to buy. But very unique and friendly and you won't be pestered by hawkers like you would be in Benares.

I have visited a silver foil shop in a back alley of the Chowk market in Lucknow, over the new year. The shop itself is only a hole-in-the-wall - or rather three holes. It took me two months to find my silver book again so well it was it hidden in fear of theft, then one month to manage to cook a dish to show you how to use this mythical ingredient.

Each silver foil starts as a paper-thin, tumbsized piece of silver.

A number of these silver thumbnails are stacked up between leather pieces, and a gentleman hammers them until the silver is stretched ten times bigger than it was.

The leather pouches are then handed to the man with the silver hands for a most delicate exercise.

He takes each leaf one by one with a flat and very thin spatula and carefully lays them between the remains of a local telephone book. This is very delicate work, as the paper is so thin than the slightest movement in the air will fold or break it.

A piece of the end product was produced on a leaf for our inspection ...

... then I could buy one of these eight silver books. In Lucknow, words are indeed silver.

This guy sells sweets made from reduced milk and adorned with silver foil.

Gulab Jamun, a common sweet boiled in syrup and hence a friend of the stomach-wise traveller, is often decorated with silver foil. The foil has no taste at all and does not play funny tunes on your teeth. It is nothing like regular kitchen foil.

Most of the few tourists who know about the silver leaf have seen it only on boiled milk sweets. But in my opinion it takes a roasted piece of meat to honor this ingredient's majesty. I have made a Tandoor-Roasted Leg of Lamb using a new recipe. The leg of lamb is scored, then marinated for two hours in freshly crushed papaya and spices. Another marinade made from ginger, garlic, lemon juice, turmeric and yoghurt is then added for another hour. The meat is cooked in the oven starting quite hot at 240°C, then the temperature is reduced to 75°C and the meat slowly cooks for 2 full hours to retain its rosiness. Finally, I roasted it in the guts of my tandoor for 7 minutes, then baste it with butter and let it rest for 5 minutes, and finally back in the tandoor for a final 3 minutes.

As the recipe is relatively similar to the Tandoor-Roasted Leg of Lamb I will only show you its silver ending.

The book is neatly tied with a string. The first leaf is laid on the 'D' section of the Lucknow phonebook.

The leaf shows flower patterns where the hammer has struck. The edges are slightly tarnished. Some leaves were fully brown.

Do not speak or your retribution for breaking the golden silence will be a crumpled silver leaf.

Close every door and window. Turn the kitchen vent off and tie every guest to their chair. A movement - any movement - and silver creasing will undo you. These leaves are much thinner than even cigarette paper. Open your silver book and choose a nice leaf. Stop breathing and carefully remove the paper from the book.

In one sharp movement, firmly slap the paper on the leg of lamb like a pirate patting the landlord's daughter's backside in a Maracaibo tavern. Don't worry about the telephone book page, it has probably already infused the silver with a balanced blend of the metals from the bottom of the Periodic Table.

At first you think it looks very much like aluminum foil, But then you notice that the silver is so thin it almost melts in contact with the meat. Very impressive!

Cut the lamb. Here I start with the tip which is grayish with the tenderizing marinades on the edges, but the more you cut, the rosier it gets.

I'm using the three pieces of a 19th century French silver manche à gigot set - knife, fork and bone handle. Before you raise the filthy rich alert and assume I was born with silver foil in my mouth, consider that I bought this set on Ebay for less than 100 dollars. Maybe you are richer than you think!

I love this ingredient and it will make for a memorable decoration on any centerpiece. If you doubt the safety of Indian 'varaq', buy some Western edible silver foil. Or use gold foil as I 'll show you in a future article.

Thanks to Mascha for her proofreading!



  • #1
  • Comment by Paul Mckenna
And how does the silver add to the experience ?
A perfectly good leg of lamb contaminated with the indian back streets. No way.


  • #2
  • Comment by Jason
fx, How did this silver "condiment" taste?
Apart from over all decoration, I can only imagine that the flavour of the meat is tainted by a tinny taste.
  • #4
  • Comment by Luke
If not for the possibility of heavy metal contamination, I'd say that this is a pretty good idea. Aside from being pretty, silver is quite effective at killing pathogens while not being particularly toxic to humans.
  • #5
  • Answered by fx
Paul, the silver turns this into a royal dish. Nothing like tin foil, mind you. I threw in some comments about the heavy metals as a joke, but really with the small quantities they'll keep you healthy!
  • #6
  • Answered by fx
Jason, silver does not taste like anything, although some people definitely have a taste for silver!
  • #7
  • Answered by fx
Dave, no the food is not 'tainted' by no tinny taste. It's just your mind that assumes that since the ultra thin silver foil looks like tin foil, it must taste like tin foil. But it doesn't and as you eat it it almost melts on the meat, so from up close you clearly see this is no tin foil.
  • #8
  • Answered by fx
Luke, I don't know it there any heavy metals, that was just a joke. You can get very clean silver foil in confectionery supplies shops and they are actually used on many high-end artisan chocolates.
Very interesting read, but not something I am actively interested in trying out.
oh francois, i totally love this!  not sure if i'll go to the trouble, but i am so glad that you did because now i know it exists in the universe. i'd definitely try it though - and i have gold dust that i use on desserts and cookies around the holidays.  it's so pretty on my pumpkin cheesecake...
  • #11
  • Comment by Luke
Oh I caught the joke alright, but I can't help but wonder if it's really all that exaggerated. Perhaps I'm just too used to seeing cold machines in place of actual people. Consmerism can do that. Still, that said, I do find the use of silver very interesting. I was only aware of gold leaf before this article.
Thanks for the terrific write up. What a poetic way to further honor the food. I also appreciate the consideration of what constitutes wealth.
I'm totally mezmerized by the pictures - just wonderful.
  • #14
  • Comment by Ariun
India is the second most populous country in the world, so the silver foil can't be doing any harm! ;)
  • #15
  • Comment by Ben
Will this work with gold leaf as well?
  • #16
  • Comment by ND
Beautiful! One thing that worries me, though, is that silver is immune to rust—the fact that the Lucknow foils seem very susceptible to it is a bit disturbing, no?
  • #17
  • Comment by Ariun
#16ND: "silver is immune to rust" Where'd you get this idea? Silver is definitely susceptible to tarnishing, which is analogous to rust.

  • #18
  • Comment by ND
Ariun: all the "noble" metals are immune to rust, so far as I know. Rust is the result of oxidation (oxygen reacting with the metal, causing it to corrode), which is a bit different to simple tarnishing (also the result of an oxygen reaction, but only in a very superficial layer on the surface of the silver). In any case, tarnishing causes the surface of silver to turn a blue-black colour, and the rust on FX's foils is brown…
  • #19
  • Comment by Luke
Silver oxide is brown to black, and leaf is so damn thin that there may as well be no distinction between superficial and deep. Nothing to see here, people.
  • #20
  • Comment by Philippe
I can feel the metal fillings in two of my teeth reacting just by looking at the photos ... :S
  • #21
  • Comment by bk
I actually tried a confectionary from India today that had silver foil. I searched for a website to verify it could be consumed and stumbled across this one. I expected a tinny taste, but it had none.
  • #22
  • Comment by parshu narayanan
Dear fx,Your photo-essay on varaq was outstanding. It's the same word we encounter in your Moroccon pigeon pastille as Wark, and is Arabic, borrowed by Hindustani, for leaf/paper/sheet/layer. In the old feudal days, the varaq-wallas would come to the Haveli (manor, loosely speaking) with their leather sheets and mallets before important festivals. While the sweetmeats were being cooked in Brobdingnagian proportions by the family cooks, a mother or grandmother would part with a small bit of silver from the family hoard which would be beaten into sheets of varaq ready for decorating the sweets platters with. I once set almost set a fridge-frozen Indian sweetmeat on fire by attempting to warm it in the microwave - the varaq on the burfee started flashing! We are advised these days by our educated upper-middle class doctors to avoid commercial waraq because of adulteration. It is of course entirely tasteless and only a visual garnish.
"In one sharp movement, firmly slap the paper on the leg of lamb like a pirate patting the landlord's daughter's backside in a Maracaibo tavern." Genius...I laughed my ass off and people at work probably thought I was crazy. That is one of the best lines I've seen on your website so far!lol....
  • #24
  • Answered by fx
GunnCatt, you are wrong, edible silver has great appeal on dishes and it is nothing like tin foil.
  • #25
  • Answered by fx
Claudia, silver foil is just like the gold dust you use on desserts, you ought to try it, it's no trouble at all. Just slap it on the surface and you're done!
  • #26
  • Answered by fx
Callipygia, thanks for visiting, I think the tavern owner's daughter callypigian endowment might warrant such a silver tribute.
  • #27
  • Answered by fx
Gizmar, at last a reader shares my enthusiasm for this ingredient. When the lamb comes out of the kitchen onto the table, it's just gorgeous, glittering in the light with the smell getting everybody crazy. A royal dish.
  • #28
  • Answered by fx
Ariun, those who can afford to eat silver in India are not those driving the population engine, methink!
  • #29
  • Answered by fx
Ben, you can certainly also use gold leaf although I believe (not certain) that it is less common and hence less authentic, for what it's worth. But if you fear that your guests would think it's the shadow of the foil the leg of lamb came into when you bought it, then gold is your solution!
  • #30
  • Answered by fx
Nathan, we are not talking rust but tarnishing here, and you can find unoxydized sheets in the book. People have been eating in and with silverware for centuries and there are still people around.
  • #31
  • Answered by fx
Philippe, the silver foil is nothing like tin foil, it is so thin you don't actually taste or feel it, let alone does it wreak havoc with your fillings. You have to try it!
  • #32
  • Answered by fx
Parshu, thank you ever so much for your highly literate and well-informed comment! I admit that in the future I'll probably use the silver foil from Mora in France for safety. Amazing that 'warka and varaq have the same root, until then I assumed 'varqa' was hindi for silver - how naive! Do you know if gold varqa is also used in India, and if yes is it used indifferently with silver on various dishes, or are there recipes specifically meant to be decorated with gold?
  • #33
  • Answered by fx
Lyra, thanks for your appreciation!
  • #34
  • Comment by parshu.narayanan
Thank you fx, but let me confess that most of my learned comments stem from the University of Google :-). Silver and gold in micro quantities are a part of traditional Indian medicine ( Ayurveda) and so are consumed but I havent ever come across gold varq on sweets or pulaos. Though Aryan (or Indo-European) languages, both Persian and Hindi are choc-a-block with semitic-group Arabic words, as a gift of history and Muslim conquest and contact of past centuries.
Hi FX. I think it's an interesting dish, just not something that appeals to me. I have consumed gold and silver in the past and it's an interesting luxury that looks beautiful.
It's worth noting that consumption of silver can cause argyria. I imagine one would have to consume large amounts to get to that stage however.
  • #36
  • Answered by fx
GunnCat, with the homeopatic doses used to decorate Indian dishes, your liver would explode on account of the leg of lamb overdose before the silver can get to you.
  • #37
  • Comment by GunnCat
FX, of all ways to go, that would be one of my choices :)
  • #38
  • Comment by Dueep J. Singh
Yes, I can understand the sense of breathless anticipation as you slap the waraq onto your dish and turn it into quelque chose d'exotique. But let me go into the medical aspect apart from the visual appeal of metal waraq. Metals, like gold, silver and precious pearls ground up are regular trace elements added to Indian cookery to keep the humours balanced and preventing "traces of melancholie". It might sound exotic to the Western world, but Ayurveda  and Oriental cookery demanded these metals be added regularly to the dishes to keep the man fit and fine and virile and the woman lovely , healthy and womanly. That is a quote from Ayurvedic treatises!

  • #39
  • Answered by fx
Dueep, I know a chef from Punjab who has a shop here in Lausanne and when I mentioned the varaq he was very interested and regretted not to be able to import it here in Switzerland. Is varaq much used in Punjabi cooking?
On my first day in India, I had quite a difficult time peeling some shiny stuff off a paan I was nibbling until it was explained to me that A) the foil was edible and B) paan should be eaten whole. Until I saw your post, I had no idea what the shiny stuff was. I can vouch that silver foil does nothing to contribute to flavour or texture.
  • #41
  • Answered by fx
Alexander, I´m glad my article helped you realize that by now you are worth your weight in pure silver!
  • #42
  • Comment by Sunit
Great to read about something which I've been brought up to treat as a very common decoration on sweets and paan (betel leaf_. But then, I'm from Lucknow. As others have pointed out, silver foil is used pretty much all over in Turkish-Arabic-Persian-Indian influenced cuisines. Only one nit to pick: the telephone directory is clearly not from Lucknow! It's definitely from a south Indian city, most likely Bangalore, from the addresses listed!!
  • #43
  • Answered by fx
Sunit, I really liked to be able to visit the place where they make the varaq, it's true one sees it everywhere but who has seen how it's made?
  • #44
  • Comment by Brains
Your site is so wonderful and full of amazing experiences, photos and explanations. Seriously, bravo! You have so many entries but I think I have read them all. I sent your site to a few friends and they are all obsessed already. Fantastic.
  • #45
  • Answered by fx
Brains, thanks for your kind words! If indeed you have read the 200+ articles that is quite a fan I have here. I'm working on the possibility of adding short video clips in the future - hold tight!
  • #46
  • Comment by parshu narayanan
Hi fx,
I remember you queried me ages back on the use of gold leaf in Indian cuisine, and I had not heard of it. Well, I just did a little while back - a friend ate "Kundan Kaliya" at the Taj Bengal ( a sister hotel of the unfortunate Taj Mumbai where I've spent many pleasant evenings - seems surreal now)."Kundan" is the Indian name for traditional gold  jewellry and "kaliya" is a mutton dish in a thin yellow turmeric-coloured gravy. In Kundan kaliya , an Awadhi dish, the meat pieces in the yellow gravy come wrapped in ultra-thin edible gold leaf for grand visual impact.
  • FX's answer→ Parshu, indeed it is a pity to lose such a fine restaurant (beyond the horror of course), I must say that Masala Kraft, formerly located in the Bombay Taj hotel, was my favorite restaurant in India so far. Hope it comes back while people the wound.

    Thanks a lot for mentioning the KUnda Kaliya, seems really in character with awadhi cooking, I will have to try it!

  • #48
  • Comment by Izharul Hasan
Hey guys, If you want these beautiful silver foils for the business or you just want to add delight to the food, then feel free to contact Bharat Arts, Chowk, Lucknow.
Contact person - Mr Mohammad Saleem ( Bauwe Bhai ) - 09336834741
  • #49
  • Comment by plato
Silver leaves/warq (or silver foil as you put it) is commonly given to the pregnant women early in their pregnancy. It is usually given with 1 piece of carrot or aanwla (Indian gooseberry) murabba (the fruit is cooked to tenderness & preserved in the sugar syrup. She is fed 1 pice a day along with a glass of milk. Silver (& also gold) is very good for the immune system & of course both kill pathogens on contact. Gold is considered heat producing & so is not given to the pregnant women, silver is considered to having a cooling effect. Gold warq too is used to garnish food in India, but it is used only in over-the-top ostentatious settings, not as a norm. FYI, I used silver bottle to feed my babies, the very same bottle my mom had used for all of us siblings. Boy was that a life-saver...no boiling or sterlizing needed. Gust a good soap & water wash, sometimes I simply scrubbed them with salt or baking soda & rinsed them. My babies never suffered from any colic or gastric distress or the childhood diseases. And not to mention that it was the ultimate in being eco-friendly & cheap, for nothing there to be discarded...it is silver, remember? Also served as an immune booster for the babies.
  • #50
  • Comment by catherine
Have been looking for edible foil all over Dublin,Irealnd,Do you know where I can find it???
  • FX's answer→ Try in some Indian grocery store

Text-only version printed from http://FXcuisine.com/default.asp?Display=162 - visit the online version to see many gorgeous pictures of this recipe!
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