In the twisted streets across from Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid, vats of ghee-fried, sugar-soaked bread tempt passersby. Covered in pillows of rabri (sticky reduced milk) and jewel-toned dried fruits and nuts, this is shahi tukda, a specialty likely dating back to the same Mughals who build Old Delhi’s red sandstone walls.
Shahi tukda is a bread pudding eaten in Pakistan and India, and it’s particularly famous in Delhi, Lucknow, and Hyderabad. In North India and Pakistan, where it’s made of bread deep-fried in ghee, soaked in sugar syrup, and then piled high with rabri and dried fruit and nuts, it’s called shahi tukda, meaning “royal piece.” In Hyderabad, the dish is baked after the rabri and bread are combined, and it’s referred to as Hyderabadi double ka meetha, or “double sweet,” after the local word for Western-style leavened bread, “double roti” (so-called because of the rising process). Both versions are often dressed up with shiny silver warq meant to mark festive occasions and beguile potential customers. Shahi tukda is a favorite street food as well as a home dessert preparation. It’s particularly popular during Ramadan, when it’s eaten to break the daily fast, and on Eid, when it’s eaten to celebrate the end of the month of fasting.
Considered a part of Mughlai and Awadhi North Indian aristocratic cuisines, shahi tukda’s origins are mysterious. Some say that Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, brought it with him to South Asia in the 16th century, and that it descends from Middle Eastern bread puddings such as eish es serny and the Egyptian um ali. Others claim the sweet is actually a Mughal take on the bread pudding brought by British East India company officers in the 17th century. While it may have originally been made with roti or even with fried clotted cream, shahi tukda is now mostly made with sliced packaged English bread, demonstrating the culinary creativity with which South Asian people responded to colonialism.
Shahi tukda’s origins may be up for debate, but its deliciousness is not. Visitors to Delhi, Karachi, Lucknow, and Hyderabad will find shahi tukda and double ka meetha on the menu in local restaurants or overflowing from huge vats on the Old City streets. The sweet can also be found in Indian and Pakistani restaurants abroad. While upscale restaurants across South Asia serve contemporary versions of the classic, including shahi tukda–inspired sandwiches and deconstructed shahi tukda “shots,” nothing can beat the sugar rush of the original.