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Home Features Cover Features Warq, the silver lining

Warq, the silver lining

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It is like the proverbial covering to all things delicious, yet so inconspicuous by its absence that one hardly notices it at times; especially at times of hunger, when all you want to do is eat! Warq is present on all things that a true Hyderabadi would like to gorge on….from the all-famous biryani to the seasonal and much-in-demand haleem to the all-year favourite kubani-ka-metta to the can’t-do-without-after-a-biryani gulkand-laden paan and innumerable sweets.

Every time I have entered the lanes near Charminar to buy the delicious kebabs or buy a bagful of the famous laq bangles or visit my family or buy the fruits and dry fruits from the wholesale market, since I was a kid, the rhythmic sounds of continuous pounding would always draw me to the place; making me curious to know more and find out what it really was.  As a kid I was really eager to know what exactly they were doing and how, why they kept pounding away endlessly without a break sometimes and whether their hands are numb with pain. I would see a handful of men pounding away at the leather sheets with scarcely a break to make the very fine, pure silver warq (leaf) created by prolonged hammering and flattening of a small piece of silver. Warq - that is used in various forms, more so in sweets.

Any festival that nears and sweet shops all over are dazzling with multitudes of rang birangi sweets. You can't help but notice how many, if not all, are covered with a thin foil of silver. For centuries these edible, gossamer-thin sheets of pure silver or even gold have been popular decorations for special-occasion desserts, confections, even nuts and the good ol’ pulao.

What is Warq?
Warq or varak is a super ultra thin sheet of silver or gold. It has got a lot of other uses, apart from being a decorative ingredient in food, like medicines. Ayurveda, Yunani and Tibetan streams of indigenous medicine guarantee gold’s preventive and regenerative powers. The silver foil is used to garnish food in India and Pakistan, especially on sweets. It is also used as a decorative cover on traditional sweets, desserts, paan, zarda, supari, chyavanprash and also as an ingredient in Unani medicine.

Warq is like the cherry on top for many a dish; the final garnish on a special dish served for a formal/special occasion. In the days of the bygone era, warq was used to bedeck elaborate dishes along with saffron, pista and almonds. It must have evolved in the kitchens of the yore, who had elevated food to a sublime art form.

Warq can be easily found in Indian markets. These silver and gold leaf sheets usually come in packs of hundred for silver costing Rs. 150 a pack; and a single sheet of gold costing Rs. 40 each, with each delicate foil sandwiched between two sheets of paper. The extremely thin sheets are so delicate that they dissolve easily with the human touch and can be torn by the barest breath of air.

The best method to use it on anything is to remove the top piece of paper from a sheet, invert it on top of the food or item to be decorated and remove the paper since the warq will stick to the food. If warq is stored in an airtight and cool place it will stay until time immemorial. Just like some of the shops here at Charminar that have been around for more than 50 years selling millions and millions of warq to all the connoisseurs’ of the best things in life. Sticking to age-old methods, which seem to have somehow withstood time and the influx of technological wonders, surprisingly all warq produced in India is still made the traditional way, by manually pounding the thin pieces of silver or metal. S.A. Khader of Charminar Warq Shop says, “We seal them and put them inside the cupboards or storage areas to protect it from air and water. Else they will be tarnished and be of no use.”

What most people are unlikely to know is that this decorative item on the pure vegetarian sweet is made by pounding silver or gold pellets between two sheets of leather!

Origin of the word Warq
The origin of the word ‘warq’ can be traced to the first Arabic word for paper, kaghad, and by the Turkish word, kâğıt, used to this day. Both derived from Soghdian and Uighur words, which themselves are derived from the Chinese word gu-zhi, ‘paper made from paper-mulberry bark.’ Qirtas, another early Arabic word for paper, was borrowed from the Greek word chartes and initially referred to papyrus, papyrus rolls and parchment. Perhaps the most common Arabic word for paper, and the one in use even today, came to be warq or waraq, literally meaning ‘foliage’ or ‘leaves’, probably as a short form of the expression waraq qirtas, ‘a leaf of paper’.  Other words derived from warq are waraqa (a sheet of paper), warraaq (stationer, papermaker, paper merchant and, by extension, copyist) and wiraaqa (papermaking), as well as many compound expressions referring to paper money, lottery tickets, commercial papers, banknotes, etc.

How is Warq made?
Speaking about the elaborate procedure that needs to be followed to get the final product, Mohd. Sikander of Deccan Warq Shop says “Warq making involves a lot of sweat and time. First tiny pieces are cut from the thin strip of silver or gold and then these tiny pieces are padded between sheets of dried deer or sheep leather and then the sheets are tucked into a leather book. The leather book, which costs anywhere between Rs 8,000 and Rs 10,000, is bought from Delhi and lasts for about a year. The book can only take all the heavy pounding for a year or so, after which it becomes too thin to be used and has to be discarded. The labourer then smashes the pouch with a hammer against a slab of black granite. A hammer of two, three or four kgs is used depending on the person who would be pounding it with. After two hours of pounding, the pieces of silver transform into brittle, airy sheets of paper. Nearly 200 silver foils can be made from 10 grams of silver. The prices of gold and sometimes silver change according to the market rate.” The left-over or tiny shreds of silver that fall off the leather book are saved and then made into a thin strip of silver at the silversmith. Nothing goes waste here, why should it?, Sikander states matter-of-factly.

The thin strips of silver or gold are made by rolling small silver or gold tablets in the sheet machines to come out with an elongated and thin strip of choice. A. Vishnu Murthy of Jyoti Die Cutters, where most of them get their strips elongated says “the vendor gives the order and we then do it. Earlier everything was done manually but now with an increase in production, we have started using electricity for the machines.” An estimated 500 labourers are working in the warq shops and are being paid a daily wage of Rs 100 or Rs. 150 per day.

According to Khader, who has been in the warq business for more than 50 years, “Legend has it that a Delhiite, Azmath Dhar Khan introduced the warq manufacturing business to Hyderabad more than 200 years ago. Initially, there were only a handful of shops and with warq gaining importance business grew by leaps and bounds. At present, there are many shops in Hyderabad and these are all old family businesses.”

History of metal in food
According to history, the use of gold and silver in food was not restricted to India alone. They have been eaten for centuries by Native Americans, some of whom believed that eating pure pulverized gold can allow humans to levitate.

Silver has been used as a medicine and preservative by many cultures throughout history. The Greeks and others used silver vessels for water and other liquids to keep them fresh. Pioneers trekking across the Wild West generations ago faced many hardships. Keeping safe drinking water was one of them. Bacteria, algae, etc. found a fertile breeding ground in the wooden water casks that were carried on the wagons. They placed silver and copper coins in the casks to retard the growth of these spoilage organisms. They also put silver dollars in their milk to keep it fresh.

Settlers in the Australian outback still suspend silverware in their water tanks to retard spoilage. Silver water purification filters and tablets are manufactured in Switzerland and used by many nations and international airlines.

According to a report in a reputed newspaper, India's top demand for oral gold comes from hakim and vaidya. In Ayurveda it says gold improves complexion and helps boost digestion and metabolism, strengthen defence mechanism, alleviate and prevent infections, aid growth and above all prolong life. It is believed by some that gold is used for longevity and is an anti-oxidant that helps retard aging. Gold has also been called a memory booster and serves mainly as a catalyst when mixed with medicinal herbs and enhances the drug's effectiveness. Medicines come topped with warq or mixed with a few milligrams of gold powder.

According to legend, gold is also an aphrodisiac and it seems that the kings and their courtesans alike were served warq in generous mounds and it was used to bedeck elaborate dishes combined with saffron, pista and almonds. Gold warq is pure twenty four carat, since it would break if any other lower metals are added to it.

Legend also says that in the tale of Shah Jahaan who was incarcerated by son Aurangzeb and allowed only one meal a day, his physician created a dish (that contained gold) called Shahjahaani Korma, which kept him going and also alleviated his health problems. 

Lamb and chicken biryani is also topped with gold warq and blue-blooded gulkand paan too for a couple of hundred rupees. The Hyderabadi biryani is a famous meat and rice dish of Hyderabad. It is a traditional celebration meal made using goat meat and rice and is a staple of Hyderabadi cuisine. This variety is popular in the city of Hyderabad. The blending of Mughlai and Telangana cuisines in the kitchens of the Nizam, ruler of the historic Hyderabad State, resulted in the creation of Hyderabadi biryani.

History says that biryani was brought to Hyderabad by the invading Mughal army of Aurangazeb under the command of Khwaja Abid, the grandfather of the first Nizam of Hyderabad. As traditional food, such as cooked rice and/or roti (a type of Indian bread) and an assortment of soups and curries, would be too time consuming to prepare and eat in times of war, the biryani was developed as a way of getting quick food to the troops. The silver warq topping adds to the richness and delicacy of the biryani.

Mumbai is the biggest buyer of both gold and silver warq. While Jaipur supplies five to ten kilos of gold warqs and about hundred kilos of silver warq every month, Hyderabad sells about fifty kilos of silver warq to Mumbai every month. 

“During festivals like Diwali and marriage season, demand from big cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata increases,” says Syed Faiz of Deccan Warq.

Warq (silver or gold) adds an impressive touch to sweets or just about anything and makes a meal appear to be extravagant. If you are worried about consuming gold or silver, not to worry! It’s safe to eat; metallic gold is biologically inert, which is why dentists use it for fillings, caps and crowns.

Khader says that people are ignoring the good qualities of silver foils and are using modern medicines. Speaking on the medicinal properties of silver foils he says, “Consuming one gram of silver or gold foil a month keeps you energetic and full of beans. And that is the reason why silver foils are being used in Unani medicine for centuries,” he said.

The incharge of a popular sweet shop at Musheerbad ‘Shivnath Bajrang Lal’ says that they use silver just to make it look more appeasing and that it does not have any effect on the taste.

Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan and many others have immortalized the paan in their movies and adding sheen to it is the silver or gold warq on it.

Visit any of the bigger paan shops and it has a menu where you can take your pick from the ingredients like supari, gulkand, qiwam, kattha, chuna and tobacco on display like it were a showroom. Some also serve a designer paan with real silver and gold warq which costs a mind boggling Rs. 2,500!

S A Khader of Charminar Warq shop said that the Indian warq business, estimated to be around Rs 165 crore, manufactures close to 275 tonnes of silver foils annually.

Rashid of Deccan Warq shop says, “Hyderabad ranks third in the manufacture of warq business. The many shops in Hyderabad cater to the needs of all the sweet and paan shops across the state. On an average, these shops produce five to six kilograms of silver foils, and 30 to 40 grams of gold foils a day,” he said.

“In fact, business has been flourishing for the last one decade. With more and more sweet shops and paan shops coming up, we have witnessed a 10 per cent growth year-on-year and hope it continuous,” said a leading Hyderabad-based warq manufacturer who did not want to be named.

Interesting Facts:
- Gold warq is mostly found in upscale, gourmet restaurants and one of the most expensive dessert is ‘Golden Opulence’, a $1,000 ice cream sundae at the Serendipity restaurant in New York City, which is topped with a gold leaf. The restaurant also holds the Guinness World Record for the category of the world’s most expensive dessert called “Frozen Haute Chocolate”, that is retailed at $25,000. This new dessert is the result of 28 cocoas collected from every corner of the world, which are infused with five grams of edible 23-karat gold. 

- For those who want to indulge royally is the $1000 Sultan's Golden Cake at the Ciragon Palace Kempinski in Istanbul. The dessert that takes 72 hours to make contains figs, quince, apricot and pears soaked in Jamaican rum for two years. The topping contains caramel, black truffles and, as you might have guess, a gold leaf.

- In Dubai, at the Al Mahara, Burj Al Arab, you can get the Valrhona Chocolate Sphere ($75 each) which is an ice cream layered with gelée and Manjaree chocolate and suffused in gold leaves.  

- In Japan, tradition suggests thin gold-foils placed into tea and food are beneficial to health.

- A number of companies are currently using gold as a luxury enhancement for food and drink products including chocolate, deserts and even champagne.

- Swarna Bhasma or gold ash is an anti-depressant in nature. Apart from the anti-depressant and anti-anxiety properties, it can be used for treating rheumatoid arthritis. It is also useful for the people suffering with nervous system. In Ayurveda gold ash is often used for reducing body weakness and preventing early aging in different medicated forms.

- Kushta Tila Kalan (KTK), a gold preparation used in Unani-Tibb is claimed to possess general tonic, anti-infective and rejuvenating properties.

- The use of metals like gold, silver and iron powders (Sanskrit bhasma) in some preparations is a special feature of Siddha medicine, which claims it can detoxify metals to enable them to be used for stubborn diseases

- Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of California, San Francisco, have found a way detect and kill cancer cells. They claim that the ‘Colloidal Gold solution’ can kill any malignancy in the body and that Nano Gold Particles will kill all types of cancer cells in body.

- The Tanjore School of Painting dates back to the 16th century. Making of a Tanjore painting involves hard work. All the figures depicting gods and goddesses are drawn in detail and heavily decorated with thin sheets of gold, semi-precious stones, cut glasses and pearls.

- In ancient Chinese medicine gold was a key to youth, as queens used a gold massage roller on their face every day. These gold facials were also used in ancient Indian culture and are said to firm the skin, give it a glow and reduce wrinkles.

- Some modern companies have launched a Carat Gold facial which includes the placing of fine sheets of gold onto the skin followed by gentle massaging and a gold-leaf process which recreates the golden mask of Cleopatra for today’s woman.

- As per industry estimates, Indians actually eat up two hundred and fifty kilos of gold a year in the form of warq or as an ingredient in medicines and other eatables.

- The Indian Waraq industry is pegged at Rs 250 crore or 300 tonnes of silver foils annually. 

(The views expressed here, and the recommendations made, are those of the author. They do not reflect those of this publication. Facts and figures, if any, are those collected by the author and readers are advised to recheck them.) 

Month: December 2009.

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