While food historians find it hard to say which came in first or which inspired the first or the latter, the constant is the wide appeal and fanbase each of this bread base pudding has managed to garner over the time.

By Madhulika Dash; Photographs: Café Tesu, Masala Library By Jiggs Kalra and Stock Images

There is something homey about a bread pudding or a shahi tukda – a bread-based pudding that is often used interchangeably with each other thanks to the constant evolution and interpretation the dessert had since the early years of the 16th (or 17th century or ancient civilization, depending on how one reads and interprets history). Today, each home has its own way of making the dessert – changing the milk for rabdri, evaporated milk or in some cases old style custard as well. Each recipe has a back story that takes one to a place where this pudding was made famous. Like for Anglo Indian cuisine expert, Bridget White Kumar, a traditional style of making bread pudding requires 3 cups of milk, butter, sugar, raisins, vanilla essence and of course the one thing that would give it that fluffiness “eggs – two good ones”. For culinary custodian Pratima Seth, who grew up in the armed forces in Goa, while shahi tukda is one that involves deep frying the bread, sweetening it in cake style by pouring the syrup on top and ladling scoops of evaporated milk so as to give that it has the quintessential “crunch and pillowy sweetness”, bread pudding remains the custard format which often is made by slathering some butter between two bread cubes before dousing them in custard and then baking them to get this golden caramel sheet on the top.

It is a recipe that Chef Shamsul Wahid (Group Executive Chef, Impresario Group) too follows with a few changes of course. Instead, says Chef Wahid, “of using just vanilla, I use cinnamon to give it that fragrant sweetness, and my use of butter is generous because of the rich taste it gives to the pudding once it has been baked. Of course, it is the custard that gives it that gooeyness that ‘puddings’ are so famous for.” In fact, Chef Wahid and Pratima’s style of making “bread pudding” is almost like how the ‘poor man’s pudding’ took shape in the 11th century, where stale breads were turned into these little treats in a tin that denizens could enjoy during the cold months when food was scarce to find, and the palate would be on a constant search for something nice (read: with fat) to eat. Such was the repurposing that soon bakers would keep it on the side to be sold at quarter of the price to those wanting. The popularity of the bread pudding as a comfort food not only took it to the privy kitchens of the manor, but also started a frenzy of homemakers creating their own lavish recipes. One such lady was cookbook author Portia Little. Her little over 1000 recipes of bread pudding starting with one that had raisins soaked in single malt earned her the moniker of “Bread Pudding Queen” whose book “Bread Pudding Bliss” turned out to be an all-time favourite. And laid the pathway for Bread Pudding (English Style) coming to India. In all accounts, says historian Dr Ashish Chopra, “bread pudding travelled to India and became popular as a Dak Bangalow treat, given that this single caretaker managed place could afford the minimum things like milk, eggs and butter – which if you read the accounts of the earlier ladies traveling “the forsaken place of heat, dirt and humidity” often made in house or substituted it with lard carried. It was in this sparsely facilitated British owned spaces that the first iteration of bread-pudding took shape. The comfort food though a twice dark shadow of the original did provide bits of much-needed comfort.” By the turn of the 18th century, bread pudding became a necessary skill for all regimental cooks, especially those that were employed as part of the unit.” Such was the love for the pudding, says brand specialist and researcher Zamir Khan, “that it even made it to the regimental book of 70 must-know dishes (which has risen beyond 200 managed by Army Supply Core today that trains cooks) with the bread pudding, both kinds, as an essential.”

In all likelihood, says Khan, “the first iteration that was introduced in the regiment around the early 19th century was that was popular back in Britain made with egg, milk, sugar, raisins and a bit of rum to make it ‘woozy’. It was this recipe that was given to the Anglo-Indian cooks that worked in homes to perfect too, who would add and delete ingredients to suit their palate. But most of the time kept to the traditional as it would be the one that tasted better.”

Breading pudding, concur the historians, “incidentally was the last of the dishes to change in the entire gamut of things that the British instituted in their regiment – a process that began soon after 1857 Independence Movement that gave the colonial power a slice of what getting regiment foot soldiers annoyed could mean. The final raisin so to say came around the World Wars that the eggy bread pudding got to have a vegetarian cousin.” And the regiment cooks who had fallen into the practice of making the Old Fashioned Bread Pudding decided to look elsewhere for inspiration. That is when the Shahi Tukda became the muse.”

Shahi Tukda, says Khan, “while many believe was inspired by the Middle Eastern Um Ali, a dessert made to celebrate and reward the soldiers came to India with the Mughals and finally took the shape of these little cubes of bread, deep fried and lavished with rabri or evaporated milk, sugar, varq (a Shah Jahan time addition) and of course a mélange of dry fruits and toasted nuts. Some say that the royal version of the bread-based dessert was in fact these small squares of cream that were caramalised and served with honey coated dry fruits and varq.”

The theory, says Dr Chopra, “finds little ground as bread was a more acceptable commodity through ages across classes. In fact, the earliest mention of repurposing bread is found both in the Roman and Egyptian time where bread was the staple – and was often offered to Gods as well. Thus, the chances of bread as the base of shahi tukda is more plausible than the romanticized cream blocks.” Fascinatingly, the one place that the question of bread or not doesn’t hold water is the Double Ka Meetha – a sweet dish that was developed in and around Hyderabad the same time the Nizam was setting foot a dynasty that would rule one of the richest kingdoms for two centuries. According to culinary researcher Quddus Abdul, “one really cannot point out whether it was influenced by the British, whose lifestyle eventually Nizam’s emulated or of Mughals, whose service they were in, because as a pudding the traditional Double Ke Meetha resembles more of a halwa rather than a mishmash or the cubes or triangles of a Shahi Tukda. The only thing that connects the three is the use of bread (in Hyderabad case, it is a special bread by the name Meethey Ka Bread that is baked stiff), the use of sugar syrup and of course fragrant, flavoured milk. “ In fact, continues Quddus, “in most cases, the bread used for Double Ka Meetha is the Meethay ka Bread, a loaf that has more time in the oven than the average sandwich bread. This stiffness needed the bread to be cut double the size of a regular bread and made for an interesting sponge given the amount of syrup and milk poured onto the bread to make Double Ka Meetha.” In appearance though, it famously reminds one of the good old days of Shahjahanabad, where the Shahi Tukda soon had become what Bread Pudding was to the British, or as legendary Jiggs Kalra would say, that “quick treat of goodness.”