SRINAGAR: Manzoor Ahmad, 50, a third generation baker from the Sofi clan of Rajpora, Pulwama, south Kashmir is preparing traditional sheermal in a clay oven. The heat gushing out from the oven is giving him a tough time as he prepares a consignment of sheermal for a customer from Srinagar.

He says the process of preparing bread from kneading the dough to baking in a fire oven is a harsh job. But he is content that the product of his hard work is so sweet that people from across Kashmir travel miles to get it.

Sheermal has given a unique significance in Rajpora. Many people consider this village the birthplace of Kashmiri sheermal, and give credit to Sofi's forefathers for starting it. Today there are more than twenty such bakery shops in Rajpora.

Sofi says that all of them have been trained by his family. He also says that the sheermal his family makes has no match. "Ours is a true sheermal which is rich in taste and quality – others too make sheermal but it is inferior and tastes like an ordinary bread," he tells The Citizen.

Sheermal is a flat, circular bread with a grooved surface that is prepared with ghee and weighs around 60 grams apiece. "During my childhood sheermal was a dream for a common Kashmiri because of their abject poverty," says Sofi.

"Ghulam Hassan Mir was a rich person from Rajpora. He owned thousands of kannals of land. My grandfather was working at their house in Rajpora as a baker and he would make them this bread.

"The wealthy family would make sufficient quantities of maida or flour, Kashmiri ghee, sesame seeds, sugar and other ingredients available to him. They instructed him to make special bread for them that would suit their tastes. Over the years this special bread became known as Rajpora sheermal."

Once a status symbol, the crispy sheermal of Rajpora has become famous throughout Kashmir and is also exported to several countries of the world.

Sofi says that throughout the year he is busy fulfilling orders from the Kashmiri diaspora in Australia, America, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries. He also supplies Rajpora sheermal to customers in Delhi, Mumbai, Haryana, Calcutta, Bangalore and other parts. "On an average I receive 10-20 orders from customers outside J&K in a month."

A huge rush of customers is seen in Rajpora on the eve of Eid. In many Kashmiri families Eid cuisine would be incomplete without a taste of sheermal with Eid khewa or sheer chai.

Yawar Rashid, a customer here, says he relishes sweet sheermal on Eid and likes to eat it fresh when it is crispy and tasty. He says that stale sheermal loses its taste. "The sheermal of Rajpora has no match. I have ocassionaly bought sheermal from other parts of Kashmir but it was totally out of taste. Since then I place orders with a local baker in advance to ensure I get fresh sheermal on Eid."

Sheermal, which is also consumed on engagements, marriage parties, and other social gatherings, comes in two varieties: sweet and salty. The sweet sheermal is taken with khewa, a spicy traditional green tea made without adding milk. The salty sheermal is taken with noon-chai or sheer chai. The bakers of Rajpora make sweet sheermal in greater quantity than the salty, as it is more sought after.

Manzoor Ahmad Sofi says the pure making of sheermal takes around three hours. Kashmiri ghee, water, and day-old yeast (maye) are added to sieved flour and the mixture is kneaded to make dough. Then sugar is added and the mixture is kneaded further. Balls of dough or paeds are pulled off and spread horizontally on a wooden plank called takhte or a wooden polpat. These are rolled by hand or with a roller and brushed with egg paste and daubed with sesame seeds. Finally, they are attached to the inner walls of a fired clay oven or tandoor and baked for up to 30 minutes. When they have browned, they are removed using a long iron skewer or seekh and your sheermal is ready to serve.

"The sheermal business is lucrative and has the improved socioeconomic status of many bakers of Rajpora who were living in abject poverty. The baker families have invested their earnings on their wards and many have even majored in political science and natural science," says G.N Rajpori, a local resident.

Sofi has been in the business over 45 years and has won many loyal customers. The Drabu family, who live in Srinagar, are among them, and only buy sheermal from Sofi. "I have inherited this profession from my father and have been maintaining the standards set by him in this business. I do my job with honesty and sincerity that gets reflected through loyalty of my customers, who have trusted me for so many years."

The government recently issued a rate as per its own calculation which is not justified, adds Sofi, because of the skyrocketing rates of raw materials. "The authorities should also take our concerns into consideration, so that this art doesn't face an onslaught and perish for want of profit."