Greetings of the festive season, dear readers. As part of the celebration, you would have doubtless consumed a fair amount of kaaju katlis, chocolate barfis, motichoor laddus and the like. The silvery sheen on your mithai, which adds to its visual appeal is called varak (spelt variously as varakh or warq) and is a thin, beaten sheet of silver. So associated is this silver foil with north Indian fine dining, that the Taj Mahal hotel in New Delhi has a restaurant called Varq. The etymology can be traced to the Arabic word for paper. The practice of decorating food with metal foil came to India with the medieval invaders of central Asia and it continues today in those countries, just as it does here.
Piyush Singh, who heads the operations of a factory in east Delhi producing varak under the brand name Silver Star, explains to me the process by which this silver foil is manufactured for usage in sweets, ayurvedic and unani medicines and some tobacco products. Silver bricks are subject to casting and cold rolling after which they emerge as sheets of thickness of 10 microns. (One micron=1/1,000th of a millimetre). But in order for it to be ingestible, they need to be much thinner—ideally about 0.2 microns. The sheet is then broken into small pieces by hand and made into stacks of 250. These stacks are placed in a “zilli” or booklet made of leather and hammered for about eight hours by labourers in small workshops in dirty back alleys of Meerut, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Old Delhi. (There are YouTube videos demonstrating this process). Each day, a worker produces 250 sheets of varak of acceptable thickness. In 2005, the Pune based NGO Beauty without Cruelty, brought out a booklet on how varak is produced. According to them, the intestinal epidermis of cattle is soaked and processed in filthy vats and then cut to make the booklets mentioned above. It is called the “ox-gut process”. The ox’s gut skin is a suitable material as it can withstand all the hammering and the sheet inside stays fixed. The skin however is typically not cleaned thoroughly before use. On the basis of this report by Beauty without Cruelty, in 2005, Maneka Gandhi in her then TV show Heads and Tails, on Doordarshan, spoke about how dozens of cattle are slaughtered just for this purpose and how varak endowed sweets should hence be labelled non-vegetarian.
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But of course, this is not about vegetarian or non-vegetarian. This is about the deplorably unhygienic way a widely consumed edible matter is produced, and hence affects people on both sides of the food divide.
Varak production is an unorganized industry. So, Singh laments, this is how, unfortunately, 95% of it is made in India. Very little is produced hygienically by machines. In Singh’s factory, a computerized machine ensures that the pieces covered with polyester cloth, are hammered evenly by a guided mallet.
Surendra Karnavat of Kanishka Platinum, Gold and Silver products is a chartered accountant and a US citizen who set up his varak making factory in Jaipur in 2006. In his process, the silver pieces are sandwiched between food grade paper that he imports from France, and then hammered by a machine. I ask him about cases where aluminium foil is passed off fraudulently as silver foil and he admits with candour, that such cases are more the norm than the exception. Apart from greed being the motive, the escalating price of silver makes it difficult to earn a profit and tempt manufacturers to shortchange quality. It also helps that the end consumer is blissfully unaware. Aluminium varak would be duller than pure silver varak, but a lay person would rarely notice.
I asked the two varak manufacturers whether there is a price-quality link. Can customers hope that the high-end mithaiwallahs whose sweets are costlier, buy their silver foil from people like them who sell hygienic, machine-manufactured varak? The answer was an unexpected “no”. Both Singh and Karnavat in separate conversations said there is no correlation and it was wrong to assume that the big halwai was any more conscientious than the small one.
So how is the end customer to know whom to patronize for good quality varak mithai? Sadly there doesn’t seem to be a way.
Singh’s company provides his mithaiwallah customers a certificate to display in his shop which declares that he uses pure, good quality silver foil, but there’s no obligation on the shop to display it. At any rate, the likes of Singh and Karnavat cater to a minuscule number of mithaiwallahs. Karnavat explains that nearly one tonne of silver is made into varak everyday in India. His company produces 40-50kg of varak per day. There are very few such companies. So, virtually any varak that you consume is made by hand in booklets of animal hide.
Piyush Singh however is confident the future is brighter. Several Jain organizations have raised awareness in their vegetarian community about this issue, as have animal welfare NGOs. He feels slowly machine manufacturing will take over.
Separately, though small traces of metals have been used in Ayurvedic medicines since ancient times, scientific studies in the US, now show that silver is bio-accumulative, which means once consumed it stays in the human body, and a build up is potentially toxic.
All things considered, it might be a good idea to substitute varak with other decorations such as rose petals, saffron strands and almond slivers, while cooking at home and abstain from silver foil sweets while buying from a shop. After all, if mithai production was a movie, varak would only be the item number—not essential but adding a bit of dazzle. A good director would cut off the item song if it detracts from the main plot.
Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org