Those with a sweet tooth probably find plates of sweets very hard to resist, and when they come served with a shiny thin sheet of silver or gold on top, the allure is even more so. However, with a growing increase of adulterated varks (thin sheets of edible metals) in the city, experts warn us to be careful about what we consume.
Varks, or varak from the Sanskrit word, are thin delicate malleable foils. Either made from silver or gold, they are very common in Indian and even South Asian cuisines. Mostly used as decorative garnish at sweet shops, varks are also used on hot items like biriyani.
However, with the increase in demand, supply has become susceptible to less than appetising adulterants. Explains YV Anuradha, commissioner, Food Safety of Andhra Pradesh, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), “The Food and Drug Administration of India examined silver foils from various shops in Pune and discovered that some of them contained high levels of aluminium. They also seized about 66 kgs of sweets which were adulterated. So keeping the public health in mind, we plan on initiating testing of silver foil in Hyderabad as well.”
The initiative also stems from the fact that the organisation has received complaints of adulteration in the city, the commissioner further informed.
“It is very true that high levels of aluminium intake may result in severe health problems. A Hyderabadi myself, there have been instances where I specifically chose sweets which had silver foil on them due to the appeal. But these reports of adulteration have forced me to be very careful about what I consume,” expressed Anuradha who added that testing of vark from across the city would be initiated soon.
But until a proper inspection is conducted, the commissioner says the best way to safeguard against such consumption is by being aware of the adulteration. “I would like to bring about an awareness in public about what they consume and how much they consume,” she says. For adulterated varks in small quantities may not be harmful, however, incessant consumption could be fatal.
Besides the possibility of the city’s sweetmeats being contaminated, earlier, there was also the controversy over the varks being non-vegetarian as the metals were beaten into thin sheets with the innards of a bull, sandwiched between the skin of a sheep or camel and treated with animal fat.
While this was indeed a fact during lesser advanced times, Mohammed Waliuddin, who owns a vark production company near Mecca Masjid in old city, assures us that technology has long replaced this traditional practice.
“This was the case about 80 to 100 years ago when these techniques were used to prepare vark. But, with the advancement in technology, even we have adopted new techniques. The preparation of vark is 100 per cent vegetarian now and we only sell pure quality of silver,” says Waliudin who has been in the business for the past 35 years.
Explaining the shift in methods, the 55-year-old alumni of City College tell us, “With the rise of awareness of safe guarding animals and introduction of modern equipments, intestines of bulls and animal skins were replaced with iron headed hammers and German sheets of butter paper respectively.” The metal is interleaved in the booklet of thin butter sheets that are then hammered with the iron, thus producing the foil. The smooth surface of the German sheets make it easier to store and peel off the vark, which is sold per booklet.
So how does one tell a good vark from an adulterated one, considering that both silver and aluminium tend to look the same when drawn into sheets?
“It is very easy to recognise between the pure silver vark and an alloy of aluminium and silver, or even a pure aluminium vark. While the silver vark is very fine and wafer thin, aluminium-mixed varks aren’t as fine. Also, silver varks disintegrate rapidly when rubbed between the fingers whereas aluminium varks tend to roll up into a solid ball.”
Pointing out that only smaller shops tend to buy adulterated varks, Waliudin suggests rubbing the vark between one’s fingers to test for ourselves.
“These silver foils are beaten very thin so that they can spread evenly on the sweets. But when two metals are mixed, the vark isn’t as smooth and breaks off quite easily.”
So in case you haven’t been paying much attention to your food thus far, now would be a good time to start. In case you do find a discrepancy, the FSSAI welcomes complaints on 040-2465 0365 / 2756 0191.
Chandi (silver) vark was initially introduced in Hyderabad for its medicinal purposes in Unani and Ayurveda. It was later picked up as a decorative garnish by confectionary makers. While silver and gold are inert metals that do not harm the body’s composition, adulterants like aluminium, nickel and copper cause serious side affects to one’s health, including skin diseases, breathing problems and irregularities in the heart. While most of the established shops use pure varks, smaller nondescript shops tend to market adulterated vark.
How it’s made
The Chandini Vark is got in the form of solid silver weighing 100 grams each. The silver is put into a machine and cut into thin strips. These strips are further cut into one inch-sized pieces and put within the leaves of the German butter paper booklet. Each booklet can fit up to 150 pieces of silver which are beaten for three to fours hours to draw them into thin foils. The process is very simple with no usage of chemicals nor any chance of other metals getting mixed up, unless done so intentionally. During Ramzan and other major Hindu festivals, sales of the vark go up for decorating sweets and biryani too.