What is silver vark? Where does it come from? How is it used? What are the ethics of its manufacture and consumption? Is it vegetarian? Vegan?
All this and more today as we explore the story and ethics around this traditional South Asian food decoration.
What is Vark?
Sometimes known as varak or warq, vark is a fine filigree foil sheet of pure metal – usually silver though sometimes gold – used to decorate South Asian confectionery and food. Though edible, silver and gold are entirely flavorless. Of course, an ancient Egyptian would have you believe that the ingestion of edible silver leaf and gold leaf would grant the consumer healing properties.
No doubt it is in echoes of this sentiment that silver foil of this kind was manufactured and introduced to Indian sweets in the first place.
Made by pounding silver until it is less than one micrometer (μm) thick (or thin), the silver sheets of typically 0.2 μm – 0.8 μmare packed between layers of paper for support. When these papers are peeled away, the silver foils are revealed.
For this reason, edible silver leaf is incredibly fragile and sensitive to human touch, breaking into smaller pieces when coming into direct contact with skin. In fact, any silver leaves that are 0.2 μm thick are likely to automatically adhere to human skin, searching desperately for something to cling to.
What makes this pure silver specifically ‘vark’, however, is its application in the production and manufacture of sweets. In South Asia, a candy seller of this kind will offer products with vark laid atop or rolled over. In addition, such a seller might also offer dry fruits and spices combined with silver leaf specifically made for the purpose. A particular delicacy is the application of vark onto mounds of saffron rice on platters.
Owing to the sheer popularity of this tradition, the government of India has issued some firm food safety and product standards guidelines for manufacturers of silver foil. This is to ensure that it is all thin enough to be edible.
How is Vark Made?
The manufacture of vark is not unlike the process by which other types of metal leaves are beaten down from their pure ore form into sheets.
Vark starts its life as a pure metal dust that is placed between parchment sheets. These sheets are then pounded until the dust collates together to form a kind of foil. This foil is supposed to be less than one micrometer thick, typically between 0.2 μm and 0.8 μm. This process of pounding generally takes a couple of hours.
The traditional method of manufacturing vark used ox gut or cowhide instead of parchment sheets, wherein the particles of metal dust were pounded between their manifold layers. It is, in fact, easier to separate the silver leaf from the tissue of these animals than it is to do so from parchment paper, hence why this method was so popular for so long despite reprint rights.
India has, however, a vast vegetarian population not suited to the consumption of meat or products created through animal cruelty. Thus, many manufacturers of vark have now switched to the use of more modern technologies, evolving the production of silver leaves throughout India, Germany, Russia, and China.
Such modern technologies include beating the silver particles over sheets of black special treated paper or, alternatively, using polyester sheets for the purpose. These latter sheets are coated with food-grade calcium powder – playfully nicknamed ‘German plastic’ – and are used as a lasting alternative to ox guts and cowhide.
The walled Old City of Hyderabad in India used to be the veritable hub of traditional manual manufacturing of vark. It is, however, a dying trade there, perhaps since the popularization of newer methodologies for the manufacture of vark throughout South Asia, East Asia, and Eastern Europe.
Food or Decoration?
This is a time-old debate between aficionados of the cuisine both in South Asia and throughout the world. While it is technically a decoration, it is still eaten as part of the food. This, however, does not necessarily make it a food or part of the food-eating experience as it is almost entirely flavorless.
Indeed, more often than not, silver is used as a coating on sweets, dry fruits, and in sugar balls, betel nuts, cardamom, and other spices. It is not uncommon for spices to be altogether coated in silver and it is often deemed a blessing as such.
Despite issues with the ethics of the product in a country like India whose population is largely vegetarian, worldwide consumption of vark is at around 275 tons annually. This is pretty insane considering just how light and thin it is in the first place. Just picture how many sweets it would have to be attached to achieve such a weight.
Still, despite the fact that the method of manufacture has seen plenty of change in recent decades, there are still concerns about the ethical acceptability and food safety of vark. Not all of the silver used in the production of vark is pure silver, nor is it all hygienically prepared.
Up until very recently, the ox-gut method was to go to and it still is in some places. Due to this grinding effect of the hammering, some animal intestine becomes part of the silver which is then sold in bulk and is thus inseparable. Awareness of this fact brought about a significant decline in the usage of vark in sweets owing to the large vegetarian population throughout India and other South Asian countries.
Indian Airlines even asked its caterers to not apply vark to their food to ensure that no animal intestine was present. Subsequently, the Government of India banned the usage of animal guts or skins in the making of vark, period.
So, there you have it! Hopefully, you have been able to learn something today and have picked up something new that you did not already know. Perhaps you did not already know just how vast the vegetarian population of India was, or perhaps you did not know the ethics of animals that go into silver vark. Spread the good word!
FAQs Silver Vark
While silver vark does not have any nutritional value, it is not necessarily bad for you if it is prepared in the right way. An ancient Egyptian would have you believe that the consumption of a metal leaf in this way was a holy act, that it would bring you close to spiritual nirvana, whatever that means.
Prior to 2016, it was still legal for silver vark produced in India to be made using the old method. This method involved hammering silver dust between sheets of ox gut or cowhide for a couple of hours until it was formed into a sheet. This methodology is now illegal in India owing to growing concerns surrounding the large vegetarian population’s consumption of such ethically questionable foodstuff.
Due to the fact that silver vark is essentially flavorless and lacking in nutritional value, its principal value and usage seem to be the fostering of an atmosphere of decadence. Silver vark is, then, best utilized as a decoration on foods and confectionery products.