If you've ever wondered what exactly is that gorgeous, glittering, glamorous metallic stuff garnishing many Indian sweets, mukhwas, or meetha paan it's called vark or chaandi ki vark. Chaandi means silver and vark comes from the Sanskrit varaka meaning to cloak. Genuine silver is beaten by hand into sheets barely two tenths of a micron in thickness to make vark. Symbolizing prestige, opulence as well as medical benefits in Ayurvedic and Unani practices, vark has been in use on the Asian subcontinent for centuries.
The method for making vark has remained unchanged for centuries and is still a traditional industry in India. Tiny squares of silver are beaten between the bound pages of a booklet-like auzar with a special hammer called a hathoda. In the old days the pages of the auzar were made from ox intestine but nowadays mylar or specially treated paper are used for vegetarian reasons. It takes about three to four hours to beat the silver to the desired thinness. Special tongs are then used to place the vark between sheets of paper to be sold.
Unfortunately there have been concerns over the safety of ingesting vark made in India. One study in Lucknow determined that about ten percent of the vark sold was actually aluminum not silver. All the tested Indian vark contained trace levels of the potentially toxic metals nickel, lead, copper, chromium, cadmium, and manganese. Ingesting bioactive silver in large amounts can be harmful too. However, vark is made of silver in it's inert not bioactive form and even if you ate an entire kilogram of sweets garnished with vark you'd ingest less than a milligram of silver.
Vark adds no discernble flavor to food and used to be available in both gold and silver. Silver vark was only purchased by people who couldn’t afford gold. Today, due to gold prices and decreased demand only silver vark is available.
Mukhwas, the South Asian post prandial mouth freshener can also get the royal treatment with a coating of vark. Here fennel seeds, slivers of betel nut, and whole cardamoms are gilded with chaandi ki vark in this extravagant version of mukhwas to be served at a wedding, posh restaurant, or formal gathering of any kind. What method or technique is used to coat all those tiny seeds and pods with vark is beyond me.
This simple trick will determine if vark is real silver or an aluminum counterfeit: roll a bit of the vark between your fingers. Real silver vark will crumble to powder but aluminum will roll into a ball.