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Bakery market in India and India’s rich baking legacy
Monday, 02 December, 2019, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Mehul Vora
Baking is one of the ancient art and profession dating 2600-2100 B.C in ancient Egypt. It is when Romans came to power pastry baking became established as a profession. The joyful art of pastry baking became a sensation throughout Europe and the whole world. Pastries became an accessible business and adopted by lots of people. Moreover, the first cafeteria which sold baked goods was established in Paris. Since the invention of baking powder and yeast, the cakes and breads received a fluffy texture.

With passage of time, the baking industry took over the world as one of the largest industries. India was also untouched with this industry. India learnt the art of baking with advent of Europeans and travellers.

Today India stands as the world’s second-largest producer of food with bakery as one of the biggest sections. Bakery products have high nutrition value and are easily affordable. Due to which products like pav, bread and biscuits became common food for underprivileged. Today due to corporatisation many healthy products have been launched in the bakery segment. India has corporate as well as small-scale manufacturers of bakery products.

The establishment of coffee shops and cake shop chains has widened the flavours in the bakery industry. Indian consumers are forcing the demand for more hang-out options. A typical bakery café menu includes a wide selection of exotic breads, other baked delicacies like brioches, croissants, cookies, muffins, cakes, scones, strudels, brownies, pies and puffs. The menu may also offer soups, salads, sandwiches, rolls and wraps.

India is getting influenced by bakery products of the Western market, and the popularity of local products is diminishing. India has always given its own twist to any art form that it picked up from the West. Baking has also seen the delicious trail of mouth-watering innovation and flavours.

Classical Indian bakery products
Mawa Cake

Mawa cakes, soft, buttery, cardamom-infused cupcakes rolled in wax paper, have been a menu staple at Irani cafés and bakeries from the time they came to the then Bombay and Pune in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Irani cafes were popular inexpensive dining options for the mill workers, and immigrants that came to the city for opportunities.

During the 1900s, the only option to increase the shelf life of milk was to boil it over and over again. to stop it from going off. This boiling created an automatic mawa (khoya) and by the end of the day they would have a lot of it. The Irani owner of Grant Road’s B Merwan experimented with it by adding it to a cake and created legendary mawa cake, a perfect accompaniment with tea. Mawa (khoya) is mixed with the eggs, flour, baking powder and milk and then baked to form soft moist cupcakes. The cake is also made without eggs as well for vegetarians.

Nankhatai
Parsi bakers were inspired by the eggless Scottish shortbread, favoured by sailors because it kept well on long voyages, to create nankhatai, one of Surat’s famous confections. The Surti bakers realised the recipe was suitable for Gujarati vegetarians who did not eat eggs, so they adapted it to local taste by adding cardamom, cashews, almonds and pistachios.

Rusk

In the 17th century, plenty of Dutch colonies were flung all over the Gujarati city of Surat in order to facilitate trade with India. Anxious for a taste of home, they set up a bakery, employing five Parsis to run it. One of the bakers, Faramjee Pestonji Dotivala, continued baking bread. Since the bread was made with palm toddy for fermentation, it did not find favour with the local Indians. In order to save his bakery, Dotivala started selling the old bread and puff, for cheaper, became popular and eventually it morphed into the rusk-dry Irani biscuit. This dried version became so popular that he started drying the bread before selling it.

Bhaat cake
Then there’s bhaat cake, Goa’s pride and joy, made with copious quantities of salted butter, eggs, semolina and the star ingredient, desiccated coconut powder. Another close colonial cousin of the bhaat is the East Indian thali sweet that uses an additional ingredient in the form of almonds ground in rosewater. This festive treat is both baked and served in a steel thali.

Vivikum cake
Pondicherry cake, is prepared by Puducherry ’s Franco-Indian Christians for Christmas, though one can find it year round at bakeries such as La Boulangerie and Baker Street. This is made with ghee, eggs, semolina, nuts, brandy-macerated raisins and zesty lemon peel, the alcohol in the cake helps lengthen the vivikum cake’s shelf life.

Allahabad Cake
Allahabad was once a stronghold of thousands of Anglo-Indian ‘railway’ families. They left a legacy called  Allahabad cake. This is a spiced version of fruit cake made using nutmeg, saunf (fennel seeds), cinnamon, caraway seeds, ghee.

Chenna Poda
Odisha (Orissa), the land of Lord Jagannath, has its very own cheese cake called chenna poda. The difference between the Western cheese cake and chenna poda is that it needs no base; the eggless chenna poda yields its own base and edges upon getting baked.

The credit goes to Sudarshana Sahoo who came to Nayagarh in 1947 and set up a hotel in Daspalla. One day he decided to add sugar and seasonings to leftover cottage cheese (chenna) one night, and left it in an oven that was still warm from earlier use. The next day, to his surprise he had created, Odisha’s very own cheese cake. The chenna poda authentically is made of cottage cheese, semolina, sugar, cardamom, ghee, cashews and raisins mixed together very well and then wrapped in sal leaves and baked in a charcoal or wood fired oven for 2-3 hours and that gives the burnt caramelised look to the crust though it divinely melts in the mouth texture inside.

India’s First Christmas Cake
Christmas cakes hold a special place in many Indian homes. It was in the year 1880 in the small  coastal town of Thalasserry in north Kerala, a businessman Mambally Bapu, who earlier used to ship milk, tea and bread decided to set up his own little borma (bakery).

He had just returned from Burma, where he had mastered the art of biscuit making, and wanted to popularise baked goods among the local Malayalis. He began producing almost 40 different varieties of biscuits, rusks, bread and buns.

A few days before Christmas, Murdoch Brown a British planter walked into the bakery with a rich plum cake he had brought from England. He asked Bapu to taste the cake and asked him if he could bake one just like that. Bapu procured the mould from a blacksmith in Dharmadam, sourced the choicest of spices from farms along the Malabar coast and introduced a desi flavour by using a local brew made using cashew apple and a variety of banana. On December 20, 1884, Bapu presented his creation to Brown. On tasting, the delighted Briton certified it as “one of the best cakes he had ever had” and ordered a dozen more!

Unfortunately the classical Indian products are losing popularity under influence of a Western lifestyle. In my opinion the corporates, cafes, restaurants should serve muffins, cookies and so on but not forget mawa cakes, nankahtais and rusks as well.  

(The author is a culinary historian. He can be reached at mv2574@gmail.com)
 
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