Bread and back stories

P Anima | Updated on March 10, 2018

Chew on it: A daily trip to the bakery, at least to pick up a loaf of bread, is a habit for many in Kerala. Photo: Ramesh Kurup

The ubiquitous bakeries of Kerala serve up a slice of history and have evolved to be a modern-day convenience

Timing. Much rests on it. And the strategic hour is around 12 noon. Place: Cochin Bakery, Kozhikode. Among the batch of perishable snacks wheeled into the bakery at this time would be those pocket-sized dynamites — a mouthful, nothing more. Chicken is hardly my chosen meat, yet I am willing to go against that for those little samosas, packed tight with minced chicken and a hint of pepper, that crackle and collapse in the mouth. Yet, as I said, much depends on the timing. Those chicken samosas are fleeting guests on the bakery shelves. An hour early or late and they are out of sight. Loyalists vaguely glance at their watches whenever they pass by the bakery. Others negotiate chores in the vicinity to time them with the samosa. And if you happen to dash in early evening, the snack remains just a fervent hope.

In Kerala, where each panchayat has an estimated 25-40 bakeries, this indulgence — picking favourites from each bakery — is exercised religiously. If the honour of making excellent vegetable puffs goes to one, surely the perfectly feathery egg puffs have to be found elsewhere. The stuffed mussels may be a blink-and-miss seasonal affair, but we put on our most charming face if that can get the staff to stock a few pieces for the evening.

There is perceptible delight in pitching the plantain bajji of Lakshmi Sweets against the ela ada of Delecta. The new date-and-almond halwa could well be the beginning of an all-evening discussion. And the bickering over the best jam roll, tea cakes and cutlets should firmly be classed under casual banter. But the best banana chips are best left alone. It could get personal.

Random estimates suggest there are 22,000 bakery product manufacturing units in the small State of Kerala. Though large, the number still belies the influence bakeries have on everyday Kerala life. Over time they have grown to become quiet allies, ones that make sure that surplus and variety are the norm in the kitchens of working mothers. Their ubiquitousness has made them innate to the Malayali existence.

Often, they bear familiar, everyday names — Priya, Neelu, Madhurima; at times they remind you of forgotten aunts — Komala, Santha and Sharada. Some wear modernity on their sleeves, hence are, what else — Modern, Best and Newtops. Others sound exotic, even bizarre, so there is Othena and even Cocotte. Some are family businesses, so simple Brothers would do. But whatever they are called, they serve a largely templated fare — tea cakes and halwa, mixture and murukku. And the average Malayali would spend half a lifetime scouring for the best. Guests rarely judge hosts if they fail to serve homemade fare, but the “bakery items” better measure up! A daily trip to the bakery, at least to pick up a loaf of bread, is a habit for many.

Bread loaves — Kerala’s long tryst with bakeries began in the late 1800s with them. Mambally Bappu’s Royal Biscuit Factory, established in Thalassery in 1880, is among the oldest in the country to be run by a local and serving the natives in colonial India. MK Renjith, owner of Brownnies Bakery in Kannur and a distant descendent of Bappu, says the legacy outlet is actually even older, as it began by buying and selling bakery products under a tree much earlier.

The chief product was indeed bread. “We call it kappal rotti (bread for the ships),” says Renjith, on the phone from Kannur. Ships were routinely anchored at Thalassery, a port town, and the breads could last through long voyages. Renjith says the 1880s were also a time of food scarcity. “We’ve had stories about 300-400 people queuing up before the bakery for their loaf. We served bread and lotta, a kind of dry bun with longer shelf-life, which people carried in baskets on their head,” he adds.

A measure of history came to be associated with Bappu’s bakery in 1883 when a British planter got off his jadka (carriage) and walked into the bakery with a cake from Britain. Bappu was instructed to taste the cake and make 10 pounds of similar fare.

Over the past 130-odd years, the Mambally family has spread out of Thalassery to open bakeries across Kerala. About 25 bakeries in the State are now run by Bappu’s relatives. At some of these outlets, cakes are still sold by the pound — 450g. Bappu baked breads, cakes and biscuits. His biscuits were shipped all the way to the Mesopotamian region during World War II. “We were told that Field Marshal KM Cariappa, who was fighting in the war in the region, had tasted our biscuits there. When he returned to Coorg, he sent people to the bakery for the biscuits,” says Renjith.

The bakeries in Kerala today are no longer just about biscuits and breads. When the tea stalls, once the hub of discussions and bonhomie, fell off the middle-class radar as the State urbanised, tea-stall fare such as parippu vada and pazham pori, bonda and sukhiyan quietly migrated to the bakeries. There they jostled with burgers and footlong. And together they packed the counters tight to meet the demand.

Homemakers come in at noon to stock up munchies for their kids returning from school. Working women drop in at evening to pick up packets of chappati and pathiri — handy dinner stuff. Students rest here in between tuitions for a cold drink and a quick bite. And during festivals, payasam in polythene packs disappear rapidly from the counter.

The bread shop of yore has metamorphosed into a modern-day convenience in consumerist Kerala. Newfound health concerns have prompted some bakers to introduce a line of wholewheat products and low-calorie sweets. Bakeries continue to be one of the few businesses that thrive here. Malappuram, a district not far from the site of the earliest bakeries, today has the most number of outlets, says PM Sankaran, president of the Kerala Bakers Association. Bakers now appear keen to blur the boundaries between home food and “bakery items”. The association, says Sankaran, is encouraging bakery owners to source snacks that are home-made.

However, competition comes from frozen food and multinational companies that sell products with longer shelf-life. Sankaran is hoping that the association’s new slogan will help put a healthy spin on an inherent disadvantage: “A short shelf-life ensures a long life for the consumer”.

Published on October 28, 2016

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