A cake off the old block

Priyadarshini Chatterjee | Updated on March 10, 2018

On the square: New Howrah Bakery’s Bapuji tiffin cakes is still the favourite accompaniment to afternoon tea at Kolkata’s roadside chai stalls Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

The stuff of every middle-class Bengali lunch box, the pasty, no-frills tiffin cake seems to have survived competition

The anticipation of “what’s for tiffin today” is what made those sultry afternoons in a crowded classroom, breathing in the sour pong of sweat and boredom, a little more bearable. However, the urgency with which I opened my tiffin box every day was more often than not met with disillusionment. Of course, luchi-aloo dum (albeit cold), bread rolls and Frankies made the occasional appearance. But tiffin usually meant hard-boiled eggs, sodden sandwiches, and weary slices of apples, biscuits, pale and crumbly sandesh, or a tiffin cake.

I often tried trading my tiffin for greasy parathas drenched in pickle oil, except I didn’t seem to mind the innocuous tiffin cake provided it was a Farinni Double Bite — slices of half-and-half cakes, soft and reasonably moist, in combinations like chocolate-and-strawberry, vanilla-and-orange. In Kolkata of the ’80s and ’90s, Farinni’s cakes (there was ice cream too) were immensely popular and their Double Bite range was a rage. Later they introduced Toppers — outrageously brittle cubes of chocolate cake with candied fruits that would crumble into a mound by the time one could unwrap it. We didn’t seem to mind. We merely upended the packet and emptied the crumbs straight into our mouths.

Farinni cakes have long gone off the shelves. The company shut down its cake manufacturing unit in Kidderpore a few years ago. Meanwhile, the city’s taste buds, as also the confectionery scene, have evolved. The humble tiffin cake has undergone a glamorous makeover too. Tiffin cakes now mean everything from soft muffins freckled with chocolate chips or filled with cream or jam, to moist Madeira cakes, cakes loaded with dried fruits and nuts, and Swiss rolls.

“But before branded tiffin cakes became fashionable, there were those baked in unassuming, local bakeries that catered to the masses,” says food anthropologist Pritha Sen. “Hawkers would go door to door with tin trunks packed with patties, cream rolls and tiffin cakes,” she adds.

It seems that these cakes — typically square blocks of butter cake flecked with candied papaya, glazed cherries and chunks of ash gourd candy, some flavoured with nutmeg — emerged as something of an icon of the self-fashioning of the unobtrusive Bengali middle-class. After all, back then a cuppa and pastries at Park Street’s illustrious tea rooms or Chowringhee’s posh confectioneries was a luxury for the common herd. “Middle-class confectioneries like Jalajog came much later,” says Sen.

At one point, old-timers insist, tiffin cakes meant the ones from Barua Bakery — purportedly the first Bengali bakery — on Dharmatala Street (now Lenin Sarani). From canteens at sporting clubs that dot the Maidans to neighbourhood grocery stores, Barua’s special tiffin cakes were ubiquitous.

But that was a long time ago. The 89-year-old bakery no longer makes those, except on order. However, one of Barua Bakery’s split-away fragments, tucked in a quiet lane off CIT Road, continues to turn out a limited batch of the signature cakes in a feeble attempt to keep alive the legacy.

The septuagenarian Barua Stores, adjacent to the bakery, still stocks up on Barua’s special tiffin cakes, perhaps goaded by a sense of loyalty towards its neighbour and namesake. The shop owner, now in his late-60s, admits that the quality of Barua’s cakes has declined over the years. They survive on the strength of nostalgia-driven loyalists.

There are, in fact, a few other old-timers such as Flora, Gemini and Philips that still turn out a small supply, “but these days children are smarter. They prefer the newer, fancier varieties that are packaged attractively,” he adds, holding out a choco-chip muffin.

I ask for a Barua’s cake instead, tear open the greasy wax paper and take a bite of the pasty slice of cake, as also a bit of the butter paper that lines its bottom. With no blinding film of nostalgia to deal with, it’s easy for me to dismiss the cake as unremarkable. And, a tad too dry. “But this is more nutritious than the preservative-laden fancy tiffin cakes these days,” says Atanu Ghosh, a regular at Barua Stores.

Despite the deluge of fancy packaged cakes, one bakery that has managed to hold its ground is The New Howrah Bakery, which makes the immensely popular Bapuji tiffin cakes. Bapuji continues to be a favourite accompaniment to afternoon tea at roadside shacks (its popularity second only to the invincible deem-pnauruti or bread-and-eggs), a compulsory component of picnic breakfast packs of hard-boiled eggs, Singapuri banana and soggy buttered toast, and a dependable snack that the fussiest of moddhobitto (middle-class) Bengali mothers would pack into lunch boxes for school.

“For the common man, tiffin cakes have now become synonymous with Bapuji, just like all chocolate bars have come to be referred to as Cadbury’s,” says Amitava Jana, who, along with elder brother Animesh, now runs the bakery started by their father in 1973. He meets me in his office in Pallabpukur, an unassuming neighbourhood in Howrah, where his family hails from.

The area has several production units — cramped workshops with sooty walls lined by stacks of empty paperboard egg trays and huge clay ovens — of the New Howrah Bakery. The company has two more workshops — in Serampore (in Hooghly district) and Kolkata’s Lake town area.

“Ours is a small-scale operation and our cakes are made manually to a large extent,” says Amitava, who is unperturbed by Bapuji’s sophisticated competitors. “We sell an average of 50,000 tiffin cakes a day, in and around Kolkata, and our popularity is on the rise,” he adds.

However, the business is not a cakewalk. There are labour problems and infrastructural glitches, but the Janas are more concerned about a nuisance of another kind. “Copies of the Bapuji cake have crept into the market. We are trying our best to control this, but it’s difficult,” Amitava says.

However, in a twisted way, that is also an indicator of the popularity of this innocuous specimen of old-fashioned confectionery. It is perhaps safe to say that the middle-class Bengali’s favourite version of the tiffin cake is here to stay.

Published on March 31, 2017

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