The stuff of life

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on January 09, 2018

Bread, like all world travellers, has picked up habits and accents from different corners of the globe

Yesterday, I sent my eldest daughter to buy a loaf of bread. I handed her the money and asked her to pop down to the bakery for something to go with mushroom chicken.

My daughter reacted as if I was dispatching her on a quest involving goblins, poisonous spiders and dark, dripping caves. “Bread,” she moaned. “Buying bread is confusing. I’ll call from the bakery. You promise you’ll be near the phone.”

“What nonsense,” I squawked. “What’s so complicated about buying bread? If you can remember the functions of mitochondria and leucoplasts, you can certainly figure out how to buy bread. When I was your age I...”

My daughter rolled her eyes and marched off on her errand. Five minutes later, my phone rang.

“Okay,” my daughter declared. “They have the usual brown and multigrain stuff. But they also have a baguette. Then they have focaccia with tomatoes on top. Then they have something called — what? — ciabatta. Then Parsi chutney bread. Then fibre bread, which looks gross. And rye bread. Then oat bread. Then a bread covered in foil… tell me quickly… the man is getting angry because I’m taking so long…”

“Umm,” I mumbled. Was rye bread the blackish one that tasted like cardboard after it’s been left out in the rain? And didn’t fibre bread sound more like an ayurvedic medicine? What exactly was Parsi chutney bread?

I didn’t admit it to Aaliya, but I was befuddled. After all, I’d grown up in an age of limited choices — pav, Britannia white sliced bread, Modern white sliced bread and Wibs white sliced bread. Though the pav was soft and delicious, the sliced bread slotted better in the toaster and was more efficient on school mornings.

Of course, I’ve picked up a fair amount of crumby knowledge since then. I know, for example, that focaccia is a tricky word to pronounce. That it’s wise to triple-check the price tag of anything labelled ‘artisanal’. And that, in the world according to chick-lit, baking sourdough bread is the best way to heal a broken heart. But if you nab me unawares and ask which bread should be paired with edam cheese or used to mop up a sunny scrambled egg — or mushroom chicken — I’d be of less help than a wonky lamppost.

“Ummm,” I said again, trying to sound as if I was leafing through a mental bread encyclopedia.

By this point my daughter had realised that she was seeking advice from somebody more useless than the aforementioned wonky lamppost. “Tell me quick,” she yelped. “THE MAN is getting angry with me.”

“Okay,” I said brightly. “Okay, get the ciabatta… siabatta… kiabatta… whatever.”

Chabata, mummy,” my daughter huffed. Which was when I decided that the time had come to turn bread-savvy. No longer was it enough to know that brun was crusty and pav was pillowy. Not in an age when even the mundane aisles of Sahakari Bhandar and BigBasket.com throw up exotic options such as honey oatmeal bread and brioche.

The prehistoric business of bread-making seems to have resulted in rudimentary flatbreads. Then some floating yeast performed its magic and our ancestors began to bake we-have-no-idea-why-it’s-puffing-up variations. After some centuries, the ancient Egyptians took time off from building pyramids to crack the mystery of yeast, and come up with around 30 varieties of bread.

The Greeks borrowed the art of bread-making from the Egyptians, and it soon spread through Europe. In ancient Rome, bread was considered so important that members of the baker’s guild weren’t allowed to party with “comedians or gladiators” or attend performances in the amphitheatres. All in a futile attempt to keep bakers free of vice.

For centuries, you could tell a person’s social status by the colour of the bread he or she consumed — the poor consumed darker breads, while the wealthy preferred expensive white flour. Till the trend turned on its head a couple of decades ago and healthier multigrain and wholewheat started taking over the shelf space in gourmet bakeries.

Like all world travellers, bread has picked up habits and accents from different corners of the globe. In some parts it’s round, has a hole and is called a bagel. In others, it’s packed with raisins and candied peel and called bara brith. Sometimes it’s flat and familiar and called a chapatti, at other times it is dense and dark and called pumpernickel.

In fact, there are so many versions out there that when you call upon the higher powers to “Give us this day our daily bread”, you could end up receiving a different type every day of the year.

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and the author of The Strange Haunting of Model High School and The Shy Supergirl

Holiday bread

This holiday, we are planning to attempt a fruity confection for Christmas breakfast 2 1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 cup cold unsalted butter

1 cup crumbled paneer

1 cup dried tart cherries/cranberries/raisins

1/3 cup pecans

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon grated fresh lemon peel

2 large eggs

Powdered sugar


1. Preheat oven to 325°F. Grease a large cookie sheet. In a large bowl, stir together flour, sugar, baking powder, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cut in butter until mixture resembles fine crumbs. Stir in paneer, dried fruit, pecans, vanilla, lemon peel, and eggs until well combined.

2. Turn dough onto a lightly-floured surface. With floured hands, gently knead dough two or three times to blend. With floured rolling pin, roll dough into 10” by 8” oval. Fold oval lengthwise, bringing top half over so that bottom of dough extends by about one inch.

3. Place the dough on prepared cookie sheet. Bake 55 to 60 minutes or until toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean. Transfer the dough to wire rack; cool completely. Sprinkle with powdered sugar to coat before serving.

Published on December 15, 2017

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