The traditional bakery in Kashmir is gone through generational shift. The takeover is putting young and enthusiastic entrepreneurs’ raise the bar in a highly competitive market.
One fine afternoon, the flamboyant ex-chief minister of J&K Dr Farooq Abdullah pulled his SUV outside a recently opened bakery shop ‘Just Baked’ in Sanat Nagar, Srinagar. Accompanied by his daughter and grandchildren, senior Abdullah purchased bakery items worth Rs 2000. It instantly made news.
Launched in July 2015, the brain behind ‘Just Baked’ is Rouf Khanday: a business management graduate from Auckland, New Zealand.
Khanday, who belongs to a business family, wanted to modernise Kashmir’s traditional bakery so that people have variety to choose from. “I wanted to make something which is at par with five star bakeries, yet has a traditional taste,” says Khanday. For this purpose Khanday roped in a former Oberoi chef to heads a team of local bakers. “The aim was to create a bakery outlet that meets European standards,” says Khanday, who has so far invested more than Rs 2 crore in his dream venture. “Our clientele is spread across the valley. We have people visiting from far flung areas. I guess people are ready to pay extra if they get good quality,” he quips.
Kashmir’s love for bakery goes back to early 1930s when the influx of foreign tourists and travellers was at its peak. It is believed that Kashmiris have learned this art from the European travellers who used to make long stays in the Vale of dreams. Unlike other parts of Indian sub-continental, Kashmir has largely remained immune to tradition of eating sweets on special occasions. It is bakery instead!
However the first bakery shop in Kashmir was started by Harry Nedous, father-in-law of NC founder Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah. Harry was originally an English man who married a Gujjar girl, Begum Jannat – mother of Begum Akbar Jehan. Harry hired English chefs only who were helped by a few locals. One of the local helps was Mohammed Abdullah Sofi.
There is an interesting story behind Sofi’s name surviving the decades of English monopoly over bakery. During his time at Harry’s bakery Sofi learned the art of making bakery. Later Sofi passed on the skills to his son Ghulam Nabi Sofi. The Jr. Sofi went to Delhi to hone his skills. Once back, he joined a newly opened bakery shop in Srinagar: Ahadoos bakery and confectionery. Jr. Sofi served Ahadoos for about two decades before opening his own bakery shop in Jammu’s busy Raghunath bazaar in 1965. He named it Jee Enn Bakers. Five years later he shifted his entire business to Srinagar.
Presently Jr. Sofi’s son Lateef Sofi, 49, takes care of the Jee Enn Bakers from his posh Residency Road shop. “My father was instrumental in introducing new varieties in bakery,” claims Lateef. “He is the one who first made White Forest pastry in Kashmir.”
Lateef’s family are the only ones, who are members of National Association of Bakery Industries, from Jammu and Kashmir. Lateef remembers his father attending ANUGA – Europe´s largest International Food Festival. “A European baking company was so impressed by my father’s work that they gifted him 5 kgs of white chocolate on his return,” says Lateef. “It was something new for us kids. We had never seen white chocolate then,” recalls Lateef.
Lateef’s father, a baker with innovative bend of mind, used the gifted white chocolate to create a new variety of pastry: White Forest. “That is how White Forest came into existence,” says Lateef. “Even Black Forest pastry was introduced by my father in Kashmir. He had learned it from a German chef who had come to serve a high-end party at Centaur Hotel.”
An Institute of Hotel Management, Catering and Nutrition PUSA (Delhi) trained baker, Lateef now looks after the family business. “I don’t bake myself anymore. I just want to keep my forefather’s legacy alive.”
Lateef says that his father was open to experiments unlike other traditional bakers. “He would encourage his staff to take risks. And those risks are now in vogue everywhere,” says Lateef with a smile. “It was him who first experimented with fresh cream based bakery. Now it is everywhere. It is now part of our mainstream bakery.”
Lateef is reluctant to share his business details but says with a smile that there is never a dull moment for a baker. “During Eid we register daily sale of more than One Lakh,” says Lateef.
Lateef agrees that bakery in Kashmir has gone through multiple changes over past few decades. Earlier bakeries would cater to masses keeping in view their daily demand for breakfast items like Choat, Chowchiwor, Katlam, Lawas, Kulcha and Bagirkhaani. The high-end bakeries like Nedous, Ahadoos and Jee Enn Bakers used to cater to a particular class of clientele only. “I have seen drastic changes in Kashmir bakers in last five decades,” says Ghulam Qadir, 60, one of the oldest workers at Jee Enn Bakers. “The change in lifestyle has directly affected our taste buds.”
Two decade ago Roath – kind of sweet bread decorated with cashew nuts, almonds and poppy seeds – was an important part of every feast and ceremony in Kashmir. “It got replaced by cakes,” says Qadir, who is serving Jee Enn Bakery since 1976.
Located in the heart of Old City, Janta Bakery’s senior employee Irshad Ahmed is quite comfortable with the change that Kashmiri bakery has gone through. “Though people are more health conscious now, they still are prone to cheating,” feels Ahmed. “People are happy to buy eggless packed biscuits from Indian companies without thinking that they are manufactured months back.”
Ahmed says it pains him when people praise such products and prefer them over fresh Kashmiri bakery, without knowing what goes into their making.
But Ahmed is happy that highly educated people like Khanday and his friends of Just Baked fame are investing in this sector. “This will cut down our dependence on outside bakery,” feels Ahmed.
Traditionally the art is passed on from one generation to another, but with youngsters like Khanday and his friend’s foray into the sector, it is already witnessing a boom.
The Walnut Fudge
Have your ever tasted a Walnut Fudge! If not, then you are surely missing one of the most talked about exclusivity of Kashmir’s bakery. A mixture of walnut, honey and dates, Walnut Fudge is the brain child of Mehraj-ud-Din’s ‘Moonlight’ bakery located at Dargah, Hazratbal.
From a distance, Moonlight bakery look like any other ordinary shop. But once you step inside, the shops 119 year old legacy takes you over instantly. “We inherited art of baking from our forefathers,” says Mehraj-ud-Din.
For most part of their history Moonlight catered to foreigners visiting the valley. “It has been just last two decades that local market is keeping us business,” says Mehraj-ud-Din, 60, who rarely visits the shop now.
Since last five years the shop is run by his lone son Moonis Mehraj. Apart from offering exclusivities like Walnut Fudge and Ginger Biscuits, Moonlight sells everything related to bakery as well. “We are famous for Walnut Fudge and Ginger Biscuits. You won’t find these anywhere else,” claims Moonis, a business management diploma holder from Bangalore.
But it is the Walnut Fudge that draws maximum crowd for Moonlight. “I have been approached by many local and international investors who want us to be part of them,” says Moonis.
But Moonis’ father is against shifting his business anywhere outside Srinagar. “He is my only son. I don’t want to lose him,” says Mehraj-ud-Din.
Moonis, who was recently approached by a Dubai based businessman for copyrights of his exclusive products, feels that any expansion will affect the quality of his bakery.
So far Moonis and his father have kept the recipe of Walnut Fudge and Ginger Biscuits to themselves only. Every morning the father son duos prepare these exclusive items on their own. “The consumption is almost 100 pieces a day. That way we are able to maintain the quality.”
The recipe was first prepared by Ghulam Mohammed, Moonis’ grandfather. Since then it is part of family’s legacy. “We want to maintain the secrecy of this recipe. That is why we don’t involve any outside chefs,” says Moonis.
Recently a businessman had offered Moonis and his father Rs 60 lakh to purchase the recipe but they rejected the offer out rightly. “We own it and want to retain it till we can,” says Moonis.
All Moonis could reveal about his exclusive products is that Walnut Fudge contains three natural ingredients: 90 percent walnut, 5 percent dates and 5 percent honey.
To maintain the quality they purchase ‘snow-white walnuts’ from Uri and honey from a family friend. Their (suppliers) association is as old as the history of the Walnut Fudge itself. “Since we have started to bake the fudge, my grandfather has purchased honey from that family only,” says Moonis.
And the dates they purchase from the local wholesale market. The products shelf life is 20 days and needs no refrigeration.
Mehraj business is confined to one shop only, but it is a famous address. Lately Omar Abdullah and Sushil Kumar Shinde had visited them to taste some Walnut Fudges.