Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Bakeries of Old Delhi (and their many delights!)

For the past month, the bakeries of Old Delhi have been especially busy. Their ovens have been churning out various types of delights for the Ramzan feasts.

We walked past Sikander Bakery a couple of days ago, and found them making their popular rusks.

The popular Sikander Bakery is super-busy.
They were making rusks.
Have you seen how rusks are made? Did you know that they are "twice-baked"? The first time it is baked like a soft bread, something resembling a brioche. Then it is sliced, the slices are placed on trays and baked a second time. It's the second round of baking that makes rusks perfectly crisp for dipping into chai. 

Indian-style rusks originated by happy accident. They have their beginnings in the city of Surat, which was the biggest trading port on the Western coast of India during the reign of Jehangir and Shah Jahan. The Dutch had a settlement in Surat, and they established a bakery there, teaching the art of baking bread to five Parsi gentlemen. 

When the Dutch left Surat (I assume somewhere in the early 1800s), one Parsi gentleman called Dotivala took over their bakery. Business was not good; as locals did not eat the kind of bread that Dotivala produced. In those days, bread was fermented with toddy sap, to prevent spoiling. But old bread would lose moisture and become hard. When he was stuck with old surplus bread, Dotivala sold it to the poor at low prices. Soon he discovered that these hard breads were very popular with people, who dipped them in tea to soften them. So Dotivala began to deliberately harden his bread, through a process of drying them in the ovens a second time. And thus the "toast biscuit" or rusk was born. If you want to see what Dotivala makes these days, you should check out their website. They still have toast biscuits.

The same "double-baking" method is used in the bakeries of Old Delhi:
Soft bread out of the oven after the first round of baking.
Ready for slicing.
The slicing process.
Rusks going into second round of baking.
Bakeries are typically small operations with a
single bhatti (oven). This means the only way to
handle the Ramzan rush is by working extra hours.
In the photo below, you can see rectangular packages of rusks, wrapped in clear plastic.
Lots of rusks for sale. They are sweet as well as savoury.
In the bottom right corner you can see a circular bread called paapey, or gol-paapey.
Pappe have anise inside, and are dusted with poppy seeds after baking.
In the left bottom, you can also see pheni, which is a thin vermicelli.
The most visible thing in the market during Ramzan is pheni, very fine noodles that have been fried (supposedly) in ghee. These are eaten with hot, sweetened milk, and often garnished with pistachios and almonds. Pheni is typically a Sehri dish (pre-dawn meal). Pheni is of different types, some are super-fine, some are saffron flavoured, some are coloured, some are fried almost a dark brown.
Pheni or feni, does not need cooking as it is already fried
Pheni is sold sometimes in
long thin threads
Apart from rusk and pheni, there are lots of interesting bakery products / breads you can see in the market during Ramzan.

Sheermal is a sweet bread; usually the dough is sweetened with milk and sugar, and flavoured with saffron. It is popular in Old Delhi but many bakeries only make them during Ramzan or other festivals. Sheermal probably has origins in Iran, where they are almost twice the size of the ones below, and they are commonly sold in the markets. The Irani sheermal seems much thinner too.
I'm not sure what this bread is, but it looks like a sheermal that has been dunked in sugar and saffron syrup, ready to eat:
Looks awesome.
There is also khajla, deep-fried, flaky and melt-in-the-mouth.
Like pheni, khajla is also usually eaten in the
pre-dawn hours for Sehar.
Photo courtesy Nadeem Khan
Coconut Parantha, a mild-tasting unleavened
bread flavoured with coconut
(also from Nadeem Khan, thanks Nadeem!)

The soft Khamiri Rotis, baked in tandoors are hugely popular
And as if all this wasn't enough, Delhi's repertoire of baked goodies also includes lots of stuff sold all through the year in tiny shops scattered around the city.
Masala Twists
In the foreground is a pastry called "fein" or "fan".
Behind that are the always-popular cream rolls.
And of course, there is also that awesome delight, the nankhatai, about which I posted some time ago.
The Nankhatai Man
With all these treats, one would think the bakeries in Old Delhi are prospering. But it's quite clear that they are in fact, struggling to stay afloat. There aren't as many of them as there used to be. Everywhere in Old Delhi you see branded biscuits and other packaged eatables from big companies; so I am sure they are taking away a big chunk of the bakeries' business. I don't know how long these bakeries will survive.


Anonymous said...

Very informative article, feel like gorging on some sheermal! Sharing the link on my fb page, I am sure readers will love it :) Happy Eid!

Mayank Austen Soofi said...


Venkat said...

Thoroughly done and interestingly presented.Proves that food-life is a deeper and refreshing one.

Unknown said...

There is a place in delhi, especially Muslim majority which are engaged in bakery work. My favorite is the area near Jama majiz. Whenever I am there I definitely go for Karim and some bakery products next to it.

Amit from Trips N Travels

Anonymous said...

Deepa - Do you by any chance have the recipe for Delhi Nan Khatai?

Deepa said...

I wrote an article earlier which had a recipe in it:

Amit said...

Dropped in accidently , thanks to google . Love the blog.

Unknown said...

Nice post. I would like to share that monginis is one of the best bakery in delhi.

chowringhee said...

Looking to yummy. Definitely I would like to try this weekend. Thanks for sharing and would be waiting for some more good stuffs. home delivery restaurants in vijaynagar

Unknown said...

i really want to go there
but i cant the way from metro station
can you tell me the way to reach there from metro station ?????

best Bakeries in delhi said...

it's amazing.. thanks for sharing such an yummy blog with us .