Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: The bake up in the lockdown
Unless you know North India well, you won’t be familiar with the town of Hoshiarpur. Nor am I as familiar with Hoshiarpur as I would like. But that’s not for want of trying.
Last year, I was invited to the Hoshiarpur Literary Festival to interview Captain Amarinder Singh about his latest book on military history. I accepted but then, at the last moment, the Captain couldn’t make it and our session was cancelled. The Society invited us again a few months later but bad weather made it impossible for the Captain’s chopper to land in Hoshiarpur.
But I sort of kept my date with the Hoshiarpur Literary Society. The bright young author, Khushwant Singh, organised a Zoom session, where he would moderate my chat with the Society during the lockdown. Apart from my joy at discovering how much people continue to prize books all over India (as the members of the Society clearly did), I was also intrigued by how many of their questions to me had to do with baking.
At one stage in our conversation, Khushwant told me that nearly everyone he knew had taken up baking in a big way during the lockdown. In fact, he said, it was hard to find somebody who still bought shop-baked bread. They just baked their own.
I gulped and did not mention that I had never baked a loaf of bread in my life.
Khushwant lives in Chandigarh, so clearly baking is a big thing all over Punjab, not just in Hoshiarpur. But is it also an all-India thing?
It is. The more I look, the more newly-converted baking enthusiasts I seem to find. They bake everything from cakes to fancy breads to biscuits to buns to scones, and God alone knows what else. The lockdown has turned into a Bake Up.
This surprises me because home-baking never used to be an Indian thing. Americans baked apple pie and English people baked cakes for tea. But, at least when I was growing up, we bought our cakes and our bread from professional bakers.
In fact, we did not even have an oven at our home in Mumbai. Nor did most people I know. Even when Gujaratis made pav-bhaji at home, they stuck to cooking the bhaji and bought the pav from outside.
Yes, we all had friends whose sophisticated mummies baked (disgusting) stubby maida biscuits with synthetic vanilla essence, but there weren’t too many of them. And by the 1990s, when most middle-class homes had microwaves, old-fashioned ovens seemed redundant.
So, when did it all begin to change?
I reckon the change came in phases. The first phase was when the kitchen equipment industry persuaded us to trade up from simple cooking ranges to fancier installations. These came with an oven and were not prohibitively expensive, so more and more people moved away from the simple gas hobs they had used in their mothers’ kitchens.
The second phase came with television. For some reason, baking is now big in the UK and to some extent in the US. With the globalisation of television, it was inevitable that the trend would spread here.
In India, we didn’t have our own bakery TV shows (well, not shows of any consequence, at any rate) but we had an explosion of bakery stores and cake-based cafés.
Till about two decades ago, upmarket baking remained the preserve of five-star hotels and their chefs. Then, a new generation of bakers took the cakes out of hotels. In Mumbai, young chefs like Pooja Dhingra became stars. In Delhi, bakery shops likes L’Opéra and The Artful Baker ate into the business of the hotel pastry shops.
The younger chefs took inspiration from global trends. Americans who had survived on muffins for years took to cupcakes and such New York bakeries as Magnolia Bakery became world famous. (Magnolia now has new owners and is not much more than a global franchise operation.) Even doughnut places (think of the heyday of Krispy Kreme before its financial problems and sale) became part of the trend, though doughnuts are usually deep-fried and so technically, are not baked goods.
As the backlash against gluten began, the macaroon (or macaron if you want to get all French about it) became ubiquitous. Unlike doughnuts or cupcakes, macaroons are difficult to make but no matter, people loved them regardless of their quality. And truly, at no time in the history of mankind have as many third-rate macaroons been made as there are today.
And then, there’s the final phase: the one India is in now. Because people are stuck at home, they think of cooking as an entertainment/timepass option. And with ovens on hand, what could be better than learning how to bake by watching videos on the Internet? Why not learn from Anna Olson? From Paul Hollywood?
To make fancy French/Italian/Chinese/Japanese food, you need all kinds of hard-to-find ingredients. Baking, on the other hand, is essentially a sinful union between maida and cheeni. And anyone can find flour and sugar.
The boom in home-baking, from Hoshiarpur to Hyderabad and from Kolkata to Kottayam, has had one interesting consequence.
People have realised how easy it is to bake!
As the 20th century British chef Marco Pierre White used to say, cooking requires skill, flair, imagination, etc. “Baking, on the other hand, is just chemistry.” Follow the instructions in the recipe to the letter, and you can’t go wrong.
So, one good thing is that the mystique that surrounded pastry chefs has gone. Yes, you’ll need skill (and high-quality ingredients) to make perfect macaroons and complex bakery products. But honestly, any fool can bake a cupcake, a bun, or a loaf of bread.
As most basic bakery products all over India are of very poor quality – whether from the big companies or the five-star hotels – with revolting ‘cream’ made from vegetable oil and bogus ‘chocolate’, the boom in home-baking will help consumers realise that they are being conned. Hopefully, standards will rise all over.
And so, as the good people of Hoshiarpur kept bombarding me with questions, I had to finally admit that I did no baking myself. They were kind and sympathetic.
But I came away feeling that to make it in the eyes of a new generation of foodies, you are only as good as the loaf you bake.
From HT Brunch, August 16, 2020
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