Taste of home: Breaking bread with expats
Iroha, located in Sushant Lok Vyapar Kendra, is one of the several bakeries owned and run by expats in the city. These bakeries offer desserts from their homeland that, over the past decade, have attracted expats and Indians alike.Updated: Dec 03, 2019, 20:19 IST
When Sakae Omori was told by his boss in Tokyo that he would have to take over a bakery in Gurugram to oversee production and sales, he had little idea of where the city was. Close to six years later, Omori now runs the city’s only Japanese bakery, Iroha, catering to over 3,000 Japanese expats.
Iroha, located in Sushant Lok Vyapar Kendra, is one of the several bakeries owned and run by expats in the city. These bakeries offer desserts from their homeland that, over the past decade, have attracted expats and Indians alike.
“Look at the shelves, it is only 3pm and they are already empty. Chef is not working hard enough,” says Yoku, a customer, as she pays for the last pound of Shokupan, a type of Japanese bread . The bread, from the outside, looks like generic supermarket white bread, but its large size, soft texture and perfect even brown tinge makes it a favourite of the community. Crafted with military precision, this bread is routinely supplied to the Japanese Embassy and restaurants in Mumbai.
To the unobservant eye, it may seem like a lazy day at Iroha, but Omori speaks of how his kitchen gets to work at 5.30 am, when five apprentices trained by the chef begin kneading the dough. “This bread requires absolute precision when mixing the ingredients; an error of even half a milligram can upset the bread,” he says, reminiscing about the days Iroha started out as a takeaway bakery. It has now expanded to sell other Japanese food items like natto (traditional dish made from soyabeans), tofu, crabs as well as daily grocery items, and a Japanese household staple, rice cookers.
Iroha’s success story resonates with other expats in the city as well. In April last year, SongBre Café opened its gates to Korean expats in South Point Mall. Young– ran–Song, the owner of the cafe, wanted to be more than just another bored homemaker.
“I wanted to work for myself, share my skills as a baker,” says Song, whose Korean bread has a distinct crispy outer layer and a soft inside. She also offers baking classes to her community in the city that are, at times, attended by Indians. SongBre is one of several Korean bakeries in the city. Still nascent, it is striving to build a name for itself. Its quaint, relaxing decor and homely atmosphere lets its patrons hold meetings or simply work.
Communication is a crucial factor in a successful business. The struggle is doubled when one has little clue of the local language. While some expats pick up on Hindi words, others polish their English, considering it to be an easier language to conquer.
Omori’s Hindi vocabulary, after five years in India, has expanded to include regional names of the vegetables Irohi sells and the ingredients he uses on a day-to-day basis. “I found not it very difficult in the beginning—not knowing any Hindi. My family did not understand it either. Buying the ingredients I wanted and making people at the store understand me was a big task. English came to my rescue,” says Song, who feels she is yet to have complete command over the language.
Bridging the communication gap in the kitchen and store is not limited to just the owners; it also falls on those taking the orders. For Robin Sehrawat, Iroha’s store manager, it meant learning Japanese in his free time. “I found a Hindi to Japanese YouTube channel. I learnt the basics there. That has been a big help, because the first few months I used to have a blank face when the chef would tell me things,” he says.
Despite the disparity in language and the fact that these bakeries stock goodies authentic to their respective homelands, they seem to be doing their part in uniting nationalities. After all, the aroma of freshly baked goods invites all.
“A large part of our customer base is Korean and Japanese. Indians comprise a small part of it, mostly because the subtle taste of these items does not suit their palate,” says Mohammed Razaq, head chef, Sibang—another Korean bakery in South Point Mall. He was approached by the bakery’s Korean owner Jung min Woo nearly nine years ago when he was working in a hotel that Woo often visited. Indians did not even eat here until a few years ago, says Razaq. But despite the lack of customised options for Indians, the bakery has become a ‘must visit’ place at South Point. Sibang opened its second outlet in Mega Mall in DLF Phase 1 in 2017. Both outlets hold excellent ratings on food rating apps.
“We have increased the production of items that Indians like a lot, such as eclairs and mille-feuilles. We do not have egg-less versions of other products because omitting eggs compromises on the original taste. But we do have original French products that do not contain eggs,” says Kazem Samadari, co-owner of L’Opera, a French bakery that opened its first shop in the city in DLF Golf club in 2011, after one in Khan Market, New Delhi. After sensing a demand for authentic French baked goods and pastry, it opened up several stores across India. Its store count now stands at 16.
Samadari and his wife, originally from Paris, were visiting their son-in-law in India in 2008. When his son, a business administration graduate joined them, opening an exclusive French bakery looked like an exciting business opportunity in the country.
These expat bakeries, however, are more than just a place to fetch bread and savories from. They often become a place for expats to be able to speak in their mother tongue outside their home. As Omori hands over Eurico, who has been living in the city for four years, her bread, they exchange pleasantries in Japanese.
“When I come here, I get to talk in my mother tongue and that is comforting,” says Eurico, waving her hands around to dry the freshly applied mehendi on them.