How Mambally Bapu baked the first Christmas cake in 1883 in Kerala

In an interview with one of the descendants of the Mambally family, TNM learns the history of the first Christmas cake and how their bakeries spread through Kerala.
Premnath Mambally of Santha Bakery
Premnath Mambally of Santha Bakery
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At the bottom step in a painting, in a corner and behind two men in conversation, is a little boy – a toddler in mundu – that you might miss. But Premnath Mambally, with a soft laugh and an unmistakable Malabar accent, points him out. “There, that baby you see in the painting, that’s my grandfather,” he says, waving a hand in the direction of the painting. He must have explained the picture so many times already, a history his family carried through 140 years. The painting is recent, less than 10 years old, created by an artist named Elizabeth and gifted to the Mambally family, known for baking the first Christmas cake in India.

The man who made the famous plum cake in 1883, just the way the ‘Saib’ (the way Britishmen were addressed in Malabar) wanted it, is at the forefront of the picture – Mambally Bapu, uncle of the toddler behind him. Opposite him is the Britishman, Murdoch Brown, who came with the strange request of baking a Christmas cake, handing to Bapu a sample he brought from England with him. The place they met is Thalassery — back then Tellicherry — in the north of Kerala, now part of the Kannur district. No Indian is known to have baked a cake before that in India.

“Those were days when the British had ruled the Malabar region, which then came under the Madras Presidency. Bapu had started his ‘Mambally’s Royal Biscuit Factory’ in Thalassery in 1880, after going to Burma to learn the making of biscuits, bread and buns. He began with 140 varieties of biscuits. Three years later, Mr Brown, who owned one of the estates nearby, brought a cake to Bapu and told him all he knew about how to bake one — the ingredients included a French Brandy. Bapu took it as a challenge but made the cake with the local brew. When the Britishman tasted the cake, he famously said ‘Excellent’ and ordered 12 more. The date was December 20, 1883,” says Premnath, sitting in the Santha Bakery in Pulimood, Thiruvananthapuram. 

Painting of Mambally Bapu and Britishman Murdoch Brown

Through the generations after Bapu, units of the bakery spread across Kerala, some getting renamed after family members. Santha Bakery started in the capital in 1940, one of the only few bakeries in the city at the time. “That and Queen's were the famous bakeries in my childhood,” says one of the old customers of the shop.

It is mostly old customers who visit the shop now. Younger people don’t enjoy the same things, says Premnath, looking fondly at the shelves of sweets made with recipes handed down through the generations. He frowns at my choice of a chocolate pastry and hands over a traditional dates cake — "try that," he says. It is yum! As if on cue, one of the old-timers visits the shop in the afternoon. It is Rajeev, son of late singer KP Udayabhanu. The family is one of the loyal customers of Santha Bakery.

Rajeev Udayabhanu at Santha Bakery

Another regular customer – a bank employee – doesn’t interrupt Premnath as he tells the Mambally history but goes straight to the glass shelves and gets his two chicken cutlets, a daily habit. Behind the shelves, on a pale blue wall is the black and white picture of PM Krishnan, Premnath’s father, who founded the bakery and ran it for 40 years. 

Old-fashioned sweets at Santha Bakery

Premnath explains the family tree. Bapu was the uncle of Premnath’s grandfather, Mambally Gopal (the kid in the painting). “Those days it was marumakka thayam — matrilineal system — when your properties were passed over to your sister’s children. So the biscuit factory came to Mambally Gopal,” Premnath says.

By Gopal’s time, the system changed and the bakery tradition passed to several of his 11 children. There were three daughters and eight sons. Bakeries opened in Kozhikode, Kochi, Kottayam and Thiruvananthapuram under several names — Best Hotel in Kottayam, Cochin Bakers in Ernakulam and Santha in the capital. The Malabar bakeries kept the name of Mambally.

“Those days, our biscuits were not as soft as the ones that the British made. So some of the men asked the butlers in British homes – who were local people – about the secret ingredient. They said it is a white powder and passed on a sample. It might have been baking soda, we don’t know now. But the recipe that we follow even to this day is believed to be what has been passed down from Mambally Bapu,” Premnath says.

Plum cakes at Santha Bakery

He had not planned to enter the business. He did when his father Krishnan passed away and someone had to take over the Thiruvananthapuram units. Krishnan was an official in the Timber Department and an ardent Communist. He had let party pioneers like AK Gopalan and EMS Namboodiripad hide in his place when Communists were hunted by authorities. Krishnan also became active in campaigns, asking for toilets for the villagers – “way before the Swachh Bharat of these days,” says Premnath. But that brought a transfer to Krishnan that he didn’t want. He left the job and came to Thiruvananthapuram to start Santha Bakery with Rs 1,000 and some biscuits given by the family.

PM Krishnan of the Mambally family

Thirty-eight years ago, on Premnath’s birthday, they began the second unit in the capital. “But I don’t know how many more years it will last. No one from the newer generation is interested and they have been asking me to stop working too,” Premnath says, and adds, like an afterthought, “I belong to an old generation, not suited to the ways of the new world.” 

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