‘Motta’ puffs, pastries and cream buns: How bakeries redefined Kerala taste buds

Mambally family of Thalassery, is said to have baked the first Christmas cake in Kerala in 1883. Three decades before in 1852, Rozarios, another family of bakers, started making bread in Kochi.
A bakery in Kerala
A bakery in Kerala
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Twenty years ago, children in Kerala ran to the nearby bakeries outside school in the short break between the last bell at school and the evening bus home. Clutching heavy backpacks, they counted out coins, pooling in money for a plate of pastry and a packet of juice. Several heads huddled over a single plate of goodies with a lot of love and laughter.

It was this savoury-sweet combination of food and friendship that made bakeries thrive. Cafes have mushroomed all over Kerala, where the urban-rural divide is a blur. There are also many malls and multiple home delivery apps. Surprisingly none of them replaced the neighbourhood bakeries of Kerala. Every few blocks, you’d pass by one. The Bakers’ Association Kerala has documented 14,700 bakeries in the state. Vijesh Viswanath, its president, reckons there will be a few hundred unregistered ones, which are not a part of the association.

“The earliest bakeries came into being to satisfy the British taste in the 19th century. People of Kerala seem to have absorbed that culture much more than others. Like the Mughal culture and their cuisine has influenced the food habits of Hyderabad, the baking culture from the West influenced Kerala,” says Vijesh. The bakery density seen in Kerala cannot be witnessed in any other state, he avers.

A smidgen of history

Two different families opened bakeries in Kerala in the 19th century. Some trace the history to the Mambally family of Thalassery, which had famously baked the first Christmas cake in Kerala in 1883. The baking history of the Rozarios, another family which entered the business, is three decades older than Mambally's. Rozarios Bakery in Broadway of Ernakulam baked bread for the first time in the state.

Old flyer and menu of the Rozario's

“It was in 1852 that my great great grandfather opened Rozarios. The bakery was attached to the house and It was closed in 1988 after the death of my great grandmother,” says Tsarina Abrao Vacha. An architect by profession she had always been fond of the bakery business of her ancestors. Tsarina grew up smelling the aroma that wafted in from the borma, a type of conventional oven, after the batter tray of flour, eggs, sugar and butter went in. The only thing electric in that bakery, Tsarina says, were the lights and the fan.

In the early 1850s, Kochi – a princely state back then – was ruled by Veera Kerala Varma (Kerala Varma IV). An anglophile, he was the first Cochin maharaja to wear shirts and pants, Tsarina says. There were many Britishers and other Europeans staying in Kochi. “For Europeans in India, life was very difficult without bread. The king, realising this, called my great great grandfather, gave him a piece of land and asked him to start a bakery there,” Tsarina says.

Watch: Tsarina on Rozarios Bakery

She is not sure why the king called her ancestor in particular. That part of the story is missing. But she knows that Ignatius Rozario used to bake all sorts of exclusive stuff. A generation later, the bakery fell into the hands of her great grandmother, who came to the Rozario family as a bride at the age of 12. “That was in 1911, and she became a widow when she was 21,” says Tsarina. After that the young widow ran the bakery.

The Mambally story also has a similar beginning. Murdoch Brown, a Britishman who couldn’t go home for Christmas, asked Mabmbally Bapu to bake a cake for him. Brown is believed to have presented Bapu with a sample of the cake he brought from England. Bapu must have been chosen because he had returned from Burma after learning to make biscuits, bread and buns. Murdoch told him about the ingredients of a plum cake, which included a helping of French brandy. Bapu substituted the French brandy with the local brew but the cake still became a success. Murdoch, the legend goes, said ‘excellent’ when he tasted it. That’s the story that Premnath Mambally, a descendant of the family who runs the Santha bakery in Thiruvananthapuram, told TNM last Christmas.

Painting of Mambally Bapu and Britishman Murdoch Brown / by Artist Elizabeth

Aslam Kunjumoosa, one of the core members of the group Eat At Trivandrum and founder of a restaurant consultancy, corroborates the part of using replicas for ingredients. “What we have always done is use easily available spices and sweeteners and create our own variants. We had a tutty-fruity bread variant and cardamom-flavoured bread. Then came the jam rolls which are a take on the cinnamon rolls. Where the westerners used apricot jam, we used sugar syrup and pineapple jams. Everything was dependent on seasonal availability,” he says.

The love for bread

In the late 1800s, Rozarios supplied breads and cakes and biscuits for all of Kochi. The needs were high because of the business population in Kochi, and the Christian institutions, says Tsarina who has been deeply interested in the history. “The churches, seminaries, schools and educational institutions had Italian nuns, Spanish priests and Portuguese missionaries. All of them needed bread,” says Tsarina. There was also a third category of people who needed it. Ernakulam being the trading centre in those days, people came in bullock carts on Mondays and Fridays with all the produce from the villages (bananas etc.) and the road used to be closed for vehicular traffic. “The carts would be parked near the market, just outside the Rozarios Bakery. My great grandmother used to make small loaves of bread to give them to eat on their return journey. People understood the ease of carrying bread as food as opposed to, say, kanji (porridge) or rice,” says Tsarina. She remembers the little loaves being made in the borma as a beautiful sight, in the glowing light of burning coconut shells.

In the book Ettukettu Stories, a nostalgic account of life in Kerala by TC Narayan, there is a chapter about John, a man who used to help the Rozario family to bake bread and deliver them in Kochi’s Broadway. "This involved a two-mile walk from the bakery at the northern end of Broadway to the residential areas in the southern part of the town. Add to this the distance from house to house —and all this to be accomplished with a bamboo basket full of bread balanced on his head," Narayan writes. The lovely aroma of bread was so tempting that the temple bull, Maanikkan, had to be 'paid off' daily with a slice - "the price for unhindered passage past the temple".

Tsarina was always curious about the proliferation of bakeries in Kerala. She has found a few satisfactory answers: convenience, novelty and addiction. “If you compare the bakery items to a four ‘o’ clock palaharam (traditional snacks) like unniyappam or parippu (lentil) vada, those are cumbersome to make. But you can pick up your biscuit or bread from the bakery. It became a family treat, and over a period of time, habitual. When guests come over and you want to treat them, you go to the bakery.

“I think the addiction grew because of the amount of sugar in everything. End of the day, if you analyse what a biscuit is, it is nothing but flour, butter and sugar in different ratios, with a little flavouring added here or some cocoa added there, moulded into different shapes. It is easy to put together these things that could be cloned too – you can bake hundreds of biscuits in one shot – unlike making an elaborate palaharam.”

One of Tsarina’s grand uncles opened a branch in Kottayam, which led to the spread of bakery culture further down south. Vijesh reckons it is because north Kerala had then come under the Madras presidency of the British while further down south, the kingdoms were still independent. And cakes and baking had originally come (to Kerala) because the Britishers needed it. 

Rozario's in 1980

A pan-kerala presence

The bakeries began spreading when the original families began moving towns and opening branches. Rozarios opened in Kottayam, taking into account the Christian population in the district – “there’s the whole culture of convents and churches and missionaries with nuns and priests from different parts of the western world, so they obviously patronise the baked items. Then there were Christian weddings, which allowed for tea parties. Western influence and food habits infiltrated into our culture,” Tsarina says, echoing Vijesh’s observation.

Mambally Bapu passed on his biscuit factory to his nephew (Premnath’s grandfather), and the next generation of Mamballys spread themselves around the state opening bakeries in Kozhikode, Kochi, Kottayam and Thiruvananthapuram. In Kozhikode they retained the name Mambally, in Kochi they became ‘Cochin Bakers’, in Kottayam ‘Best Hotel’ and in Thiruvananthapuram ‘Santha’.

Old-fashioned snacks at Santha Bakery, Thiruvananthapuram

By the 1960s, Vijesh says, the government of India started the Modern Bakeries, realising how nourishing bread is and how easy it is to distribute it. Again, Kerala took to it more than other states, Vijesh adds. And the bakery culture kept evolving decade after decade.

Bakeries turn food hubs

“Now bakeries have turned into food hubs. In Kerala, it’s a sweet shop, a bakery, sometimes attached with an eatery,” Vijesh says.

Aslam, who runs a restaurant consultancy, says in Kerala, people associate bakeries more with snacks and confectionery items than a unit that bakes bread. “Children in Kerala don’t go to bakeries for bread or bun but for a sweet treat, a cake slice or a packet of chips. It has also been a hangout place for kids of many generations, and there would always be a place or two near educational establishments,” he says.

He lists out the bakery products that kept evolving over the decades. “If you take bread, there have been flavour-based variants. But it used to be flour-based. Recently we have started offering multi-grain breads. After bread and biscuits came the rolls and buns. Then came the decade of pastries with sugar and butter icing. Around the same time, cream buns became popular. It was only later that we got access to whipped cream. And black forest became the go-to pastry,” says Aslam.

Black forest and other pastries / Courtesy - Eastern Bakery, Thiruvananthapuram

Puffs, made with puff pastry and often filled with savoury filling, have earned a major fan-following since the 1980s, Aslam says, adding an interesting tidbit. In the 1980s and 90s it was all about meat puffs, but by the 2000s, egg puffs ‘became a thing’. “For kids of that generation, puffs and a glass of juice made from soft concentrate like the Rasna was a go-to combination,” he says.

In the 70s and 80s, it was all biscuits, rusks, bread, plum and tea cakes. The product category grew every year, says Vijesh. Bakeries now make many varieties of fruit cake flavoured with jackfruit and even guava.  There are also many kinds of cookies and rusks. From a time when ladoos, halwa and jalebis were the only sweet, it's now possible to source sweetmeats and savoury items from across India in these stores. And of course, there are the ubiquitous Kerala chips, made from raw plantain, ripe plantain, jackfruit and cassava.

No bakery story is complete without the role played by pastries. Aslam says the black forest variety gained popularity in the 1980s and 90s. Kerala had to wait till mid-2000 to relish “proper pastries,” he says. “When people went out of the country and gained exposure they started making proper French pastries and mousse cakes. This happened in the last few years. Now there are multiple patisseries focusing on French macarons and pastries. You can find a baker in every nook and corner. You even have honey cakes and kunafas now. It just keeps changing, “ says Aslam.

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