The traditional bakery in Kashmir is going through a generational shift. The takeover is putting young and enthusiastic entrepreneurs’ raise the bar in a highly competitive market. Syed Asma reports
One fine afternoon, the flamboyant ex-chief minister of J&K Dr Farooq Abdullah pulled his SUV outside a recently opened bakery shop ‘Just Baked’ in Sanat Nagar, Srinagar. Accompanied by his daughter and grandchildren, senior Abdullah purchased bakery items worth Rs 2000. It instantly made news.
Launched in July 2015, the brain behind ‘Just Baked’ is Rouf Khanday: a business management graduate from Auckland, New Zealand.
Khanday, who belongs to a business family, wanted to modernise Kashmir’s traditional bakery so that people have variety to choose from. “I wanted to make something which is at par with five star bakeries, yet has a traditional taste,” says Khanday. For this purpose Khanday roped in a former Oberoi chef to heads a team of local bakers. “The aim was to create a bakery outlet that meets European standards,” says Khanday, who has so far invested more than Rs 2 crore in his dream venture. “Our clientele is spread across the valley. We have people visiting from far flung areas. I guess people are ready to pay extra if they get good quality,” he quips.
Kashmir’s love for bakery goes back to early 1930s when the influx of foreign tourists and travellers was at its peak. It is believed that Kashmiris have learned this art from the European travellers who used to make long stays in the Vale of dreams. Unlike other parts of Indian sub-continental, Kashmir has largely remained immune to tradition of eating sweets on special occasions. It is bakery instead!
However the first bakery shop in Kashmir was started by Harry Nedous, father-in-law of NC founder Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah. Harry was originally an English man who married a Gujjar girl, Begum Jannat – mother of Begum Akbar Jehan. Harry hired English chefs only who were helped by a few locals. One of the local helps was Mohammed Abdullah Sofi.
There is an interesting story behind Sofi’s name surviving the decades of English monopoly over bakery. During his time at Harry’s bakery Sofi learned the art of making bakery. Later Sofi passed on the skills to his son Ghulam Nabi Sofi. The Jr. Sofi went to Delhi to hone his skills. Once back, he joined a newly opened bakery shop in Srinagar: Ahadoos bakery and confectionery. Jr. Sofi served Ahadoos for about two decades before opening his own bakery shop in Jammu’s busy Raghunath bazaar in 1965. He named it Jee Enn Bakers. Five years later he shifted his entire business to Srinagar.
Presently Jr. Sofi’s son Lateef Sofi, 49, takes care of the Jee Enn Bakers from his posh Residency Road shop. “My father was instrumental in introducing new varieties in bakery,” claims Lateef. “He is the one who first made White Forest pastry in Kashmir.”
Lateef’s family are the only ones, who are members of National Association of Bakery Industries, from Jammu and Kashmir. Lateef remembers his father attending ANUGA – Europe´s largest International Food Festival. “A European baking company was so impressed by my father’s work that they gifted him 5 kgs of white chocolate on his return,” says Lateef. “It was something new for us kids. We had never seen white chocolate then,” recalls Lateef.
Lateef’s father, a baker with innovative bend of mind, used the gifted white chocolate to create a new variety of pastry: White Forest. “That is how White Forest came into existence,” says Lateef. “Even Black Forest pastry was introduced by my father in Kashmir. He had learned it from a German chef who had come to serve a high-end party at Centaur Hotel.”
An Institute of Hotel Management, Catering and Nutrition PUSA (Delhi) trained baker, Lateef now looks after the family business. “I don’t bake myself anymore. I just want to keep my forefather’s legacy alive.”
Lateef says that his father was open to experiments unlike other traditional bakers. “He would encourage his staff to take risks. And those risks are now in vogue everywhere,” says Lateef with a smile. “It was him who first experimented with fresh cream based bakery. Now it is everywhere. It is now part of our mainstream bakery.”
Lateef is reluctant to share his business details but says with a smile that there is never a dull moment for a baker. “During Eid we register daily sale of more than One Lakh,” says Lateef.
Lateef agrees that bakery in Kashmir has gone through multiple changes over past few decades. Earlier bakeries would cater to masses keeping in view their daily demand for breakfast items like Choat, Chowchiwor, Katlam, Lawas, Kulcha and Bagirkhaani. The high-end bakeries like Nedous, Ahadoos and Jee Enn Bakers used to cater to a particular class of clientele only. “I have seen drastic changes in Kashmir bakers in last five decades,” says Ghulam Qadir, 60, one of the oldest workers at Jee Enn Bakers. “The change in lifestyle has directly affected our taste buds.”
Two decade ago Roath – kind of sweet bread decorated with cashew nuts, almonds and poppy seeds – was an important part of every feast and ceremony in Kashmir. “It got replaced by cakes,” says Qadir, who is serving Jee Enn Bakery since 1976.
Located in the heart of Old City, Janta Bakery’s senior employee Irshad Ahmed is quite comfortable with the change that Kashmiri bakery has gone through. “Though people are more health conscious now, they still are prone to cheating,” feels Ahmed. “People are happy to buy eggless packed biscuits from Indian companies without thinking that they are manufactured months back.”
Ahmed says it pains him when people praise such products and prefer them over fresh Kashmiri bakery, without knowing what goes into their making.
But Ahmed is happy that highly educated people like Khanday and his friends of Just Baked fame are investing in this sector. “This will cut down our dependence on outside bakery,” feels Ahmed.
Traditionally the art is passed on from one generation to another, but with youngsters like Khanday and his friend’s foray into the sector, it is already witnessing a boom.