Thursday, November 27, 2014

Patel Bakery

Cuttack's Buxi Bazar on Diwali night exhibits a curious mixture of gaiety and desolation. Shop-fronts festoon themselves with decorative lights, even the ones in Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods. But since this is primarily a business district and people tend to celebrate Diwali at home, you find few people around barring stray groups of revellers lighting crackers on the empty streets. This is so dramatic a contrast to the unending, viscous stream of noisy, unruly traffic that you usually encounter on these streets, it is actually disorienting. Disorienting, but not disconcerting. That is an epithet I reserve for the rows and rows of closed food shops that greeted this very hungry soul that evening.

Finally I located a seedy joint offering Biryani (turned out to be ghastly) and Chicken Tikka dyed bright red. As I came out of the place, I saw Patel Bakery, still open at close to 9 PM. I was suprised. Not because of the late hour (shops in that locality stay open till ten normally); not even the fact that apart from that seedy eatery it was the only shop in that row open that day. No, what surprised me was the utter absence of customers queued up.

Patel Bakery is an institution in Cuttack. It is a singularly unglamorous looking shop. And its bill of fare is restricted to simple, homely stuff like bread, sweet buns, rusks, and tea-cakes. But over the years it has built up such a reputation for quality that right from early evening you see long queues of customers seeking to buy its produce as fresh as possible. Even near closing time you'll find customers' queues haunting the place. So when that night I found, for the first time ever, the place bereft of customers I thought they were in the process of closing. But no, they were still open, and I was welcome too.

I took advantage of this dearth of customers to get chatting with the proprietor, a sweet, thickly bearded old gentleman by name Abdul Rehman Patel. And from this conversation I was able to gain some insights into his personality. He was a disciplinarian of the old school, who simply could not tolerate any dereliction from what he considered minimum norms of etiquette. Standing in queue and waiting for one's turn was an uncompromisable aspect of this credo. It was made clear to me almost at first-hand, when another customer barged past me and tried to shout out an order. In an instant Mr Patel's mild-mannered affability transformed into a snarling belligerence I have rarely seen outside of the Delhi Police. He stood up, made it amply clear to the transgressor he could bloody well get lost if he didn't have the patience to wait; and then, once the customer cowed down, treated me to a homily about Indians' lack of civic sense, and why it is holding the country back. So, I inferred, was keeping his shop open that day a facet of his innate self-discipline. Never mind the lack of customers, never mind it's a holiday, the shop must remain open as long as it is supposed to.

This little interlude was so startling I quite forgot to place my order. I hastily remedied this lapse, and asked for rusks, buns, some tiny teacakes (the shop assistant solicitously informed it had egg in it), and a packet of fresh bread the place is so famous for. Then I asked Mr Patel if I could take some photographs. He was initially a little surprised, didn't seem quite sure how to respond. But then his natural bonhomie prevailed, his sternness melted away, and he sat back and smiled that warm, fuzzy smile of his.

His black cap and sharp features gave him the appearance of a Parsi patriarch, but that was unlikely given his Muslim name. My initial guess was Dawoodi Bohra, but he clarified he was a Cutchi Memon and hence a Sunni. That explained several things. His business acumen for one. Then his love of regimen and his austere deportment (only slightly dented by the cigarettes on his desk). And also his deep and yet enlightened commitment to religion, evidence of which abounded all over the shop. The cabinets at the back were liberally festooned with little advertisements for Hindi and English translations of the Quran. His own desk was surrounded with piles of religious texts for sale, the Ramayana and Gita as well as the Quran. I spotted in one corner a guide to Urdu. Now gaining familiarity with the Nastaliq script has been a long-standing dream, a dream I've not even come close to achieving despite numerous efforts, and books bought in good faith. This one looked interesting, though, and so it proved well worth the hundred and twenty I paid for it.

After reaching home, I decided to start on the rusks first. I was struck by their curious shape. Or should I say the curious diversity in their shapes and sizes. Then it struck me, they were made from buns! Chop up into thick slices buns left over from the previous day's sale, run them through the oven once again, and there you are! as neat a recipe as any for at the same time minimising waste and upholding your commitment to freshness - well, fresh buns anyway. Frankly, the rusks weren't up to much. I personally prefer the ones made of atta (coarsely-ground flour) or wholewheat flour, which impart a nuttiness refined flour can never approximate. You make rusks as a derivative process, you're bound to lose out on something, in this case flavour. The buns fared much better in this regard, certainly in some measure because they started life as buns, not as derivatives of something else the way the rusks did. They were fresh, soft, not oversweet, and generally a decent accompaniment to sweet milky tea. So were the teacakes pleasant to eat, if not particularly special.

But the bread stole the show. They were freshly made like the buns and the teacakes were, and if anything smells more appetising than bread warm off the oven, I haven't come across it. They were also cut into thick slices, and slightly irregularly, the way bread used to be cut in old-fashioned bakeries. I didn't think much of it initially, but then I realised it is actually an advantage if eaten the old-fashioned way it is probably intended to: toast it on a tawa till the outsides are crisp and hot to the touch; slather butter on it, lots of butter; then wait for the butter to melt and seep through the bread a little before you start eating, preferably with tea or soup. And if the bread is fresh and soft the way this bread was, it yields a superlative maska toast experience. Three cheers, Mr Patel, you made my day. I don't intend to visit you often, not so much for the queues as for the extra butter your bread will force me to consume. But whenever my resistance reaches breaking point, why, I shall cheerfully give in. Stand in queue for hours even, if you want me to. And wallow in butter and toast for the next few days, and then blame you leading me into temptation. 


Anonymous said...

Not fair. Your post made me drool all over my keyboard. I was reminded of my days as a management trainee at Broadway Hotel, and how the first thing we MTs would do when reporting for a morning shift would be to go have breakfast in the tiny staff cafe (seated 8). Bread toasted on a tawa, slathered with butter till it was gloriously drippy and rich and salty, and had with tea. Just the thought of it makes me swoon.

Abhik Majumdar said...

That's a lovely comment, Madhu. Broadway as in the one near the Stock Exchange? Chor Bizarre and all? That must have been a great experience. Actually, I could do with some buttered toast myself. It's raining out here, getting steadily chillier, I'm sitting underneath one of these shady parasol things, there's no tea, and the coffee's taking loads of time to get ready. Adrak Chai, piping hot toast with loads of butter, what more could you possibly want on a rainy day? Damn, damn, damn!

Unknown said...

Oooh, lovely!! And me trying to cut down on the butter too! You're lucky, Abhik, that this is not breakfast time, or else I'd have done exactly that 'lots of butter' version and then blamed YOU - not Mr. Patel - for leading me into temptation :)

Abhik Majumdar said...

Thanks Ani :)

No point blaming me, really. Butter's not the secret here no matter how much of it you slather over bread. It's the bread that matters. The thicker it is, the more it (heh heh) absorbs the excess butter. Come down to Cuttack, I'll give you a live demo how bread and butter should be eaten.

Anonymous said...

Yup, same Broadway. Small place, but it was quite a learning experience, working there. Haven't been back in ages.

Abhik Majumdar said...

I haven't been there, ever. Think I ought to make an extended stay in Delhi just to check the eateries I've missed so far.

Anonymous said...

....hmmmm...truly, its your bread and butter

Abhik Majumdar said...

:) :) :)

Good one Anon, whoever you are.