“Avarekalu puff illa” (“Hyancinth bean puff is not available”) – was the matter-of-fact response from the man behind the counter. He was barely looking at me, for there were scores of people like me vying for his attention.
I was a tad disappointed but not surprised as it was mid-afternoon and Bengaluru’s VB bakery was chock-a-block with people who were just in time to stock up on their supplies of potato buns, vegetable puffs and savoury snacks that literally sold like hot cakes.
Giving in to the temptation like always, I settled for the greasy yet flavourful onion puff, which the man effortlessly sliced into four smaller fragments, before quickly putting them on a piece of newspaper drawn from a pile specially cut for this purpose.
Eclectic Food Scene
To say that the contemporary food scene in Bengaluru is dynamic and truly happening is an understatement. Thanks to the ever-growing number of young working professionals and their insatiable appetite, the restaurant boom in the city shows no sign of abatement. Dishing up a plethora of cuisines from all over the world, there is no dearth of 'new age' food concepts and 'unique gastronomic experiences' in the city.
Jostling for space with these modern outlets and standing the test of time, remain some quintessential symbols of Bengaluru’s food scene, the age old ‘Iyengar bakeries’ and the humble ‘condiment stores’. A hot favourite with Bangaloreans till a few decades ago (read: before the onslaught of gourmet restaurants and global fast food and coffee chains), these little outlets are known to retail traditional snacks and short eats following recipes that have been handed down by generations.
Spread across the city, they are mainly found in the older areas of the city – including Basavangudi, Malleshwaram, Indiranagar, Jayanagar and Austin town.
Delectable Iyengar Bakery Goodies
Inspired by an Englishman who taught one H S Thirumalachar to bake bread, the first Iyengar bakery called Iyengar Bangalore Bakery (B.B) was started in 1898 in the bustling Chikpet area. Since then, a number of these bakeries sprung up with most of the founders belonging to the Iyengar community from a cluster of eight villages in Hassan district.
Also known as Ashtagrama Iyengars, they perfected the art of making spicy buns, butter biscuits and plum cakes which they religiously make each afternoon to supply for the evening and next morning.
It is here that you will find speciality items like the baked ‘Nippattu’ (flattened savoury cracker made mainly from rice flour), rusks, bread slice (slices of bread topped with a generous helping of finely grated onions, tomatoes and carrots cooked together in a medley of spices) and a variety of buns that could be sweet, special (filled with raisins), savoury (called khara or masala) or stuffed (filled with potato or capsicum curry).
To satisfy your sweet tooth, you can gorge on the syrupy sugar-laden, jam-topped honey cake or the unique Dilpasand (a sweet dish filled with coconut and tutti fruti) or the quirky Dumroot (a chewy dessert made from Ash gourd cooked in dollops of ghee).
True blue Bangaloreans will vouch for the exclusivity of these snacks whether it is capsicum puff at the 62-year-old Srinivasa Brahmins' bakery (SBB) or the iconic 'Khara Bun Butter Congress' (KBC) at VB Bakery.
"The key to remain in business is to maintain the taste and quality. Our recipes of kodubele (savoury rings) and kobri mithai (coconut barfi) are borrowed from my mother and remain unchanged even today." - H R Ramaprasad of SBB, a famous landmark of DVG road in Basavanagudi
And Bangaloreans will gasp in exasperation if you have not sampled the famous Congress Kadlekai at the 65-year old VB bakery in VV Puram. These almost addictive skinned peanuts tossed in turmeric, asafoetida and red chilli powder with a seasoning of aromatic curry leaves are impossible to stop munching on, courtesy its brilliant taste.
Slice a masala bun, lather it with butter on both sides and fill these sinful peanuts and you have your unparalleled KBC ready!
Says Ravi, an avid foodie,
"I come all the way from Whitefield (20 km away) for these buns and have been buying them for the last 30 years."Condiment Stores
The charm of picking up snacks – like chips, mini salted biscuits, salted peanuts and chakli (spiral, savoury, deep-fried snacks made mainly from rice flour) – from large identical glass bottles, neatly arranged behind a steel railing, is quite like none other. This is what you can do in the few homely ‘condiment’ stores that retail yet other traditional snacks that you would otherwise prepare at home.
Again, known for their trademark authenticity, these snacks here are in high demand and are limited in supply. “We make small batches of snacks as we have limited staff” says K.V. Ananth Rao of the famous Subbamma stores in Gandhi Bazaar. This legendary store was started by his grandmother 70 years ago when, widowed early, she started to make a living out of selling snacks.
Their hurikadle – which is essentially a mixture of dried roasted peanuts, fried gram, green gram and black-eyed peas coated with red chilli powder and other spices including asafoetida – is extremely popular.
"It is one of the most difficult items to prepare as earlier we had ‘bhattis’ amidst cities to roast the legumes at the optimum temperature. Today, all of them have been shifted to the outskirts." - Ananth Rao
Nevertheless, they manage to sell close to 15 kg of hurikadle a day apart from several kilograms of rasam powder, sambhar powder, chutney powder, ambode (spicy lentil fritters) and several varieties of spiced peanuts. A symbol of Basavanagudi, Subbamma stores is intrinsically associated with the history of south Bengaluru.
Fighting For a Smaller Slice of the Pie
Well, it is certainly not a rosy path ahead for most of these establishments. Rising costs of raw materials, spiralling cost of labour and the lack of interest by the next generation to take over are just some of the challenges faced by these businesses. “
"We have so many different taxes that we need to pay and regulations to comply with these days that makes it so difficult. Moreover, both my sons are into corporate jobs and hence the legacy of the shop will end with me." - Surya Prakash
Prakash's 64-year-old Kusuma stores in N R colony incidentally prepares one of the best badam milks in this part of the city.
Skilled labour is a perennial issue with people preferring more lucrative options than working in kitchens. “To maintain the standard, we need talented people and also good quality raw materials. Hing which was about Rs 4000 a kg has shot up to almost Rs 15,000 today,” rues Ananth Rao.
Nevertheless, these outlets have been trying to keep up with the times to stay afloat. Retailing online, accepting debit and credit cards and introducing the concept of self service to improve customer experience are just some of the measures taken by these bakeries and stores.
(Rashmi Gopal Rao is a freelance writer and travel-lifestyle blogger from Bangalore. She writes on travel, food and decor. A strong advocate and supporter of responsible and sustainable tourism, she blogs at http://rashminotes.com/ and tweets at @rashminotes.)
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