Bake it big: Sheikh Khadimul Bashar with his son Hasibul Rahman at the bakery. (Photos: Neha Banka)
In one of the innumerable bylanes of central Kolkata, stands a nondescript bakery that produces European-style confectionary. In a city where there is a slice of history in every street, it is easy to miss the bakery’s unassuming exteriors, and then dismiss the modest establishment, lit up by fluorescent tube lights. It is Christmas week, and the wood-fired oven at the 200-year-old Ajmiri’s Bakery — one of the last remaining bakeries to have one — has been running non-stop. On a cold December night, scores of people have been waiting in long queues for fruitcakes.
“I have been working in this shop since I was in Class VI,” says Sheikh Khadimul Bashar, 65, adding that his family has owned the bakery for seven generations. According to the stories passed down in the family, the establishment is nearly 200 years old, says Bashar.
Wood-fired ovens are exceedingly rare in the city these days. Bashar might have to stop running this bakery in the next two years because the civic body has stopped providing licences to bakeries for wood-fired ovens. “The Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) says that the smoke produced by the oven causes pollution,” says Bashar. KMC recently ordered the bakery to switch to electric ovens. Wood-fired ovens lend their unique flavours to baked goods, and the idea of the switch has made Bashar despondent. The shop will also have to go because the corporation plans to demolish the entire ground-level of the building.
Weston Street, on which the bakery stands, had two other bakeries with wood-fired ovens but they closed down over the years. “They have a bakarkhani that is as big as a saucer,” says Glen Myers, 72, who lives in the neighbourhood and has been a regular customer for years. Myers’s family lives overseas and loves the baked goods from here. “I send 100-200 bakarkhanis in one go,” says Myers.
Fresh from the oven bakarkhani. (Photos: Neha Banka)
The establishment has never changed address and stands in the same location where Bashar’s ancestors first opened it. It stands at the periphery of the Bow Barracks, a neighbourhood in the city where the Anglo-Indian community predominantly lives. “When the British ruled India, they would eat the bakarkhanis made here. The Anglo-Indians served as middle-men and would purchase bakarkhanis for the British,” says Bashar.
The Ajmiri bakarkhanis became part of the Anglo-Indian cuisine. “We have dishes like pork chop and pork roast in Anglo-Indian cuisine and we combine it with the bakarkhani,” says Myers of the simple, thick-baked flatbread.
The recipe for the bakarkhani is not very complex; the dough is a mix of flour, eggs, butter, oil and cloves, some salt and sugar and is placed inside the wood-fired oven for 5-7 minutes. The secret is in the eggs that give the bread its flaky softness, the employees say. Smaller and regular bakarkhanis are priced at Rs 5 and Rs 10, respectively. Ajmiri’s also bakes pre-ordered customised sizes for overseas clientele.
Bashar’s son, Sheikh Hasibul Rahman, 36, says that when his ancestors started the bakery, their employees were workers trained in bakeries belonging to the British and other Europeans. They joined Ajmiri’s, bringing their recipes along. “These are all European recipes and they haven’t changed over the years,” says Rahman of baked specialities like coconut biscuits, assorted cookies and nankhatai.
The only exception is that Ajmiri’s doesn’t use wine in any of its goods because of the family’s religious belief.