In no city in the world is breakfast so much a part of the daily social calendar as in Bengaluru. Pre-pandemic, walks in Cubbon Park would end in a queue for dosas and astonishingly good coffee under ancient trees at Airlines Hotel, a mostly al fresco restaurant in the heart of town. In south Bengaluru, waiters in traditional attire at Vidyarthi Bhavan would manage a waiting list with a briskness that bordered on brusqueness. Last December, when some plugged- in 20-somethings invited me to Sunday breakfast, I foolishly expected a swanky place. Instead, at 9.30am, we ate our superb dosas standing elbow to elbow, as if in a commuter train. The bill came to ₹150 for four.
The crowds have thinned but in the past fortnight of Unlock 1.0, Bengalureans have been out in force again for breakfast. It helps that many restaurants are open to the street on one side and are not air-conditioned. Scarcely 250m from my home is Sri Udupi Food Hub in Jayanagar, where I breakfast twice a week. The comic melding of the city’s past and present in the name may be deliberate. Order a “less oil” open butter masala dosa and you will get a feel for slow food, done right. The plump pancake-thick dosa is practically steamed on the griddle before being dressed with chutney podi, grated coconut, a spoon of potato “filling” and a pat of butter.
Less well known is the fact that contemporary Bengaluru also excels at two elements of a healthy bread-and-cereal Continental breakfast. Lockdowns around the world have created an obsession with baking but even master chefs struggle with sourdough. Just as the lockdown was announced, a friend passed on the details of Ponnanna M.P., the man behind Honoré Bakery. The bread, she declared, was better than any in Switzerland, from where she and her husband had moved.
When my first order was delivered, I imagined the comic book character Obelix had baked the loaves; they weigh in at 675g. I had ordered extra for friends who had been gifting me food continually during lockdown. When I cut into the still warm, fragrant bread, I was unsure I wanted to part with any. Ponnanna’s sourdough is crusty, chewy and soft in the middle. I devoured as much as a quarter, eating with the greed of a boarding school boy, standing in the kitchen, dipping the bread into olive oil and sea salt. Then, forestalling addiction, I quickly put half away in the freezer.
Determined to understand the man and the method behind the process, I spoke with Ponnanna recently. A former Toyota Motors executive, he started baking sourdough in 2011 and spent six years perfecting it before a Frenchman convinced him to open a bakery. The Frenchman, a lawyer, became a business partner. The enterprise is the definition of artisanal, operating from a 500 sq. ft basement. There is almost no signage. A car accident left Ponnanna wheelchair-bound two decades ago. He has trained a staff of seven but monitors “100-110 parameters such as the starter temperature, PH levels and the heat on the dough that results from kneading” on an Excel spreadsheet.
Managing the live culture that is the starter for the dough is like bringing up a temperamental child. Karl De Smedt, owner of a sourdough culture library in Belgium, described the cultures in human terms to The New York Times in April: The dough “tells you” when it is ready to be shaped, the culture of bacteria and wild yeast has “its own will”.
Ponnanna is equal parts passionate artisan and rigorous scientist. The ridges in the hillocks of bread look like decorative flourishes but he explains that the angle of the slashes helps determine the shape the bread takes in the oven. Baking excellent sourdough at home is a minefield, he says, from getting the culture right to having an oven that is hot enough.
Honoré Bakery (@honore_boulangerie on Instagram) may be only three years old but Ponnanna, who hopes to have a website up by mid-July, seems rooted in the city’s past and present. It was unable to operate during the first two weeks of lockdown and customers texted to say the reopening was a deliverance from “styrofoam bread” and “a godsend”.
Like Honoré, whose seeded sourdough leaves a trail of seeds as you slice it, the generous use of quality ingredients in Yoga Bar cereals is astounding—seeds such as flax seed and chia account for upwards of 18% of the muesli mix. The cereal is packed with seeds, nuts and cranberries as well as brown rice and rolled oats, delivering omega 3 and protein. “The biggest standout,” a nutritionist friend told me, “ is that it is very low on preservatives. It does have soy lecithin but none of the other crap a lot of packaged cereals have.”
The company (Yogabars.in), which also sells protein bars, is the brainchild of two sisters, Anindita and Suhasini Sampath, with management degrees from top B-schools. This is very New Age Bengaluru. The marketing and packaging for the muesli is slick and colourful. Dark Chocolate Cranberry and edgy Turmeric and Ginger are favourites.
In the Age of Covid, tradition-bound Vidyarthi Bhavan became possibly the first inexpensive restaurant in India to introduce plexiglass screens to separate diners. Boxed in by stalls selling flowers for temple offerings and fruit, this Bladerunner scene was evocative of a successful covid-beating city such as Seoul or Hong Kong. However, as cases rose in Bengaluru, the restaurant announced that it would temporarily discontinue dine-in services from 27 June. Even in the midst of an unpredictable pandemic, multilingual Bengaluru is attempting to speak in past, present and future tense. And its breakfast show must go on.
Rahul Jacob is the author of a collection of travel essays, Right Of Passage (Picador).