As a self-conscious teenager riddled with insecurities, my greatest solace lay in books and comfort food. On most days, I would be holed up in my room, munching on a treat with my nose buried in the latest novel I had chanced upon. Many a time, these treats were from Defence Bakery, our neighbourhood confectionery shop, located a stone’s throw from my family’s army-commissioned home in south Delhi’s Defence Colony.
It was at this young and impressionable age that I learnt to appreciate the crumbly goodness of their flaky chicken patties, the gooey intensity of their chocolate brownies, and the perfectly balanced flavours of their lemon and fruit tarts. Years later, among a sea of French bakeries and their copycat versions, I relied on the assured taste, quality and competitive price promised by Defence Bakery and chose them as confectionery partners for gifts accompanying my wedding card, and, subsequently, for my son’s birthday cakes.
My parents’ generation harboured similar feelings for Auto Bakery in Defence Colony and a handful of others in the original refugee colonies of Karol Bagh, Pusa Road and Old Rajinder Nagar which have since shut down. My mother recalls stopping for hot cross buns and fruit buns at Grand Bakery in Karol Bagh on the way home from school. Others from my age group (those who grew up in the 1980s-90s) who live in south Delhi prefer Maxim’s in Kailash Colony, while some from west Delhi name Anjlika as their favourite. Most people, however, gave pride of place to the grande dame of Delhi bakeries—Wenger’s, in Connaught Place.
For those who came of age in a state-controlled and then slowly privatising India, the local bakery was an essential part of our growing-up years. Of these, the ones that survived international competition and market demands continue to thrive as representatives of simpler times and uncomplicated yet delicious food.
Rocky Mohan, chairman of Mohan Goldwater Breweries and founder of food ventures Dineout Passport and home-chef aggregator app Chef Pin, names Wenger’s patties and Frontier’s Cashew-Pistachio Cookies as his family’s choices. “While my mother was alive, we had the chicken and mushroom patties from Wenger’s coming home at least 10 times a year, whenever she entertained friends and family for tea. She didn’t favour their shami kebabs though—she was from Lucknow and her standards were quite high! Even Frontier has remained a steadfast presence on my family’s table. When I visit relatives who live in that area, they often serve Frontier Cookies...their cookies have always been extremely good,” he says.
Started in 1924 as a catering outlet for British troops in Delhi, Wenger’s soon evolved into a tearoom and confectionery. Its location and long-standing patronage have spurred the brand’s phenomenal success story. Others followed. Frontier Biscuit Factory in Sadar Bazaar launched post-independence, a brand from across what had become the border, started by Partition refugees who wanted to ply the family trade. It now has dozens of franchise branches, in Delhi and around the country, and their packaged products are available on most e-commerce websites.
Defence Bakery and Maxim’s opened in the 1960s. The former started as a wholesale bakery, launched by Jagdish Mitra Dhingra, who had moved from Multan to Delhi after Partition. “Our founder was a very progressive businessman, keeping his business updated with new technologies and processes constantly. In the 1970s, his son and our father, Dalip Kumar Dhingra, joined the business and the duo reinvented the business model to a fine quality bakery, confectionery and chocolate shop that focused on innovative products and attentive customer service,” say Gaurav and Tushar Dhingra, third-generation entrepreneurs and directors of the brand. It was one of the few to serve goodies like sourdough bread alongside perfected age-old fare such as their Honey Cookies. Today they have three outlets in Delhi and one in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, under the name Alma Bakery and Café.
Maxim’s survives on the steam of its original offerings. Manish Gandhi, from their management team, explains: “Our chicken patties, eclairs, bar cakes and tea cakes have stayed the same over the years. If we try to tweak them with new recipes, we get calls from customers saying they want us to return to the old way.... Our legacy is such that when I was little, my father would bring me here, and now I bring my kids. Hopefully, this will continue for generations.”
Anam Hassan, who grew up in Old Delhi and runs a Mughlai food business called My Mughal Roots, has fond memories of the Diamond Bakery in Jama Masjid. “I personally crave the kaju and coconut cookies the most. Many people who moved out of Old Delhi still religiously source their cake rusks from here once or twice a month to replenish their stocks,” she says. The rusks come in two shapes: round and rectangular. Customers have never been able to figure out why the round ones taste better and sell out as soon as they are served fresh from the bhatti (a traditional oven) twice a day. Having opened in 1914, Diamond Bakery maintains its distinctive taste as the original family still runs it on a time-share basis, with each brother laying claim to it for a period of six months.
These bakeries are more than just time machines; the comfort dishes are evidence of social conditioning over generations. And our culinary choices during pandemic-induced lockdowns—when “essentials” constituted frequent orders from our favourite bakeries and eateries—reflect this. I, for instance, would order chicken patties and lemon tarts from Defence Bakery.
Flavours may—or may not—change, presentation may not match up to more sophisticated counterparts—but the taste, and memories, ensure we keep going back.
Noor Anand Chawla is a Delhi-based lifestyle writer.
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