LJ Iyengar Bakery: Rising from the south
How the Iyengar Bakery, as ubiquitous in multiple southern Indian cities as the boulangerie is in Paris, is defending its century-old legacy
Once a quiet, tree-shaded suburb of Mysuru, Kuvempu Nagar hasn’t been able to stave off the deliberate march of urban development. Two-wheelers zip up and down its streets, adding a noisy soundtrack, while an outcrop of new businesses competes for your attention. Where there may have earlier been an odd bakery or two to serve the neighbourhood, there are now several on the same street, all loosely tied together by a prefix that serves both as a descriptor and a brand. These are the Iyengar bakeries: stubbornly old-school, vegetarian bakeries that have defied passing trends and fickle tastes to retain an almost puzzling popularity.
The LJ Iyengar Bakery is a modest establishment, like the others in the area, with a rectangular glass display you can gently lean over while you pick what you would like to eat. In one corner sit neat loaves of freshly baked white bread, and in the other are “puffs", layers of puff pastry folded into golden triangles, encasing an onion, carrot and potato heart. The biscuits lie heaped on the highest rung: Crumbly, cardamom-scented almond biscuits alongside rich, cashew-flecked ones, and earthy ragi biscuits to soften the burn of the green chilli-laden khara (or spicy) biscuits.
On top of the showcase, shielded by a thick plastic sheet, are the fast-selling items that rarely last through the day: masala toast, or slices of toasted white bread, topped with palya or slivers of mixed vegetables, and elegantly coiled khara buns slathered with a fiery marinade of ground curry leaves and green chillies. In the dimly lit inner sanctum of the bakery, workers coated in a thin dusting of flour shape sweetened bread dough into flat logs and bake them until their spongy air pockets shrivel. Bone-dry and butterscotch brown, the freshly baked rusks snap like autumn twigs.
There is nothing particularly novel about any of these items, especially in the age of supermarkets groaning with exotic ingredients and French pâtisseries constantly expanding the contours of the cake universe. But the enduring demand for them testifies to the lingering success—against mounting odds—of the Iyengar legacy.
The desi touch
It’s difficult to trace the origins of the Iyengar bakery, with numerous claimants to the honour of being the first-ever. Some believe it all started with BB Bakery, a 119-year-old establishment in Bengaluru’s busy Chickpet area, arguably the longest-running Iyengar bakery in the city. “My father’s great-grandfather, H.S. Thirumalachar, started a sweet shop on Chickpet Main Road in 1898. For the first three years, it was only a sweet shop, until an Englishman working at the famous West End hotel taught him how to bake bread," says Pavithra Vijay, daughter of the current, fourth-generation owner, H.T. Srinivas.
Others believe that the bakeries were an opportunity born out of adversity. A devastating drought in the 1950s and 1960s is believed to have dried up jobs for the farming communities in and around the Hassan district in Karnataka. With no other means of livelihood, several members of the Iyengar community, drawn from the Ashtagrama or eight principal villages in the district, are believed to have migrated to Bangalore (now Bengaluru) and started bakeries. As subsequent generations of the community were drawn to the trade, they came to be identified as Bakery Iyengars.
However, there is very little anthropological record or archival proof available on the community. According to T.S. Ramesh Bairy, a sociologist and associate professor with the department of humanities and social sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, the bakeries find a mention in Nam Brahmanike, a play written in the 1930s by popular Kannada playwright T.P. Kailasam. “In my reading, this is a play that Kailasam, a much celebrated Iyer Brahmin, wrote in response to the rather acute anti-Brahmin sentiment in the princely Mysore state—something like, ‘The only time people today say ‘Brahmin bekari’ is when referring to the Iyengar bakery.’
“Here, he was playing on the similarity in sound between the Kannada word bekari (which means ‘we want’) and the English bakery. So clearly, these bakeries go a long way back in time," Bairy says, adding that it was only in the late 1990s that Iyengar bakeries became associated with Bengaluru. “Earlier, many of these bakeries were called Hassana Iyengar’s bakery (referring to the Hassan region)," he says. “But by the late 1990s, they were being increasingly referred to as Bangalore Iyengar bakeries."
Regardless of their origin, how did Iyengar bakeries with their strictly vegetarian offerings come to amass such a wide audience? To understand, let’s backtrack a bit—to the gastronomic universe of the 1980s, when there really were few things better than sliced bread. But before the bland doughiness of commercial white bread had tantalized our collective taste buds, the neighbourhood bakery was the prized purveyor of carb-laden treats. In Karnataka (and eventually, elsewhere in the south), the introduction to the still unfamiliar pleasures of bread and baked goods came with a distinctly desi tadka.
By adopting quintessentially Indian flavours and seasonings to Western pâtisserie staples such as shortbread cookies and puff pastry, Iyengar bakeries fostered a kind of culinary curiosity. A spicy potato filling was added to the tea bun and the aloo bun was born. Nippattu, deep-fried savoury biscuits traditionally eaten at teatime, were updated with onions, curry leaves and green chillies to make baked nippattu, spicy, buttery biscuits that are now synonymous with Iyengar bakeries. Over time, Iyengar bakeries created an oeuvre of home-grown foods with a uniquely Indian identity.
“The Iyengar-style masala bread is such an iconic representation of how we took something so entirely ‘foreign’ and made it our own," says food blogger and author Saee Koranne-Khandekar, who included a recipe for the bread (and a sweet, Iyengar-style milk bread) in her book Crumbs!: Bread Stories And Recipes For The Indian Kitchen, published in May. “The heat from green chillies and earthiness from cumin—what can be more Indian than a bread with tadka!"
It was the sort of gentle innovation that a curious clientele with limited options clearly embraced. “I think (they) were our window into the world of Western food," says Richa Gaur, 30, a Mumbai-based HR professional who hails from Bengaluru, and professes to an abiding love for Iyengar bakeries. “The amalgamation of Indian flavours was perfectly suited to the local palate, and yet it was so ‘cool’! Every hip birthday party had to feature cake, Pepsi and ‘pups’ (or puffs), as the owners used to call them."
The second proofing
But just like the poofy hair and synthetic clothes of the 1980s soon became embarrassingly outdated, popular tastes also inevitably sought newer pleasures. Liberalization in the early 1990s ushered in the era of fast food, and pizzas replaced puffs at hip birthday parties. In the decades since, the frantic pace of urban life (and the convenience of supermarkets) has sounded the death knell for several stand-alone, neighbourhood businesses. There is no doubt that these developments have also had a bearing on Iyengar bakeries.
It has never been more crucial than now for Iyengar bakeries to stay ahead of the curve. To this end, several of the older bakeries have made once-unthinkable concessions, like using eggs in their cakes (to replace the stodgy, Dalda-heavy rava, or semolina, cakes) and paneer and egg fillings in the puffs. While purists may rue these transgressions of tradition, they are perhaps inevitable—and even necessary in a fiercely competitive and rapidly changing marketplace. “The original Iyengar bakeries never had cakes, pastries and the ubiquitous egg puffs," says Mysuru-based journalist Ratna Rajaiah. “Now, no bakery can survive without these hottest-selling items."
Others, like LJ Iyengar Bakery in Bengaluru’s Jalahalli neighbourhood (not related to the one in Mysuru) have streamlined their processes and taken steps towards modernization.
“Our bakery is 65-70% mechanized. We have rotary ovens, machines for mixing the dough and dividing it, and to cut vegetables," says Madhu Iyengar, 32, a second-generation baker who oversees operations at the LJ Bakery, which is owned by his father Sampath Iyengar. After completing his master’s in business administration in 2008, Madhu gained hands-on experience in the baking department of Pillsbury, the American flour giant, in Bengaluru. Armed with this knowledge, he began to attend bakery trade shows, both in India and overseas.
Madhu admits that it was initially difficult to convince his father of the need for change. “I faced a lot of resistance from my father. Money was a big factor, because he had worked very hard to earn it," he says. But once he had gained his father’s approval, the bakery’s fortunes began to look up. “Once we invested in machinery, our business went up and we required more hands than before," he says.
For second-generation bakers like Madhu, the challenge lies not just in satisfying a loyal customer base built over decades but also in reaching out to a new audience: one that seemingly processes the world through a smartphone screen. Recognizing that word-of-mouth publicity is no match for the reach of the digital medium, some bakeries have taken tentative steps towards establishing an online presence. One of these is Iyengars’ Bakery, a well-known landmark in Austin Town in the heart of Bengaluru, which offers a few items—nippattu, rusk, honey cake, plain cake—through its website Iyengarsbakery.com. Madhu, too, is currently working on a website for LJ Bakery and plans to eventually develop an app.
Controlling the conditions
Where does that leave conventional bakeries like BB Bakery, which have been slower to adapt? There is both pride and a touch of frustration in Vijay’s voice as she tries to answer that question. “My father sticks to low pricing because he is loyal to his old customers, who still come every morning just to buy two buns or a quarter-kilo of rusk," she says of her 58-year-old father, Srinivas. While the number of customers hasn’t dwindled, the rising cost of raw materials and labour has stretched his resources thin.
Besides, there is the looming question of the bakery’s future. Having earned his chops in the trade after years of observation and hands-on training, Srinivas is, perhaps understandably, proprietorial about his trademark recipes. “There are many modern methods to make cakes and pastries, but my father’s methods are very different," says Vijay. “He says that it will take at least a year or two for us to get trained."
Adding to his challenges is a new crop of Iyengar bakeries, hoping to capitalize on the fail-safe brand name.
“Nowadays, anyone can start a bakery and call it an Iyengar bakery. There is no control," says Vijay, echoing the sentiments of several of the people I interviewed. What was once the exclusive domain of the Bakery Iyengars is now increasingly being appropriated by entrepreneurs from outside the community. This fact places an even bigger strain on the already fragile thread that unites the “original" Iyengar bakeries. Lacking a formal association to unite and represent them—the Iyengar Bakery Association is now all but defunct—and with the competition at the door, it’s clear that the older Iyengar bakeries have no choice but to evolve in order to remain in the reckoning.
Vijay believes a little recognition of their bakery’s heritage from the government may provide a much needed shot in the arm. “My father wanted me to mention this: If (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi’s principle is ‘Make In India’, we have been doing just that since 1898, using traditional techniques. But he needs help, both in terms of finance and labour."
With next to no record of the number of Iyengar bakeries located in Bengaluru and beyond—although there is no dearth of Iyengar bakery-inspired recipes on the Internet—it’s difficult to ascertain the rate at which the industry is growing. According to an article written on the Indian bakery industry by Nemat Sheereen S., an associate professor at the Cochin University of Science and Technology, and published on the portal FNB News in April, the unorganized sector accounts for 80% of the total bread production and 90% of other bakery production in India. Iyengar bakeries fall under this sector, although specific statistics about them are difficult to find.
Despite widespread predictions to the contrary, however, it appears that Iyengar bakeries—even those with questionable provenance—are only burgeoning in number. “In Thane, where I live, there is an Iyengar bakery in nearly every lane," says Koranne-Khandekar. “This is a typically Marathi neighbourhood, so a vegetarian bakery is greatly treasured."
By some estimates, Mumbai has a few hundred Iyengar bakeries, and counting, even though their link to the original Iyengar legacy seems to be tenuous at best. Other cities in India, such as Pune, Chennai and Hyderabad, also have their versions of the Iyengar bakery, and there even seems to be one in Singapore.
If anything, this is proof that it is impossible to hold a good idea down for too long without others getting wind of it. For the older bakeries, the challenge lies in translating a successful concept into a profitable business. To this end, some bakers, such as Raman and Lakshmeesha Iyengar of the Bangalore Iyengar’s Bakery, have decided to patent the brand name. Until that happens, the solution may lie in accepting a truism that holds when it comes to the food industry: Change is the only constant.
‘Aloo’ bun: As the name suggests, this is a tea bun with a stuffing of spicy potato. Many Iyengar bakeries offer aloo buns and palya buns on alternate days.
‘Dilkhush/Dilpasand’: An Iyengar speciality, this sweet treat is made of layers of puff pastry encasing a filling of sweetened, grated coconut and tutti frutti. It is often considered the sweet equivalent of the savoury puff.
Honey cake: A moist and intensely sweet sponge cake, drenched in a sticky honey syrup and occasionally slathered with jam.
‘Khara’ bun: These bread rolls are distinguished by their distinctly Indian flavour, usually from the addition of finely chopped green chillies and curry leaves.
‘Masala’ toast: A slice of toasted white bread is piled with a peppery vegetable mixture, usually made of carrots and onions, to make this a perfect after-school snack.
‘Nippattu’: Crumbly, savoury biscuits made of refined flour and flavoured with green chillies and curry leaves. These are a teatime favourite.
‘Palya’ bun: The same vegetable filling that is used on top of ‘masala’ toasts is stuffed into a tea bun to make the ‘palya’ bun, one of the most iconic offerings.
Veg puff: Thin layers of buttery puff pastry wrapped around a spicy vegetable filling, which almost always includes slivers of carrot, capsicum, peas and green chillies.
The math of bread
Although there is frustratingly sketchy information available on the business aspect of Iyengar bakeries, here is a rough estimate of the quantity of ingredients used daily by a small or medium-size bakery with 10-12 employees:
Wheat flour: 150-200kg
Oil/vegetable fat: 60-70kg
(Figures provided by LJ Iyengar Bakery.)