Kashmir has a rich tradition of bread making and baking. Every neighbourhood would have what is locally known as a Kandur/ Kaandar. These traditional bakeries churn out a variety of breads and other goodies to meet the demands of the community.
Amongst all the fascinating Kashmiri breads (Kandur Tsot as they are called in Kashmiri) that my friend would tell me about, the Bakarkhani caught my fancy. “Aah… Bakarkhani. The name has got a nice ring to it”, I had thought. The name kept popping up during many subsequent conversations and I felt, “Seems like someone I would like to meet.”
So, on my last evening in Srinagar, my friend set me up on a blind date with Bakarkhani. “Y’all can meet at Jee Enn Sons’, she suggested.
As I walked down the Chinar – lined, brightly – lit street on a pleasantly cold, early autumn evening, I kept imagining how it would be and rehearsing what I would say.
Stepping into the iconic bakery which is something of a city institution, I was a cocktail of excitement and anxiety. I was welcomed by the sweet aroma and heady fragrance typical of bakeries. “At least the place is warm and cozy. That’s a good start”, I assured myself.
But soon the atmosphere got a little intimidating, the task; daunting and my heart sank into my boots. Noticing I was disoriented and probably sensing my nervousness, a sympathetic employee came to my rescue. He asked me to follow him, which I obediently did. Pointing to a corner, he swiftly moved aside. As I gingerly approached the counter, the gentleman introduced us and almost instantaneously I knew that this was ‘meant to be’. The rest of the evening passed like a dream. All I remember is that we smiled a lot and the smile hasn’t left me since.
Bakarkhani is a traditional hand-made teatime bread. The bread dough is interleaved with shortening. The result is a soft, flaky, delicate pastry-like bread. The light flakiness appealed to the Khaari – loving Mumbaikar in me. The hint of sweetness reminiscent of the buns we get in the bakeries here. The beautifully risen, light crumb and large caves of air (‘air pockets’ just doesn’t do justice) would impress any croissant connoisseur. A dusting of poppy seeds serves as beauty spots on the glowing complexion of the Bakarkhani. One bite and you know that it is the work of a baker who has earned his skill and inherited the wisdom from generations of master bakers. It eats so smoothly and the shortening used is of such superior quality, it doesn’t leave you with that unpleasant mouthfeel of a coating of fat and a bitter aftertaste on your palate.
When I got back from the date, the first thing I did was call my friend to thank her for this new chapter in my life which she had started and written the first words of. She was thrilled beyond words and wanted to know every little detail. “Tell me everything”, she demanded as only true friends can with a genuine enthusiasm and interest only true friends have.
Towards the end of our long talk, I mentioned how much I was looking forward to enjoying the Bakarkhani with some homemade jam and a mug of coffee. This was met with silence that screamed “Sacrilege”.
You see, not only are there breads for every ocassion, season and different times of the day, there are as many rules for what these breads can and should be paired with. You will never have a Harissa with anything other than a Girda and a Bakarkhani is always, ALWAYS enjoyed with Noon Chai (salted pink tea).
Now I am back in Mumbai. I don’t have any Noon Chai, but I’m limiting the blasphemy to a cup of regular tea. Bakarkhani doesn’t mind. She has accepted me with all my quirks and idiosyncrasies. That’s what true love is afterall, isn’t it?
Distance only makes the heart grow fonder, they say. Today I sit hundreds of miles away, reminiscing about the memorable flavourful rendezvous that laid the foundation of this life-long association. The air outside heavy with palpable uncertainty from a growing pandemic. Withdrawn in my cocoon from the COVID-inflicted distancing. The pulsating emptiness is quickly turned into a happy place. Like clouds of nostalgia, sensing the void, swiftly moving in with a soothing shower of memories. A hazy image starts to take form. I see piles of freshly baked biscuits being shoveled into a huge holding tray. The tinkling of friendly banter starts ringing in my ears. I follow the aroma of freshly baked Bakarkhani to a smiling face that hands me a parcel still warm from the contents it holds.
I snap out of the trance. Hastily reach out for my laptop and intently type “how to make Kashmiri Bakarkhani at home” in the field, with the cursor matching my heartbeats. I want to fill this mirage with colours, aromas, sounds and textures. Even an average attempt at recreating the flavours will be like looking at sepia-tinged postcards from a beloved and rekindling memories. I will hold on to the thread in this long-distance relationship, till one day, when the world heals, I’m able to travel to Kashmir again and ask Bakarkhani out.