India's bread revolution: Bakers and their new variants of traditional white loaf

From big cities to small towns, from neighbourhood bakeries to supermarket shelves, restaurant tables to home dining, a variety of breads is edging out the traditional white loaf gradually
Old bakeries and their traditional loaves are making way for new-age picks. (Representational Photos)
Old bakeries and their traditional loaves are making way for new-age picks. (Representational Photos)

Marie Antoinette was far ahead of her time. “Let them eat cake,” would today mean “let them eat bread”. Artisan bakers are popping out of neighbourhood ovens like hot buns during the pandemic, conjuring up scrumptious versions such as bread cakes with Oreos, coconut cream lime bread, sticky orange marmalade bread cake, chocolate syrup, vanilla, whipped cream cherry and spiced apple challahs—creating divine visions for the modern Marie. India has come late to the Bread Revolution, but now that it has, bread is equality, liberty and fraternity indeed. Bakers are taking liberties with dough to make cheese and rosemary brioches, apple cider oatmeal and classic beer breads.

Liberty is freedom from the jingle ‘Mummy Mummy Modern Bread’ which is Oh So 1960s AM Radio and to indulge in the mystic mix of a corn cheddar bubble loaf. Fraternity is bonding over bread-spotting on the shelves of huge supermarket chains such as Modern Bazaar, Delhi, and Spencer’s, Chennai, and the neighbourhood baker’s whole wheat honey oat flax bread. Shops are stocked with a range of breads Indian millennials had never seen while they were burning their toast.

Dietitians have been horrifying people with packaged white bread stories about obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Popular alternatives? Yeasted sourdough bread made from a fermented mixture of flour and water has a soft, chewy centre crust and large air bubbles. Whole-wheat bread made from flour that has both the bran and germ contains more nutrients and fibre per slice that would have been lost in processing otherwise. Rye bread with its strong rye flavour is made mixing bread flour and rye flour with caraway or dill seeds added to give an earthy flavour.

Its crumbs do not crumble. Pastrami gets its unique flavour from rye bread. It is a Scandinavian constant that has stormed the healthy breakfast set. A single slice has two grams of fibre, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, and is good for cardiac well being. The Italians have arrived in la moda with focaccia and ciabatta. Focaccia is flat bread, usually flavoured with fresh herbs and garlic with an olive oil coating to make its crust crunchy. Ciabatta is baked with wheat flour, salt, yeast and water, and is used to make sandwiches and paninis.

Btw Ciabatta means slipper in Italian, so putting your foot in your mouth is a taste of its own. The French brioche has flown from elite tables to supermarket and mom and pop stores: it is the almost ephemeral French bread made with eggs and butter with a soft golden crust, tight crumb and a seductive sweetness. Hand-crafted loaves that suffuse your mouth with umami, naturally leavened keto specials, heirloom wheats, millet loaves, and more are now as popular as rava idli in a Konkan home—a classic case of taste and tell with the bread renaissance that has swept across the country over the past few years. The growing bread cult, often confused, staring at a stunning variety of bran, multigrain, brown, whole wheat breads jostling for attention on shelves is a new religion.

A far cry from the good ol’ white slices the grocer sent home every day. “We have gone off wheat completely at home, but enjoy a good sourdough once in a while,” says homemaker-baker Resham Deodhar, in Mumbai. Another homemaker-baker from the city, Aradhana Barua’s preferential factors are bread with flavour and nutritional value. Says Shruti Gupta, owner and pastry chef at The Baking Culture (@the_baking_culture on Instagram), “We make croissants, focaccia and slicer buns besides homemade whole wheat bread, white bread, pav buns and spiced pizza bases. During the lockdown alone, we sold at least 15 kg of bread every day.

We’ll soon start babka buns (braided bread done in chocolate).” Meanwhile, Glacage Fine Baking in Hyderabad, which calls itself a tiny kitchen with a big heart, a venture by Taanya Kalsi, claims to make 100 percent whole wheat (home-ground) bread, ragi bread, multigrain, savoury bread, etc. “Our breads don’t include preservatives. The people of Hyderabad are quite experimental. Recently we came out with Korean cream cheese garlic buns. It has sold really well,” she says.

Sourdough recipes have taken over social media. “It is the latest craze. Sourdough and your pet are similar. You have to name, nourish and nurture it lovingly,” smiles Mumbai-based Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef Rakhee Vaswani, who perfected baking it over a decade ago.

Believed to have originated in ancient Egypt around 1,500 BC, its benefits make it the top choice among health aficionados. Sourdough is packed with minerals such as iron and selenium, vitamins, and pre and probiotics which make digestion easier. It speeds energy metabolism and protects the immune system, cells and tissue. It has antioxidant benefits. One slice has more protein than an egg. Karthik Gopalkrishna, a software engineer from Chennai, was a frequent flyer until the pandemic. His travels in Europe introduced him to artisanal breads.

On his return to India, he Googled bakeries selling such bread in his city and lucked out. He started buying a loaf of sourdough a week, later spending more on Danish walcons, biscottis and their seasonal specials. “It’s healthy, since no yeast is used. Instead you just pull the bacteria from air. Abroad, people desist from discarding the ‘feed’ for 20 years, and come up with superb versions of sourdough,” Vaswani comments on the wild trend in the bread world, with sourdough swarming cookies, pancakes, crackers and scones in local bakeries. Samruddhi Nayak, founder of Krumb Kraft, Bengaluru, fell in love with sourdough bread in Germany where her husband often went

for work. She says, “I was spoilt for good breads and had to learn to make my own at home.” Nayak enrolled in a European baking school in Weinheim and got a diploma. Her husband threw up his job and became a co-baker. On the increase in home-bakers during the pandemic, she reveals, “A lot of them approached me to conduct online classes but I was short-staffed.” The bakery was closed for a short period and most of the staff stayed at home. 

The yeast-risen loaves of Egypt and Mesopotamia led to the Portuguese bringing in the bread to Goa. Cut to 2020. Says Natasha Jambaulikar, who owns Mumbai-based A Loaf Story, “Indian consumers have become adaptive to new introductions. The younger lot is more appreciative of the newer and healthier versions and artisanal-crafted products.” Light Green Oven in Madhapur, Hyderabad, believes in putting health first, using local produce and traditional baking methods. It is run by Shipra Chenji who believes in clean, green living and buying locally when possible and composting all her food waste. A participant of MasterChef India 2016, she specialises in hand-crafted artisan bread. Natural Kraft paper is used for the packaging. Only ingredients without artificial additives are used.  

Call it evolution, with Insta-worthy bread avatars crowding your bread baskets and brunches at hotels and restaurants. The explosion of international crossover tastes and materials has turned both baking and posting bread images online into voyeuristic narcissism. Challah bread, pumpkin bread, cinnamon bread, soda bread, egg bread, monkey bread, cream cheese zucchini bread, Mallorca bread, garlic parmesan pull apart bread, bagels and panettones, mimosa bread, chocolate cinnamon babka—objects in gleaming, succulent syrupy and snooty shapes crowd Pinterest, the land of bakers’ digital dreams. Social media bakers have become dietary influencers.

Comments Mumbai-based homemaker-baker Gayatri Sharma, “YouTube videos make it extremely simple to bake bread at home. Nature’s Basket offers great multigrain picks with flax, and sesame seed toppings. The local bakery, French Connection, in my neighbourhood sells a great multigrain loaf.”                    
“My galettes will debut this week,” grins Jambaulikar, having built up a loyal customer base for her breads over the past six months. A galette is a flat round cake of pastry usually with fruit topping.
The snap pick in loaves abounds with a multitude of secret transfusions, from cheese and figs to blueberries, jalapenos and olives. For homemaker Uma Kakkar, in Lucknow, variants in pizza loaves come as a welcome break. “My local next-door bakery, Walnut, makes fresh surprises every day. I love the flavour of the pizza loaf, the tartish taste of jalapenos; they team beautifully with double omelettes, making a hearty meal.”

So what makes the perfect bake, according to Jambaulikar? “A well-hydrated lean dough, and longer fermentation brings in the perfect texture, crust and flavour. I prepare the everyday sandwich loaf using whole wheat, husk, broken wheat and only 20 percent maida—it helps build the elasticity and strength in the dough. While for the multigrain, I use a mix of five different grains, and top off with nutritious seeds.” Bread can be healthy, if done right.

Santosh Rawat, Executive Pastry Chef JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar, backs Jambaulikar. “Most people don’t know enough about healthy bread options, and consume white bread more as it is soft and easily available. We have grown up on diverse Indian breads: buckwheat rotis (like in my hometown, Chamoli, in Uttarakhand), sorghum, millet...

A very small percentage of people understand and appreciate the differences between artisanal European breads.” Yet the trend to experiment is on the rise. Breaking bread gained further momentum when the Belgian patisserie Le Pain Quotidian opened shop in India a decade ago, with its generous and fabulous bread baskets tickled with flavoured butter blobs. The culture of tucking in wholesome artisanal breads has gained popularity. Interestingly, there is no defined history of oven baking in India. According to the Cleveland Clinic, multigrain bread made of 100 percent whole grain will lower the risk of strokes, diabetes and heart disease. Whole grains provide added B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, antioxidants and phytochemicals.

Exposure to foreign foods and travel is leading the bread revolution. The taste matrix in India has certainly evolved over the years with muesli, cornflakes, baguettes clambering on to Indian tables. “My son recently returned from Italy with bread-savvy taste buds. Indian breakfast options are simply not welcome anymore,” says Mumbai-based homemaker-baker Gargi Munjal, a loyal Theobroma patron. She chooses bread with organic ingredients, with no sugar and preservatives. “It teams well with eggs, avocado,” she says. The options are booming.

“Big Basket, FabCafe, Foodhall, local bakeries and restaurants deliver bread now to prop up sales,” says mother-of-two Rachna Gakkhar, in Bengaluru. “It is a complete lifestyle change now. Bread is light and easy to digest, compared to paranthas.”  The family often orders zaatar which pairs well with grilled fish or pan-fried chicken. Gakkhar is convinced that Indians are experiencing more flavours and tastes as we travel more, as opposed to five years ago. There is a growing expat community across India that has brought in myriad textures in bread production and consumption. “Pita crisps, bruschetta are quick and easy options for my kids,” says Gakkhar. Fathima Azeem, the owner of @baketales_byfia in Kochi, has been in the bread business for the past five years.

The baker and cake decorator recorded a rise in orders this year, compared to 2019. She says the pandemic has given birth to more bakers. “People prefer newer entrants. Nevertheless, I have my repeat customers and new clients this year,” she adds. Certified pastry chef and owner of @sugarbowl_cochin, Candida Rodriguez, resonates Azeem’s sentiments. “The business has been doing extremely well. In the initial part of the lockdown, I wasn’t sure about the status of orders but as the festive season approached, there has been a turnabout. It has been eight years and the sales get better every year,” says Rodriguez.

Undoubtedly bread is an easy and quick option to quell hunger pangs. Yet excess consumption can lead to inflammation, or weight gain or lifestyle diseases, advises nutritionist Karishma Chawla, in Mumbai. Which bread is best for balanced consumption? “A whole grain bread is better than brown bread and white bread since the latter can increase blood sugar and insulin levels. Yet whole grain bread also has a small amount of sugar and transfat. Consume in balance,” she says.

Dietitians and health experts worldwide warn about the dangers of eating preservative-laden bread. Says Utkarsh Bhalla, Brand Chef, Sly Granny, Delhi, “A couple of slices of sprouted grain bread is a nourishing pick. Healthy bread is high in fibre, low in sodium, and bursting with nutrients. As long as you do not overindulge, eating bread isn’t taboo. Whole grains fight fat, especially the mean kind that settles around the waist. The more fibre, the better. Whole-grain, Ezekiel, rye breads are great healthful options.”

Old bakeries and their traditional loaves are making way for new-age picks. “I remember when people arched their brows if I used rice flour and suji,” recalls Delhi-based Simran Oberoi, founder, Ovenderful Mom Bakers Community, a close knit group with 35,000 members. “Now the idea is to come up with nutritious options. Millet bread is a resounding favourite, as are loaves made using nut-based flours, oats...” Of course, indigenous flavours abound. Says Sameer Uttamsingh, founder, Bun & Only, in Mumbai, “I recently came across a pull-apart bread with thecha, a typical Maharashtrian spice. We are working with sourdough aplenty. It can be shaped into pizzas, waffles, muffins, pancakes....”  

Good looks apart, what qualifies as an ace artisan loaf? Explains Aavika Chhawchharia, co-founder, Honey & Dough, Delhi, “A good artisan bread has to be crusty yet airy. No one likes a dense loaf. Tap the bottom of the bread with your knuckles and you should be able to listen to the hollow loaf.” Chhawchharia’s constant bread quests often make her drag friends and family to multiple bakeries. “There is an increasing demand and appreciation for artisan breads now. Though the classic sourdough is still popular, consumers are open to trying other global options like Mediterranean pita breads or Turkish flatbreads. Changing the grain has significant results.

Oat bread and sprouted rye bread are excellent examples.” Prod her about the keto and vegan variations and she responds, “For keto variations, traditional wheat flour is substituted with alternatives such as almond flour, pumpkin flower, chia seeds, oats, and more. In order to bake a vegan loaf, yeast and dairy are switched with alternate raising agents.” Chef Arnez Driver of Santé Spa Cuisine, BKC, Mumbai, takes pride in his baked varieties of multigrain mini baguettes, activated charcoal and psyllium husk soft rolls, sourdough grissini, activated charcoal-infused lavache, and oat and ragi ciabatta.

“A healthy bread basket is always a great conversation point,” he smiles. Samia Sait, owner, Tryst Gourmet in Chennai, started her first experiment with artisanal bread almost a decade ago. She says, “There’s so much that goes into artisanal bread-making, right from the temperature at which it’s baked, the way it’s kneaded and the amount of air that needs to be let into the dough. It’s the reason why we do customised batches. It’s tastier, heartier, and lighter. Unfortunately, not many varieties make it to retail stores.” Chennai market is vast and people have started accepting artisanal bread. But there’s a long road ahead.

To buy, or not to buy, that is the question. How do non-bakers distinguish between a good and a passé loaf? “There are five characteristics: a crisp crust, healthy crumb air pockets, glossy interior, intense flavour of flour and ferment, and finally, the rich dark brown colour,” explains Chef Rawat. There is a swift graduation from using egg splash to gain a crisp crust, to using milk splash, a butter rub, a dash of maple syrup to bring in the gloss. “Kneading the dough well and a keen process of fermentation bring in a crisp crust. But the most important part is the steam in the oven which can provide you with the perfect result.” Adds Bhalla, “You can amp it up with portobello loaves, keto garlic bread, chia and flax slices, keto cloud bread, keto corn bread, keto blueberry walnut bread, sprouted bread...

Then there are inclusions in pesto, cheddar, thyme... These are immensely popular. Mushroom and caramelised onion focaccia is a star seller. Remember to check for sodium and sugar levels when you buy bread. Artisan bread should have a variety of hues in its crust, ranging from golden brown to a light golden colour, and a variety of bubble sizes.” Meanwhile, the hoopla over gluten-free bread has picked up radically over the years. Explains dietitian Sarika Nair, in Mumbai, “Before you hop onto the bandwagon, remember that a gluten-free diet has a specific purpose—celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder. But more and more people are adapting this diet as a solution for weight loss, bloating and fatigue. Hence gluten-free bread is becoming a rage.

Gluten-free breads are denser, drier, and higher in calories.” Baker’s call? Says Mumbai-based patisserie chef Guntas Sethi Bhasin, trained at Le Cordon Bleu, London, “Most people believe that avoiding gluten is better for the gut. Gluten-free breads—made of almond, oat, amaranth, or rice flour—have become very popular. But I believe unless you are gluten-intolerant, it doesn’t really mean a healthier alternative.” Sait is happy that consumers have gained good knowledge about the various types of artisanal bread in the market. “We offer baguettes, brioche, German whole wheat, kraftkorn bread, rye bread, sunflower seed bread, levain naturel, country bread, miche and multigrain bread,” she says. The greatest thing since sliced bread? Other breads.  

“A whole grain bread is better than brown bread and white bread since the latter can increase blood sugar and insulin levels. Yet whole grain bread also has a small amount of sugar and transfat. Consume in balance.” Karishma Chawla Nutritionist, Mumbai 

“There are five characteristics that make a good artisanal bread:  a crisp crust, healthy crumb air pockets, glossy interior, intense flavour of flour and ferment, and finally the rich dark brown colour.” Chef Santosh Rawat Executive Pastry Chef, JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar

“The business has been doing extremely well. In the initial part of the lockdown, I wasn’t sure about the status of orders but as the festive season approached, there has been a turnabout. It has been eight years and the sales get better every year.”
Candida Rodriguez Certified Pastry Chef and owner, @sugarbowl_cochin, Kochi

“I remember when people arched their brows if I baked using rice flour and suji. Now the idea is to come up with nutritious options, educate and sensitise people. Millet bread is a resounding favourite, as are loaves made using nut-based flours, oats...”
Simran Oberoi Founder, Ovenderful Mom Bakers  Community, Delhi

What Lies Ahead
White bread  accounts for the  largest market share

Brown bread segment is anticipated to grow at a faster rate

Consumers are more inclined towards  eating breads which are made up of 100per cent wheat

10per cent  is the projected growth for the Indian bread market

1.5kg-1.75kg  of bread is consumed per capita in the country

$1.4 billion will be the market share of bread by FY 2026

Know Your  Bread

Myth Brown bread is absolutely healthy
Fact Brown bread is only ‘market healthy’. It is merely artificially coloured white bread.

Myth Breads are not healthy at all
Fact Breads prepared traditionally are just as healthy as a roti. The only condition is that they should be free of preservatives and their ingredients must be freshly sourced.

Myth Brown breads contain fewer calories than rotis
Fact The number of calories a particular food item expends is dependent on the quantity and size of the item

(With inputs from Manju Latha Kalanidhi, Hyderabad; Meghana Sastry, Bengaluru; Roshne Balasubramanian, Chennai and Deena Theresa, Kochi)

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