Fudge-like barfi in slabs of green, pink and gold, crispy coils of jelabi glistening with syrup while traditional bakeries might turn out baps and Bakewells, Indian cuisine offers a different world of baked goods. With a culture including bread as a firm part of most meal times, fresh naans, chapatis and rotis form an essential element of the Indian kitchen, as syrupy sweets do for celebratory occasions.
Many ethnic households bake their own, but for more complex or time-consuming products, local bakers have formed a key part of Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani culture in the UK. In particular, sweet things are bought in from outside caterers. And with many Indians following a strict vegan diet, including no eggs, local ethnic providers can be essential for catering to their special dietary requirements.
"We get a lot of demand for our egg-free cakes, especially for birthdays and celebratory occasions," says Sheena Virdee of Ishans Bakers in Southwall, which specialises in egg-free baking. The bakery makes everything from specialist wedding cakes to Indian sweets, such as barfi and gulab jamun, and is extremely popular with the local ethnic community. In fact, its supply of culturally specific baked goods has enabled it to capitalise on that most sought-after advertising medium word of mouth.
"We’re not situated in a very obvious location," she explains. "We’re tucked away down a road that doesn’t look like it has got a baker’s shop on it. But people still go out of their way to find us, because they’ve heard about us from friends."
The baker’s most popular product is a standard buttercream cake, but it also sells a wide variety of Indian sweets, as well as halal pies and halal sandwiches, and has also branched out into a café offering, with vegetarian and non-vegetarian English breakfasts.
To a certain extent, Virdee believes the baker’s success has been due to it catering to specific dietary requirements. "It’s not just Indians who buy our products; there are other people who want egg-free cakes and come to us," she explains. "We also have people like diabetics, who want less sweet cakes, because we can cater to that."
While the baker’s ethnic origins help local ethnic communities to feel confident their dietary requirements are being taken seriously, Virdee also believes their popularity is down to factors that should be apparent in any local baker. "We know our customers, and we try to offer a service that is more friendly and accommodating," she explains. "So if someone doesn’t have the money upfront for a cake, for example, we might take it later from them, and there is a family atmosphere. We try and do a little bit extra for people, and we’re part of the community."
Like many Indian and Pakistani bakers, Ishans came about from a successful ethnic restaurant venture, Shahenshah, founded by Virdee’s father. Building on the good name of the nearby Shahenshah, Ishans was able to capitalise on the established eatery’s reputation, and branch out into a more specific service. So, as with many ethnic outlets, the Indian sub-continent’s bakery offerings tend to work best when operating from within a native community in the UK.
"Location was essential for us," says Mohammed Khan of Ambala Foods, a baker’s and sweet shop with a number of UK locations. "We first opened in Drummond Street in 1965 and, at the time, we didn’t think we would be selling much to English people. The products were very much Pakistani, Bangladeshi and we were catering to their needs for high-quality sweets."
In this respect, purveyors of Indian-style sweets have the edge when it comes to offering a value-added service, as their confectionery and baked goods are notoriously time-consuming to produce. "Most Asian kitchens will take a great pride in producing their own delicious food," explains Khan. "But sweets are often made only for celebratory occasions, because they are difficult and time-consuming."
So while an English baker might be competing with home cooks for a perfect batch of cream cakes or doughnuts, Indian sweets like barfi involve hours of boiling milk to a thick reduced paste, while stirring constantly to prevent burning and that’s even before flavourings and colours have been kneaded in, and the product shaped, cut and left to cool.
Ambala Foods’ dedication to quality has allowed it to branch out far further than north London. It now has an international reach, with outlets in America and Paris, and a mail-order capacity worldwide, thus proving the demand for their products goes far beyond their native shores.