Pies in the sky

Signature biscuits and rich plum cake… Jamile Naqi asks the owner of Mohkam-ud-Din's bakery for the secret ingredient

Pies in the sky
In the year 1879 Kushbakht Hussain Naqvi opened the first bakery of the Indian subcontinent, S. Mohkam-ud-Din & Sons, in Lahore.  The founder’s picture hangs on the wall under the motto, ‘Work Hard’.  The bakery is presently run by his grandson, Mohkam Naqvi, who has specialized in culinary arts from the UK.  The biscuits, cakes, patties and pastries are organic and mouth watering.  Mokham Naqvi views the bakery as a vocation in which the business element is less and the focus on service is more.

JN: Share the origins of the bakery with us.

MN: My grandfather, Kushbakht Hussain Naqvi, was an army contractor who supplied tea to the army under the British rule. He had good terms at the Governor’s House.  Lady Aitchison, the wife of Sir Charles Aitchison, (Lieutenant Governor and founder of Aitchison College), was known for her exceptional baking skills.  She taught my grandfather western baking and upon seeing his aptitude encouraged him to open a bakery.

He took the challenge and Mohkam Din & Sons opened on January 1, 1879.  In the presence of British dignitaries and government officials, Lady Aitchison cut the inaugural ribbon.

Syed Mohkam-ud-Din, the founder of the bakery
Syed Mohkam-ud-Din, the founder of the bakery

In those times bakery items were pricey for the average consumer.  Our clientele was the British dignitaries and the local elite.  Famous notables from all walks of life, Allama Iqbal, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sir Henry Lawrence, Nawab of Junagarh, Feroz Khan Noon, Dr. Ghulam Mustaafa Tabassum, Agha Shorish Kashmiri, Dr. Nazir Ahmed, Tufail Hoshiarpuri and many others, were our regular customers.

JN:  You are famous for your Rich Plum cake. Tell us more about it.

MN: Our Rich Plum uses a British recipe that was given to my grandfather.  We faithfully follow the original recipe till this day.  The recipe is time consuming and we have to work day and night.

During spring, the preparation of ingredients is undertaken. We use only the finest ingredients.  Our raisins and black currants come from Azerbaijan, cashews from Vietnam, pistachio and khairadeeni oil-rich almonds from Iran. We use Spanish saffron. These dry fruits are cleaned and dried in the shade to retain their moisture.

After baking, the Plum cake is aged (like fine wine).  The maturity time can be from two months to five years. Like wine, the older the better. The cake’s price increases with age.

Cakes are aged in oak casks kept in a cold storage room.  Oak wood is bitter and repels bacteria, which is why we use oak casks.

'S. Mohkam-ud-Din & Sons Bakers, wedding cake specialist'
'S. Mohkam-ud-Din & Sons Bakers, wedding cake specialist'

JN:  How do you price it?

MN: Pricing ranges from Rs 1,550 – 25,000 per lb depending on vintage – although the ingredients are the same for all price ranges.  It was priced at Rs. 300 per lb in the early days of the bakery – a big sum at the time.

JN: People say your plum cake is special, the ‘king among cakes!’

MN: It is!  My father made a plum cake for Shah of Iran’s reception in Shalimar Gardens in the early 1960s. It weighed 500 lbs. It had thirty-five tiers and was twelve feet high. It contained a secret surprise for the royal guests:  live birds in the base of the cake, kept in an edible cage.

The cake’s base was assembled on site in Shalimar Gardens, on a platform,  and one by one tiers were added on top of the base. The birds were put in the base two hours before ceremony with a ventilation outlet for air flow.

The Shah of Iran cut the cake, there was a fluttering of wings and out flew red finches, fawn coloured doves and white Shirazi pigeons with big fan tails.  The Shah and Queen Farah Diba gasped.  Astonishment, joy and delight filled the crowd and applause broke out.
Our Rich Plum uses a British recipe that was given to my grandfather

This unique display was the highlight of the royal visit: a once in a lifetime experience. It’s a testament to the skill of my elders who created such an ingenious cake.  The Shah of Iran gave Mohkam Din bakery a Certificate of Excellence.

In 2005, we baked a 1,500 lb plum cake for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, when he visited Lahore.  Bishop Alexander Malik who oversaw the visit wanted to do something big for the Archbishop and was happy with the splash our cake made.

Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari – fans of the plum cake
Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari – fans of the plum cake

JN:  What else is Mohkam’s specialty?

MN: Our finger biscuits are unique.  Lady Harrison, a renowned painter who taught at the Mayo School of Arts, was a good friend of my grandfather’s. After her game of golf at Gymkhana, she rode here on her horse, joined my father at the bakery counter for coffee and gossip.

My grandfather praised her delicate fingers. She replied laughingly, “Why don’t you copy them?”  He did!  He baked finger-shaped biscuits which he presented to her.  She was delighted and declared them delicious.

Fingers became the signature biscuit of Mohkam Din.  Clients came especially for them and, even now, it is our most popular biscuit.
The Shah of Iran gave Mohkam Din bakery a Certificate of Excellence

JN: Do you have many loyal clients?

MN: People come in and tell me, “I used to come here as a child, holding my grandfather’s finger.  For two aana we got a whole lot of goodies which we carried home in khajoor leaf baskets.”  Biscuits, rusks and pastries were sold for one aana per dozen.

We have a family relationship with the Christian community, with their bishops, clerics and diocese. When we fill an order for them, we note down that this is for ‘our family circle’.

We never argue with old customers, if they say ‘we bought this at Rs. 80, why do have to pay Rs. 100 now?’ we say, ‘Bismillah, for you it is Rs. 80.’ If a new customer comes we treat him as we would treat an old customer.  If a customer had a fixed budget my father accommodated according to their budget. Another customer will come in, order cakes, and declare that money is no issue for him – so at the end of the day it all evens out.

Finger biscuits
Finger biscuits

My grandfather understood that when you enter a bakery your tongue has a craving for tasting what’s on offer. It is our standard practice to lay out a platter with an assortment of biscuits.

Our clients come from all walks of life, politicians, judges, organic foodies, and the savvy elite. Mr. Asif Zardari and PM Nawaz Sharif are among the many notables who buy our plum cake.

Plum cake demand comes from UK, USA, Dubai, Karachi, etc., and we ship it to many foreign lands.

JN: Tell us about the old days…

Allama Iqbal was a frequent visitor.  He would sit on a charpoy outside the bakery, drink milk, and smoke hookah with my grandfather. They chatted and philosophized and discoursed on religion and politics. Allama often voiced his concern that Muslims were being denied business opportunities.

When the Quaid was here on visit in 1931, staying at Khan Bahadur’s haveli, we served him breakfast every morning:  mutton and chicken sandwiches and patties.

Plum cake
Plum cake

In those days, this area was the Saddar Bazaar for the Cantonment located in Old Anarkali. The bakery was opened at this location for the convenience of the army regiment.

There were only two Muslim shops in this bazaar, Karnal shoe shop and our bakery.  Hindus did not work with leather and avoided eggs in their diet hence Muslim’s got these two businesses.  The rest of the shops were owned by Sikhs and Hindus.

When a customer walked into any shop, he was given cold water in summer,   warm milk in winter, and his family’s welfare was inquired after. The seth sahib sat outside on a chatai-mat while his staff served customers inside.  The shopkeepers welcomed customers with folded hands and a Namaste bow.  Those were the ways and ethics of that time.

Outside our shop we had two containers of water: a matka serving water to Muslims and another serving water to Hindus.  We served Muslims water in a copper glass because it was easy to polish and Hindus in a kanji metal glass.

Anarkali and Nila Gumbad were the center of Lahore, just off the tree-lined Mall Road, and the High Court which had a big open ground before it. GPO, Government College, King Edward, National College of Arts, all were nearby.
Our finger biscuits are inspired by Lady Harrison's fingers

My grandfather, Syed Mohkam Din, had failing eyesight in his old age but he monitored baking activities up till the end. During the baking process if a worker played hanky-panky, taking out an ingredient or cutting down its quantity, he would avoid carrying the tray from in front of my grandfather and instead took it from behind.  But grandfather would immediately stop him, ‘Come here!’ Without tasting, he would point out which ingredient was less or missing.

My father had the same keen nose.  Once during monsoon, when a lot of aromas fill the air, smell of earth, wet leaves, he passed by the shop.  He took a deep breath, stood outside, called me, ‘Shah Sahib (in our family we call each other Shah Sahib), Bring me the finger biscuit tray.’ He was a stickler for quality and I was shivering.  I took him tray, he said, “It is evening now and you didn’t even know that workers put baking soda in fingers?” We never use baking soda to hasten the baking process, since baking powder leaves odour.

Allama Iqbal
Allama Iqbal

Allama Iqbal was a frequent visitor

We bake in old style ovens. The rich plum cake is baked on wooden logs. Finger biscuits, khatais and hunter beef are baked on cow dung-cakes.

JN:  Did your business experience a setback after Partition?

MN: Up until the 1970s, this was the only bakery in Lahore and business was very good.  Nowadays business is stable.  We bake the same items that we have always baked.  People ask us to make mithai. We say our specialization is baking, mithai is not our thing.  We know we can get more clientele if we make mithai, but we are happy with the clientele we have.

While many bakeries have increased sugar content in their biscuits and cakes, we follow the original recipes and use the same level of sugar.  Our customers come here for a balanced taste.

In our bakery people of all religions are treated the same: Muslims, Hindus, Sikh or Christians. We bake for Diwali, Eid Milad-un-Nabi and Christmas.  We present cakes to holy sites on Diwali, Holi, Dosehra and Navratri. On Guru Nanak’s birthday we present it to Dera Sahib.

This is not a bakery for commerce. It is a bakery for people.
We never argue with old customers

JN:  Tell us about other goodies.

MN: The rich plum cake is our top selling item.  It is in demand all year round; although traditionally rich plum was a Christmas cake. In 60s and 70s we had a Santa outside our shop on Christmas – the choirs would sing hymns all night.  Our bakery was decked up with ribbons, mistletoe and holly. We wore new clothes to celebrate “Barra Din”.

Our winter specialties are plum cake, ginger biscuits and hunter beef.  We raise the calf for hunter beef ourselves; we marinate in special spices for three to four weeks.  Our hunter is priced at Rs. 3,000 – Rs. 4,000 per kg.

Eid cake
Eid cake

We bake sponge cakes and mousse cakes on order. The marzipan on our cakes is the lightest and the most delicate that you will ever taste. In our recipe we use California almonds and Australian honey.  We have a cake catalog filled with pictures that people look at to order.  Our bakery has more than 5,000 cake recipes.

For Easter we make Easter eggs; for Lent we bake hot cross buns.

JN: Do your children want to follow you into the same business?

MN: Our family inclination is to pursue our studies and then come back to the bakery business.  We do not wish to suppress our youth by demanding they only stick to bakery. They can choose a career of their liking. However, we expect that they will give time to the bakery and keep it going alongside their other career.

During his last moments my father held my hand and said, “Shah Ji, welcome your customers as family members and run the bakery as a mission.  If you run it as a business you will reap nothing. If you run it as a mission next seven generations will eat.”
When the Quaid was here in 1931 we served him breakfast every morning

JN: What do you miss about the old days?

MN: The simplicity, openness, lack of noise and pollution. There was a ‘dust road’ outside the bakery. Twice a day bumps in road were smoothed and water was sprinkled to settle the dust.

The well-to-do rode on Raleigh bicycles.  In all of Lahore there were only a handful of cars. Customers came on cycles, tongas, buggies or walked to the bakery.

JNWhere do you see this bakery fifty years from now?

MN: My grandfather Khushbakat Hussain said, “Shahi Qila cannot shift anywhere else. Shahi Qila is one, Badshahi Masjid is one.  If they are given a new facelift their sanctity will finish.”

I wish to see it maintained as it is; the way our elders gave it to us.  Simple, nothing too fancy. No Mohkamdin in Cantt or Defence: Mohakamuddin bakery is one, it will remain in Nila Gumbad, and this is where people will come.

JN: Do you have experienced staff? These days it is hard to keep help.

MN: We have very good chefs that have been with us generation after generation. My brother and I bake plum cakes ourselves but for all other baking we have the old time staff.

We pay the market rate in salary. And whenever there is an occasion or a problem at home we share costs so that they are not burdened – both when a worker’s child gets married and when there are medical emergencies.

The ethics of our bakery is mutual respect between owner and employee.

Local pastries
Local pastries

JN: Do you recall any special incidents?

Bhutto Sahib, in the early days of PPP’s establishment, came here with Agha Shorish Kashmiri.  He bought a one pound icing cake.  My father did not want to take the payment but he said, “It is for my daughter Benazir’s birthday.  I want to pay because I want my daughter to know it came from her father’s pocket”.

Noor Jahan came to order a Rich Plum for her daughter’s birthday.  Madam came in burqa, but the crowd recognized her and there was such a rush that the crowd could not be controlled. Our windows were broken. She obliged those who asked for her autograph and when they asked her to hum a song, she sang a Punjabi geet.

JN:  Any incident that still remains memorable?

MN: I will always remember Christmas of 1987.  My father had a heart attack. The doctor instructed, “You must rest. No exertion”.  But my father said, “It is impossible that my Christian brothers come and I am not present.  He stood in the bakery and served them with a smile. All those who came to shop that day were praying for him. He lived many more years, and died in 1995. And he attributed it to their prayers.

JN:  Do people from all walks come to your bakery?

MN: This is a historical monument: a place people come to see. This bakery is our grace.  We have not experienced lean times.  There are ups and downs in business but then from somewhere comes His help.