What the Fork | How Cakes Went from Luxury Indulgence to Birthday Staples in India

I know that we all cut cakes, festooned with candles to mark our birthdays. Children gather around and blow out these candles, singing out of tune, and cacophonously, a rendition of a song first published in 1893 in America.

Both acts so alien to our Indian upbringing. Till now, this practice in India was limited to the English-speaking, middle and upper middle class, but has slowly become part of popular culture, even among non-English speaking, traditional populations.

Even those who may not speak English as their first language, will still be familiar with this eternal birthday song, it’s tune and its lyrics. Maybe because of films, or television and by just watching the behaviour of those around them, who are wealthier or more westernised than themselves. After all, everyone has aspirations, and what a better simple and economical way to emulate a perceived better life, than by simply buying a cake and cutting it.

In the past, sweets such as laddoos or barfis were more commonly used to celebrate special occasions, today it is the cake. A nice big cake, in flavours of chocolate or fruit, or both, with layers of sponge, icing, cream and mousse, in a panorama of shades and colours, shapes and sizes, once considered a luxury, exotic and out of reach, to most Indians, is now available at every street corner.

Yes, there has suddenly been an epidemic of cake shops all over India, in big cities like Mumbai as well as other smaller cities. In Mumbai, cake shops have mushroomed like fungi, especially in the middle class areas, and even in the slums.

Between the tin sheds and blue tarpaulin, you are confronted with fancy, LED-lit, modern, glass and chrome emblazon shops, displaying the most psychedelic glittering cakes. Tall, squat, round, square, all full of jam, jelly and jazz. This is the equalitarianism, and democratization of the westernised layered cake with icing. Cakes have increasingly become accessible and affordable to people from all walks of life and are now truly a common and affordable luxury.

It’s a trend that was started by Irani Bakeries decades ago, and then popularised by a cake shop called Monginis. Even today at the Irani-owned City Bakery in Worli, cakes and pastries are reasonably priced. Albeit brightly coloured and decorated with a variety of toppings, such as fruit, chocolate, and cream, in shades of bright fuchsia, emerald green, and violent purple.

Monginis started in the 1960s as a medium-priced shop that sold sandwiches, patties, pastries and sponge cakes. They also pioneered a special cake called the ‘Celebration Cake’ which was designed to mark special occasions. The Celebration Cake was decorated with colourful icing and came with a special message, wishing the recipient a happy birthday or any other special occasion.

Monigins, too, had shops all over central and south Mumbai. Then came Bangalore Iyenger’s Bakery. Originally from Bangalore, they offered special cakes for birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and other celebrations, and in flavours that most Indians had just heard about. Now these extrinsic flavours were easily accessible. Chocolate, vanilla, pineapple, black forest, and butterscotch.

The bakery, in fact, also offered a range of eggless cakes for customers who preferred vegetarian options. Now you can spot a branch of BIB on every crossroad and thoroughfare of Mumbai.

Then came Camy Wafers and their sister concern Celejor. Celejor started offering a range of customization options; they allowed customers to create cakes tailored to their specific needs and preferences. Cakes that went beyond the round, square and rectangle. Cakes shaped as cartoon characters, animals, cars, and anything that the child or adult could imagine.

They also introduced affordable versions of exotic cakes like a baked blueberry cheesecake, marble cake, carrot cake, red velvet cake, Dutch truffle, chocolate ganache to name a few. In the last few years, yet another cake shop brand has proliferated around the suburbs and in middle and lower middle class areas in the city. It’s called Souffle Foodworks. You can’t miss the glossy Prussian blue signage with a golden cursive logo. They boast of a range of cakes for all occasions like birthday, wedding, anniversary, baby shower, Christmas, New Year, including photo cakes, signature cakes, cartoon cakes and also cupcakes, pastries, donuts. With names like Kiwi Strawberry, Death by Chocolate, Zebra Torte. All at very competitive prices.

As the cost of living continues to rise, I’m sure people are looking for more affordable ways to make themselves happy. And what can make you happier than being able to celebrate happy occasions, several times a day, a week, a month or a year with affordable cakes, pastries and sweets?

Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer based in Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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