S Mohkam-ud-Din & Sons, a 143-year-old bakery in the historical Anarkali Bazaar, is famously operational to this day
estled amid Anarkali Bazaar’s busy alleys, S Mohkam-ud-Din & Sons is a place of cultural and historical significance. Said to be the first-ever modern bakery in the entire subcontinent, it stands strong 143 years on, and continues to follow its traditional recipes.
Not to forget, it offers a great deal of history. Just walk in, and you can almost feel you’re in a museum of sorts. Antique dishes adorn the showcase, while olden Christian wedding cake decorations and classical Iranian restaurant chairs take you back in time. The cherry on the top are the vintage photographs and press clippings, not to mention a grand portrait of the owner, Syed Mohkam-ud-Din, who the bakery is named after. These are glorious reminders of things past.
It is believed that Lady Aitchison, the wife of Sir Charles Aitchison (lieutenant governor and founder of Aitchison College) who was well known for her baking skills, knew of Mohkam-ud-Din’s talent and encouraged him to set up a bakery. Eventually, on January 1, 1879, S Mohkam-ud-Din & Sons opened its doors at Neela Gunbad, Anarkali. It was inaugurated by Lady Aitchison in the presence of some British dignitaries and government officials of the time that included Khushbakht Hussain Naqvi, an army contractor who was on amicable terms with some officers at the Governor’s House.
Over time, the bakery experienced financial issues. Today, the place is barely noticeable, as it is now surrounded (read overshadowed) by a variety of small and big business enterprises. Yet, it continues to offer the traditional baking variety it was always known for.
It also prides itself on its loyal customer base. Hardly a day goes by when a stranger does not step into the place, only to be inspired to go down memory lane. It’s obvious that they’ve been here before — perhaps, a long time ago.
The good part is that the legacy of the bakery remains intact, passed on through generations, who are making efforts to revive its past glory.
Its current status notwithstanding, the bakery remains a city landmark and a cultural relic.
A glorious clientele
S Mohkam-ud-Din & Sons has had an enviable list of clients ranging from foreign dignitaries to local bureaucratic and literary elite during the British Raj and after. They include Jawaharlal Nehru, Sir Henry Lawrence, the Nawabs of Junagarh, Feroz Khan Noon, Dr Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum, Agha Shorish Kashmiri, Dr Nazir Ahmed, Tufail Hoshiarpuri, Waqar Ambalwi, Maulana Kausar Niazi, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Dr Muhamma Ajmal.
Among its admirers was Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. According to Shah ji, the current custodian of the place, every time Jinnah visited Lahore, his breakfast would be prepared at Mohkam’s.
Shah ji, who was a child at the time, vaguely remembers being star-struck when it transpired that Jinnah was in town. “The Quaid was very appreciative of our products,” he recalls. “Once we offered him Rich Plum Cake, which is our specialty, he liked it a lot. Ah, those were the days!”
Allama Iqbal was also a regular at the bakery. According to Shah ji, “He [Iqbal] once lived nearby, in Anarkali area, and loved to drop in for chitchat over a cup of tea.”
The 4th generation
Today, the bakery is in the hands of the fourth generation of Syed Mohkam-ud-Din. As Shah ji puts it, “We bear the onus of adhering to the baking methods introduced by him, and the traditions related to services extended to our clients which include being wise to their purchasing behaviour, and serving them quality stuff taking into account their budgets and tastes.”
Some of the successors of Syed Mohkam-ud-Din are said to have trained early, in their pre-adolescence, right after completing their school education. Zahid Khawaja, a long-time patron of the bakery, is one of them. He remembers how as a child he loved Lady Harrison’s Finger Biscuits, another S Mohkam-ud-Din & Sons specialty. “I’d dip them in tea. Besides, the cakes from the bakery used to be the highlight at every birthday event in the family,” he says.
Later, Khawaja moved to New York, but he’d still order finger biscuits whenever he was in town.
The bakery is able to sustain quality products by virtue of its policy of sticking to its experienced staff. “Nobody we’ve got today is new to the bakery,” says Shah ji, S Mohkam-ud-Din & Sons’s current custodian. The last time the staff was recruited was in the year 1970.
S Mohkam-ud-Din & Sons’s signature item has been decidedly the rich plum cake. Its recipe was a well-guarded secret. The patrons dubbed it the “King of the cakes.” It required time and patience to bake.
Even today, the recipe is followed to the tee. It is mostly prepared in the spring season. It makes use of the finest ingredients available— for instance, the raisins and black currants are imported from Azerbaijan, cashew nuts from Vietnam, pistachios and khairadeeni oil-rich almonds from Iran and saffron from Spain. These ingredients are thoroughly cleaned and dried in shade for days.
After the cake is baked, it is aged. The maturity time can range from two months to five years. Like wine, the older the cake, the better.
The cake’s price also increases with age.
Rich Plum Cake is aged in an oak cask and then kept in cold storage. (Oakwood is bitter and repels bacteria.) While other bakeries commonly use preservatives, S Mohkam-ud-Din & Sons serves it fresh and preservative-free. Hence, it tastes great.
The bakery’s current financial status is not promising. The authorities must attend to it and contribute to its upkeep, as it’s a place of historical and cultural significance. They must understand that its prime location in the heart of Anarkali means that the land is highly valued. As such the current patrons of S Mohkam-ud-Din & Sons may be tempted to reap greater financial benefits by selling it off or turning it into another regular shopping plaza. That would mean a great loss for the city’s cultural history.
Fortunately, no such commercial venture is on the cards. Not even remotely. In the words of Shah ji, “Its genuine worth lies in the wealth of insights and culinary traditions it has upheld through generations.”
He is also hopeful about the future. “As long as we keep up the standards of quality, our customers won’t stop coming to us,” he declares.
He reveals that the bakery is able to sustain quality products by virtue of its policy of sticking to its experienced staff. “Nobody we’ve got today is new to the bakery,” he says, adding that the last time staff was recruited was in the year 1970.
The bakery has a tradition of adapting to its changing environs and the changing tastes of the customers. Items such as “Sugar-free Khatai” and “Jam Biscuits” are a more recent inclusion.
Telling tales to invoke nostalgia
Shah ji is aware that the older customers frequent the place in a state of pure nostalgia. “The bakery opens floodgates of memories of their time spent here in their childhood or teenage years, with their friends or extended family members such as their parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts.
“For them, the place is like a diversion from the hustle and bustle of the crowded [Anarkali] bazaar. When they’re planning to go shopping at Anarkali, S Mohkam-ud-Din & Sons is a must-see. It is these sentiments that are our greatest asset,” he adds.
Interestingly, new customers are offered a mandatory lecture in the history of the products they are eager to purchase. As Shah ji puts it, “Educating our customers is critical to our success.”
This kind of ‘storytelling’ is a unique selling point (USP) of S Mohkam-ud-Din & Sons. Relating the tales behind, for instance, the Rich Plum Cake or Lady Harrison’s Finger Biscuits, is a fascinating way to inform as well as attract the customers.
The hook does it every time, says Shah ji.
This scribe personally got to listen to the story of Lady Harrison’s Finger Biscuits (now shortened as Lady Finger Biscuits), which are still in great demand. As the story goes, Lady Harrison was a late 19th Century painter who taught fine arts at the Mayo School of Arts (now National College of Arts). She was a close friend of Syed Mohkam-ud-Din who often praised her nimble fingertips. “Could you bake cookies that look like my fingers?” Harrison asked him one day, to the latter’s surprise.
“Why not,” he gathered his wits and said.
That he set about baking delicious cookies as a token of friendship is history.
Shah ji chuckles about how a nonagenarian customer once requested for the cookies, calling them “Lady di unglaan!”
Traditions of authenticity
Shah ji believes that his dedication to follow the original recipes and traditions has resulted in high-quality products that were the hallmark of the bakery in its early years.
“To do something well, you just have to do it right,” he explains. “Many people who are familiar with the recipes for our products find the [baking] process tedious — the Rich Plum Cake takes eight days to prepare — so they do not wish to try it at home.
“Also, you may try and copy the idea, but you can never match the original,” he states proudly.
What does the future hold for the bakery? In the opinion of Shah ji, “Time flies; it feels like the past 50 years [since he joined the bakery] passed in the blink of an eye. But, I have enjoyed every bit of my experience at the place. My experience not just with the staff and work, but also the customers has been quite pleasant. They enter and shout, “You’re still around?” We all smile.
However, after years of running the show, Shah ji must find a suitable successor. He says he’s keeping his eyes out for someone who can ably take over from him when he is over the hill, and carry on with the bakery’s proud heritage and not transform it in pursuit of commercial gains.
The writer is an educationist, a cultural studies scholar and a documentary maker.She is currently teaching at the Lahore School of Economics. She can be reached atnaeemaarchadgmail.com