Ode to a bun

April 12, 2015

Tales of the significance, the sacredness of a Misquita Bakery hot cross bun… of how people queue up for hours before Easter and how often they are disappointed

Ode to a bun

Must I confess how disappointed I was?

The sixtysomething man behind the counter at JC Misquita Bakery in Karachi’s Saddar reached casually for the tray behind him, swiftly counted out six hot cross buns and bagged them. That too, in a flyaway brown paper bag, the sort that often features detailed maps of grease etched by jostling biscuits and patties. The positive… ordinariness of the moment was an outrage, an affront. Adding to my silent misery was the querulous young lady with navy-and-purple painted nails, ordering Rs3,000 worth of buns "to send to the in-laws".

It’s hard to describe the significance, the sacredness of a Misquita Bakery hot cross bun (or its plum pudding, come Christmas) to someone who isn’t from Karachi. In my childhood, you could be the best of friends with a Christian but if you weren’t one yourself, chances of tasting a Misquita bun were slim.

Weaned on Enid Blyton and nursery rhymes eulogising the bun and at a fiercely Anglophiliac school, this was harsh deprivation. And the stories about Misquita were legend: the only bakery that made authentic hot cross buns; only for Easter; only available to a chosen few. There were tales of how people queued up for hours (from 2am on the Thursday and Friday before Easter, according to the present owners) and how often they were disappointed (just last year, a friend’s cousin returned empty-handed each of the three times he went over the three days of Easter).

The families lucky enough to get some would inevitably hoard the buns; I was once told by a gluttonous bun-eater that I couldn’t have even a bite since I wasn’t a Christian (in her defence, we were both eight at the time). Obviously, the ubiquitous sheer khorma had little cultural cachet to offer in comparison.

My story of deprivation would have continued well into adulthood but for my father. Every Easter, the CEO of the Dawn Media Group, who also happens to be a serious foodie, would have baskets of The Misquita Hot Cross Bun delivered to friends and colleagues. In the Dawn universe, the basket was a mark of specialness but as a lowly assistant editor at Herald, I didn’t merit the attention. Luckily, however, my father did.

My early 20s were thus spent ferreting away the buns from the beady eyes of similarly-inclined siblings and scarfing down as many as three at a sitting.

Tucked away in a small alley next to the Bohri jamaatkhana, was the unprepossessing bakery that had occupied my imagination for close to three decades.

My romance with the Misquita hot cross bun can, as such, be seen as inevitable. Apart from being the longest relationship I’ve ever been in, the bun also came to represent much of what I wanted from life, from work, from the world. At an elemental level, we all crave to be rendered less ordinary, to be conferred with special attention. We want our life’s work and achievements recognised and reflected in something tangible we can hold, sometimes in quiet exultation at our having arrived and sometimes, as proof of our worth. The nutmeg-and-cinnamon-scented half-sphere with its dusting of coarse white sugar held out the promise of who I could be, only if I had grit, determination and talent enough.

And I was determined to be the sort of person who deserved the hot cross bun from Misquita, established 1839.

But this romance came under severe threat on Easter Monday 2015. I drove past the scores of colonial era buildings in Saddar, all in varying stages of decay: past the Iranian restaurant where I’d once waited for a man I loved, the place I took my O-level exams, the ‘CIA centre’ where I’d interviewed a police ‘informer’ and Sindh Police superstar Raja Umar Khattab. And there, tucked away in a small alley next to the Bohri jamaatkhana, was the unprepossessing bakery that had occupied my imagination for close to three decades: a 12-by-14 space that looked just like any other bakery in any lower-to-mid-income area in town. Insipid walls, steel trays, generic fried ‘items’ and utterly pedestrian looking chips, biscuits and sandwiches.

Must I confess how disappointed I was?

After years of yearning for this right to have a Misquita bun, the complicated intimacies of Self and Other in the dance of validation, just moments away from that first magical bite, the bun stopped being special. The journey had just been too easy. I carefully counted out Rs130, grabbed the bag he held out and skulked back to office.

I spent the rest of the day looking up recipes for hot cross buns I had no intention of making or even eating now; had I really imagined it to be much more than it was? "I love their plum pudding but there’s no real difference between the hot cross buns from Misquita or the ones from Ambala or United Bakery," confided a Christian colleague languidly.

As a last resort, I called up a friend who is a baking enthusiast (if you’re reading this Marylou, you still owe me red velvet cupcakes from the time I last wrote for you). "My mother makes hot cross buns too but they never turn out as well as Misquita’s, which have this really distinctive flavour," she mused, with the gravity peculiar to those who live by the precise science of baking, where a levelled teaspoon can mean the difference between triumph and disaster. "Misquita just has the perfect combination of nutmeg, cinnamon and all spice and the right texture - they’re dense but also springy."

Biting into my first bun of the day, I thought of Marylou and Jamie Oliver (apparently, soaking the currants in fruit juice for a few hours helps keeps the buns moist for longer), of the new Muslim owners of the bakery, the fact that close to 1,500 dozen buns are sold by Misquita in just three days. It’s really a perfectly worthwhile spiced bun and does taste infinitely better if you have it fresh, ideally washed down with tea. And then my nieces came home.

Since Easter is still a big deal at Karachi Grammar School, I told them I’d gotten hot cross buns specially for them for Easter. The six-year-old thanked me graciously with the dignity of all her years. But the four-year-old burst into the Hot Cross Buns rhyme: "One-a-penny, two-a-penny, hot cross buns," she warbled, pausing to correct me - repeatedly - where she felt I was going off tune. "If you have no daughter, give them to your sons," happens to be her favourite line and we sang it multiple times as we walked down to the kitchen.

In that moment, cradling her tiny shampoo-and-toothpaste-scented body while we teased each other about the sugar granules stuck to our mouths, the Misquita bun became magical again.

Ode to a bun