Traditionally, the Indian kitchen has thought of bread as the lump of carb that goes with the eggs; that slice of something you smear the butter on. For years, it’s been the quintessential supporting actor, watching quietly from the sideboards as “main dishes" take centre stage. But slowly, bread is stepping out of its straightjacket and assuming an identity of its own. No longer sliced ol’ commoner, bread is the new toast of the town.

Smell the wheat: (from left) Brioches at L’Opera in Khan Market, New Delhi; the French bakery got a certified expert from France to test its breads. Photos: Divya Babu/Mint

Historically, India’s bread-eating practices have evolved from its colonizers: the toast from the English, and the pao from the Portuguese. “The toast was what the English came up with to use up the previous day’s bread: You toasted the stale bread the next day. That’s become a habit for us to the extent that we even toast fresh bread," says restaurateur Ritu Dalmia. But the well-travelled Indian customer of recent years, having developed a taste for European-style country bread, is becoming increasingly discerning—and demanding—about his daily bread.

The high and mighty

At the just opened Oberoi Gurgaon’s 361, the pride of place in the 10,000 sq. ft restaurant is occupied by a massive wood-fired oven that runs 24 hours a day with two breaks. It turns out freshly baked croissants, ciabatta and lean bread every 45 minutes that taste quite unlike the microwave-heated fare that “fancy" bakeries have delivered hitherto. The Hyatt in Delhi has hired a German chef to produce perfect lean breads. La Baguette, at The Imperial, New Delhi, has innovated with mango bread, seven-cereal bread, rye bread and Kraft corn bread. “We’re looking at bread as a main course item, and put a lot of work into different combinations of grains, herbs, unlike the usual ordinary bread which is just an accompaniment to main dishes," says The Oberoi Gurgaon’s executive chef Ravitej Nath. Some of the breads at 361 include Yogurt and Multigrain, Brown Rice and Chives, Potato and Rosemary. Their coastal food fine-dining restaurant Amaranta innovates with Indian coastal food, using bread instead of the more traditional rice or roti. They reinvent the flavours of the chaat in a tamarind and mint bread, and the southern flavours with the Curry Leaf and Mustard Seed Ciabatta. There’s also a Basil Naan and Chettinad Multigrain bread.

Alain Coumont, founder of Le Pain Quotidien, at the Belgian chain’s Colaba, Mumbai, outlet; and Chef Saurabh Sahi bakes fresh bread at 361, The Oberoi, Gurgaon. Photos: Divya Babu and Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Chennai-based food chain Oriental Cuisine, which ran Hot Breads in Delhi’s Greater Kailash-1 N-Block market through the 1990s, previously focused on cakes (and puffs) but is now concentrating on bread. Their chain, French Loaf, is now operational in Chennai, Bangalore and Kolkata, and plans to enter Delhi, Mumbai and Pune soon. Realizing that the health-conscious Indian customer doesn’t believe brown is the only option to white bread, they offer low glycaemic-index bread, high-fibre breads which contain fibres from flaxseeds, linseed, soya, among others, and have as part of their team food technologists who break down the nutritional value of every bread they produce. “People are increasingly becoming health-conscious and moving away from the puffs and pastries, and we want to give them more healthy bread-based bakery items," says Brainard Colaco, corporate executive chef, French Loaf and Chennai-based Le Chocolatier.

Straddling class and mass

Although in its latest avatar bread has been slotted into an elitist privilege, there are people trying to make it available outside the scope of the fancy five-stars or foreign-owned outlets. A host of bread companies now produce bagels, pita bread, focaccia, olive, tomato and garlic bread, all in regular retail outlets. But herein lies an interesting contradiction: Although the idea is to make it available to the masses, it still needs to maintain a degree of exclusivity, which is why your regular kirana (grocery store) won’t stock these breads.

Bread chain Golden Crust, for instance, stocks its products mainly in stores in Khan Market, Defence Colony and Greater Kailash in New Delhi; stores that are “high-end", says Lalit Puri, who heads marketing and distribution for the company. Golden Crust, now produces tortilla (corn and flour), pita (white and brown) and khabz (Lebanese bread).

In fact, such has been the rise of bread that a school of professionals now wants to “demystify" bread. Baker and pastry chef Claire Dutta, whose ramdana (amaranth) bread was the talk of many a Khushwant Singh column, will open a bread-making school in Delhi later this year. Trained professionals and specialists will hold classes and live demonstrations. “Natural yeast, what every baker in Old Delhi uses (they haven’t washed their pot of yeast since they inherited it from their father), is packaged fancily and called sourdough; other breads have exotic names," she says. “Artisan bread shouldn’t cost as much as it does. You can use cereals like ramdana or dalia, any cereal that is available in India. Bread needs to be more readily available," she says.

Or perhaps, you can just eat cake.