Banana bread was a frugal way then to use up overripe fruit, but it doesn’t seem to be in vogue now. Sourdough, the other breakout baking trend from then, has fared better, though one suspects that for every devotee of its hearty chewiness there are other family members happy to unpack regular, spongy manufactured white bread.
Jay Mota, head of innovation at Urban Platter, which sells specialty ingredients online, says interest in baking was always there: “Indians love to heavily customize their products and baking is generally considered to be a very aspirational form of cooking.” But people lacked the time to experiment and assembling the implements and ingredients needed was a problem, with only a few shops stocking them, like the legendary Arife Lamoulde in Crawford Market, Mumbai or Currimbhoys in Chennai.
Lockdown gave people the time and the opportunity to discover online suppliers like Urban Platter. “What the lockdowns have done is increase awareness of ingredients,” explains Uma Ravishankar, a dedicated home baker from Chennai. Baking can be done simply, she says, with good results possible even from using a home tandoor to make small cakes. But specialised ingredients, especially of the kind used by professional bakers, radically change results and this is what people are accessing now.
But there’s a flipside. Baking can be a rabbit hole, where simple cakes lead to multi-layered ones, with icing that requires a sugar thermometer, fruit pastes for filling, elaborate edible decorations and cake stands. Social media pictures spur people to ever more ambitious attempts and soon your kitchen is crammed with jars and gadgets for ever more ambitious baking which rarely looks as good as it does on other people’s social media.
There’s a contradiction in baking – it is both simpler and more complicated than regular cooking. Most recipes require real precision, which means that they are easier for amateurs: follow the rules and you achieve a decent result. But precision rapidly takes you to a professional level where the skills required are substantial. This is why many regular chefs have little patience in becoming patisserie chefs – ‘neurosurgeons of the kitchen’ Anthony Bourdain once called them, a description which blends both respect and irritation.
Many bakers from the first Covid cycle hit this barrier in the second cycle, especially when the realities seemed too grim to bear being blended with banana bread. Yet, some bakers found a different benefit here. One home chef who went through the stress of family affected by Covid found a release in baking. “Nothing can be more healing than kneading dough or the heavenly smell of freshly baked bread that fills the home,” she says.
The sharply increased interest in health as a way of boosting immunity also helped. Mota says that there more interest now in specialised baking, such as for Keto and Gluten-free diets, which demand entirely new ranges of ingredients. Dipesh D. Sharma, who has been baking at home for decades, says this explains sourdough’s sustained interest: “the long fermentation makes the bread easily digestible, helps with gluten intolerance, helps control diabetes, pro and pre-biotic and improves gut health.”
In the first lockdown Sharma started passing on sourdough baking tips to friends and received so much interest that he started an online coaching business called The Enthubakers. He has now coached 150 people and has a subscription-based sourdough supply business with over 50 customers. Gauri Pokhriyal is one of his students who developed her latent interest in baking into a custom baking service, but also something more personally meaningful: “I have learned that baking is more than just cooking. The finest ingredients and best machines will be left wanting if one doesn’t add memories and soul in the mix.”
Kainaz Messman, who took her passion for baking into a career as professional patisserie chef, and then started the Theobroma chain of bakeries and cafes, suggests that what started as a distraction has become a real passion for many: “Cooking and baking at home has really taken off, and because there are fewer banana breads on Instagram that does not mean there are fewer bakers.” Mota says that interest is now shifting from sweet to savoury baking, with people learning how to use the oven for all around cooking, not just making cakes.
Saee Koranne-Khandekar is a home baker who, even before Covid, had developed her interest into researching how bread was made in India and published an outstanding book on the subject called Crumbs! Like Sharma she found herself giving advice to the new Covid bakers and finally put her knowledge into an ebook, From My Oven, whose proceeds would go to an NGO. Around 1100 people have already bought it, suggesting that interest in baking is here to stay. Banana bread, thankfully, may not have survived Covid, but a wider interest in baking may be one benefit that remains.