Pappu can’t bake… because there are no ovens in Indian homes

You may have heard the story before. Clueless desi chap fresh off the boat from India (or any other country in the South Asian subcontinent) arrives in the land of frozen pizza and burritos. He enrolls in graduate-level classes, rents an apartment with a few other clueless guys from his homeland, and finds some “hand-me-down” furniture.

Within days, he faces the first challenge in his life, and no, it does not come from the classroom. It comes from the kitchen. Having exhausted the collection of dry sweets, mixed pickles, and salted snacks that he brought from home, he now has to think of doing the unthinkable – he actually has to cook something.

Of course, he has taken the crash-course in assembling a pressure-cooker; and in cooking rice and a frugal dish of rajma or dal from his mother. But now like the cadet fresh out of boot-camp, he actually has to fend for himself.

Take a moment to consider the impossible situation. Our hero (or anti-hero, if you please) has never actually seen the inside of a kitchen before. To use a well-worn desi cliche, he may not ever have poured himself a glass of water. In his world, there were always servants that did the cooking, restaurants and chaat-stands for eating out, and doting parents holding the tiffin-box and the glass of milk with Complan (which everyone in India knows has “23 vital nutrients in balanced proportion”).

Soon, our friend discovers something unique that will change his life. It is something none of his ancestors ever knew  (and no, I am not talking about drive-through windows in restaurants). It is the conventional oven. In no time our friend learns that you need to jack up the temperature to closer to 400 degree Fahrenheit if you want a crisper crust on your pizza. He also learns that baking tilapia for 15 minutes is an easy way to fix a light meal. He thinks, “my parents would be proud.”

Except his parents have actually never used a conventional oven. And neither has many of the billion plus people in his country of origin.

Regardless of how much you enjoy the tandoori chicken and naan at the neighborhood Indian buffet, the fact is that these dishes are as much a part of home-cooked regional Indian cooking as the overpriced 1000 calorie mango chai-latte that was  supposed to make you feel in tune with your spiritual self.

Visit a home in Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Punjab (and other states) and you might be treated to a 10-course meal with unique flavors. You will marvel at the range of spices used and the complexity of the dishes. There might be a couple of delicacies that have been fried, steamed, blanched, curried, or grilled. But I’ll wager that you will probably not be treated to a baked casserole. Sure, there might be a casserole pan on the table, but it will likely be used as a serving dish.

This is in slight contrast to some of the baked fare that Indian restaurants serve. Of course, nawabs and emperors had their own tandoor-enabled kitchens for succulent delicacies. Middle-class Indian homes never had the luxury of large  conventional oven. So, regional Indian cuisine developed over thousands of years without an extensive repertoire of home-cooked baked dishes or recipes calling for baking.

The Portuguese probably bought European-style baking and gave Indians the word for leavened bread.  And over the centuries, Indians developed a taste for different types of cakes and breads.

But, the reason Pappu can’t bake is that most Indians still get their baked goods from bakeries.

© 2009-2011, Anirban

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17 thoughts on “Pappu can’t bake… because there are no ovens in Indian homes

    • Microwaves are actually quite popular in India these days. As people get more Westernized in their taste for “oven-toasted” and “oven-roasted”, I’m sure they’ll start to use conventional ovens more too. The result with be a khichdi (figuratively).

  1. Actually, desheo baked dishes banano hoy, jodio regularly na, ebong normally shegulo main courses hoy, dessert na. Jemon, bhapa ilish. Ba chingrir malai curry. The funny thing, of course, is that when our kitchens used clay ovens–oonon, you know–baking was far more common, at least in my Dhakai Bangal household. To bring some variety to her many widowed great-aunts and aunts-in-law’s niramish palette, my grandmother would wrap diced vegetables in kolapata, with shorshe bata and shorsher tel, and make a fine shorshe-chingri substitute.

    But then my family in the next generation was also slightly Anglicised, and my mum and aunts made eclairs, muffins, cookies and so on at home, using old-fashioned aluminium electrical baking dishes. Have you ever seen one?

    Anyway, please overlook the length of the comment. This post triggered a lot of memories, and it felt nice to write them down somewhere 🙂

    • Thanks for your informative post. I agree with you completely. That is why as I was writing I was very careful to use “conventional oven” and “most” and “many” throughout. I was thinking about bhapa dishes as well as “pata pora” “aloo pora” etc too!

      But I agree that these are becoming rarer day by day and people are more inclined for Western-style baked goods.

      See, Rimi, now you’ve made me nostalgic too! 🙂

      • To reply to your question, no I have actually never seen an aluminum electric baking dish. What is that like?

  2. Umm.. but I am seeing a convectional oven since birth,growing up in mid 80s and 90s in Murshidabad. My neighbours too had these ovens. They were used to make suji bishcoot ,and cakes and occasional cookies for cha. You will find baking soda/vanilla essence in villages too. Confirm if you have to. My mother-in-law from Bihar too knows how to bake cookies. And she too had the round alumunium oven[the sort I don’t see anymore],that was so popular then as a wedding gift.

    • Thanks for the informative comment, Sushmita. The title of the piece is intentionally flippant to draw readers, but my central premise is on the lack of traditional baked good compared to the prevalence in Western cuisines. Nonetheless, it seems that the conventional oven is more prevalent that I thought when I sat down to write this post. Very difficult to do a scientific poll but it seems that my experience was different from many others such as yourself.

      The only baking implement that my relatives had was the electric baking pan which came out before Christmas for simple cakes with the vanilla extract and baking soda that you mention. We didn’t know what else do with it perhaps from lack of imagination (and lack of thermostat, though it might have had a timer). lol

      Growing up my, my semi-rustic experience was people ate sliced Britannia or packed Bapuji cakes and the better stuff only around Christmas. We didn’t have a single Monginis or Sugar & Spice in my mofussil town. 😉

      Thanks again for reading and commenting! 🙂

      • I agree with you verbatim. At least about the part where even I did not grow up eating any home made baked stuff.Apt narration on the fresh of the boat hero’s cooking debut !!

  3. Nice post…ROTFL at Complan (which everyone in India knows has “23 vital nutrients in balanced proportion”) .
    Convectional ovens have become very common now but as a child I had never seen one. There were different ways of baking dishes which have almost become extinct now.
    Like Rimi said, this post triggered lots of memories – an electric baking pan which not everybody knew what to do with and usually came out only during christmas and occasionally on birthdays (if somebody wanted to get a little experimental). Simple cakes with vanilla extract, baking soda and topped with melted cadbury…..What days those were…in today’s fast paced world, I sometimes miss such simplicities so much.

  4. Beena. 24th Nov.2011
    Where can one find one of those round aluminium ovens? I baked a lot when the children were young . They flew the nest and there was a hiatus…I stopped baking for several years. Now I bake for my grandchildren and though I have an OTG and a microwave oven I do miss my old round oven because my cakes came out perfectly baked in it.

  5. WELL i hv come across this verbatim battle when googling to decide on which electric convection oven to buy. unfortunately i find only kaff and faber hav’g these ovensand is pretty expensive above 25 grant . brands like lg , samsung , ifb , whirlpool etc fail to hv the same. so my query is which is the best from the point of economics and efficacy ? if anyone can help it would be of gr8 help.

  6. ooooh this made me laugh so much…i was on the internet looking for an oven to buy for my new home. and your article just made my day!!!

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