By Sonya Rehman
Past shops selling glittering party decorations, silver and gold tiaras, cricket bats, plastic toys for children, netted pouches filled with sea-green, azure and multi-colored marbles, local Pakistani sweets, dried fruit, spicy pickles and fresh kebabs, the narrow, claustrophobic streets inside Mochi Gate, one of thirteen historical gates constructed by the Mughals, in Lahore, is dark, dank and alive on a sunny Saturday morning.
With buildings and homes built in such close proximity that the snaking streets remain shrouded by bricks and mortar, with only patches of sunlight pouring in at certain junctures, be prepared to dodge roaring motorcycles and rickshaws with smoking exhausts (as they budge past those on foot) and flowing, putrid, open drains.
Here, hints of the past come into view every now and then: a door, a beautiful old – albeit crumbling – pre-partition balcony, and antique, fragile window frames; jewels within Lahore’s Walled City that speak of a past, many stories, and history (barely preserved) in time.
I am here, making my first-ever pilgrimage to the best bakery in the city – Khalifa Bakers, a bakery that churns out the most magical biscuits in all of Lahore. If you lose your way inside Mochi Gate, ask any shopkeeper or passerby where the shop is, and they’ll point you in the right direction of the city’s famed biscuit king.
The busy bakery is in full-swing as I make my way up the steps. Bakers and shop attendants in bright orange aprons and caps are running up and down the steep staircases from the kitchen located right next to the store. They’re carrying trays of freshly baked rusks (dry crunchy bread) and biscuits – fresh stock of the day.
Established in 1925 by a man who went by the name of Baba Umer, Khalifa Bakers is a family business that has lasted for four generations. And it’s still going strong. At the cash register, I meet with the mildly reserved, Umer Farooq, a young man, who tells me that his great-great-grandfather moved to Lahore from Amritsar after partition, setting up the then modest little bakery with only two staff members.
“He lived close by,” Farooq states, pointing towards the boundary wall of a house close to the bakery. “He lived there with his family. We’ve remained in this area ever since.”
Perhaps the most popular item at Khalifa is its famous naan khataai – a thick, crumbly almond biscuit that is melt-in-mouth perfection. Initially, the bakery only produced the plain version of the biscuit, that is, minus almonds. However, once the new almond version was introduced, the rest was history…it was a complete hit. In fact, I am informed that on Narendra Modi’s visit to Pakistan in December, boxes of the biscuits were gifted to Modi as a parting gift from Nawaz Sharif. Such is the power of Khalifa’s simple naan khataai.
“When [Baba Umer] initially started out, we didn’t have a lot of business,” Farooq tells me candidly, “Our popularity increased with the passage of time.”
Pertinent to mention, in the past, Baba Umer relied on a supplier. Later on, Khalifa Bakers set up its own production unit; a three-storey kitchen situated right next to the bakery.
“We sell traditional bakery goods,” Farooq says, handing a customer change, “Our biscuits are made without preservatives – they’re simple: flour, sugar and butter, that’s it.”
The customer footfall is heavy today and business carries on as usual: families, children and men walk in, leaving with boxes of Khalifa’s baked goods.
Outside, on the busy street, school children shriek, racing each other home. It’s lunch time. Sitting on a ledge next to the bakery’s large window, I bite into a naan khataai. Sweet, powdery and fused with roughly cut almonds, the biscuit is magnificent – hot out of the oven. I sure could do with a cup of tea.