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Sunday April 10, 2011

The Bengali bread legacy

Nothing beats the aroma of freshly baked bread, especially if it’s Penang’s famous Roti Bengali.

IN the heart of George Town’s heritage city, Maliia’s bakers scurry around the spacious colonial corner shop where the unmistakable whiff of freshly baked Bengali bread marks the start of a new day.

Those walking past the bakery’s loading area at the back can actually hear a crackling sound coming from the loaves (after sitting in an oven heated to 180°C for an hour, the bread is literally still baking when left on the racks to cool) and feel the warmth of its wholesome goodness.

Hot dough: People walking past Maliia Bakery’s loading area at the back can actually hear a crackling sound coming from the loaves that are fresh from the oven.

Here, “the best thing since Bengali bread” is an idiom more appropriate than the unadulterated version where sliced bread is hailed as the benchmark of great ideas.

After all, this is the state that lays claim to the famous Roti Bengali although the recipe is believed to have originated from North India.

Ismalia Bakery, the famous Roti Benggali shop established in 1928, closed down several years ago but the tradition of making Penang’s best-loved bread in Maliia Bakery’s double-storey building along Transfer Road, lives on.

In 2005, Maliia Bakery moved into the building and brought with it a rich history of bread-making.

Here, Roti Bengali specialists work at rapid speed. Within a minute, dough is taken out from the mixer, kneaded, weighed and put on a tray ready for the oven.

The Bengali bread left on trays for the dough-rising process to begin before it goes into the oven.

Maliia Bakery (M) Sdn Bhd CEO M. Kumaresan Mariadas explains: “Maliia is not a new kid on the block. Maliia was formerly Victor Rhemas Bakery which was set up by a shareholder of Victor Bakery – a very popular bakery operating more than four decades ago but has since closed shop. While Ismalia catered more to the consumers, Victor focused on mass distribution to agents and the ‘roti man’ on their motorcycles and bicycles.”

Director Siti Suhailla Mohd Yusoff says the new moniker was a combination of her name and her mother, Mariam’s.

“We were very close family friends with the owners of Ismalia. It seemed like such a waste if we did not take over the premises when they moved out because this place is famous for Bengali bread and is strategically located in the heart of the heritage city.”

Just three years ago, Penang had been close to losing one of her oldest bakeries and most famous Roti Benggali shops when a neighbouring building was razed by a pre-dawn fire.

The bread machines were not damaged and it was, thankfully, business as usual.

A worker getting the Bengali bread dough out of the mixer.

Many bakeries that made Bengali bread more than four decades ago have since closed shop or moved on to making other more profitable treats.

Kumaresan reckons there are only three, including Maliia, that still sell Roti Bengali.

He welcomes more bakeries getting in on the act as he says Maliia cannot cater to the growing demand alone.

“It’s not very profitable but we continue making Bengali bread because it’s a tradition and an important part of our culture,” he says, explaining that buns only take about 10 minutes to make compared to four hours for the Bengali bread.

“Our coconut and sweet buns are very popular so imagine how many we can make in the time it takes to bake the Bengali bread. Sandwich bread takes about two hours only but the Bengali bread needs much longer because of its thickness.”

Kumaresan says mixing the Bengali bread dough involves skill and precision, and that even making sure the oven temperature is just right can be quite tricky.

“Right now, there is no machine that can create the Bengali bread shape we are accustomed to.

“The machine only churns out thin sandwich bread slices so even if we use the Bengali bread recipe, I doubt customers would like it. The thick brown crust and fluffiness would be lost. That’s why everything is still done manually.”

They are also staying true to the way Bengali bread was made back in the good old days, he adds. “The only difference is we don’t use a wood oven anymore.”

Indeed, the crispy crust is the most relished part of the bread, which is baked as a “patta” of eight mini-loaves – two rows of four mini loaves with a dark-brown crispy crust.

In the 1980s, four slices, or a mini loaf, was 50 sen. These days, it’s 90 sen.

“You can’t increase the price too much as you risk losing customers,” he says.

Kumaresan, who has ambitious plans for the bakery, jokingly quips that one can’t get rich by selling Bengali bread alone. The entrepreneur hopes to turn Maliia into a franchise by 2014 to cater to outstation Bengali bread lovers.

On the cards are outlets in Kuala Lumpur and mainland Penang.

He shares that customers from Kuala Lumpur often buy loaves of the bread and store them in the freezer, where they will keep for weeks. “Just steam or toast it when you are ready to eat and it will still taste fresh,” he says, adding that their style of Bengali bread is not available in any other state.

Kumaresan, however, says there is no plan to sell the Bengali bread in hypermarkets because the quality would be compromised.

“Once you put the bread in plastic packaging, the crispiness of the thick, brown crust is lost. Besides, customers want to see their Roti Bengali being sliced in front of their eyes otherwise they won’t think it’s fresh,” he says.

Siti Suhailla says Bengali bread is healthier than most breads because it has no preservatives, hence its Malay name – Roti Tawar (bland bread).

“Bengali bread is never eaten on its own but it’s delicious toasted and spread with butter, kaya, sambal, honey or dipped in soups and curry,” she says, adding that Maliia also has a wholemeal version of the bread.

The bakery serves some 100 varieties of breads, buns, cakes, pastries and pizza dough base (which, apparently, is extremely popular), but the Bengali bread makes up 40% of sales.

An astounding 1,000 loaves of Bengali bread comes out of Maliia every day.

Everything is baked fresh daily from 3am to 3pm and supplied to six major distributors, international restaurant chains, local cafés, roadside stalls and over 40 agents and the “roti man”.

Kumaresan is now toying with the idea of introducing cup cakes, but assures that they will never stop making Bengali bread.

“We welcome students and kids to our bakery to let them see how a slice of history is made, and Maliia is always looking for new ways to expand our business,” he says.

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