To the Manohar born

Help yourself to a slice of Delhi food history ♦

Manmohan Singh at the Manor Hotel (Photos: Paroma Mukherjee)

On a walk through Khan Market’s intestinal middle lane the other day, we came upon a basket of bread, next to the imported strawberries and grapes. The smallish, dark square loaves nestled in the large basket looked impossibly old-fashioned compared to the fluffy white or fashionably grain-sprinkled varieties available today. We asked the man selling the loaves where the bread came from. “That’s Manohar bread”, he said, as if that were explanation enough.

That name would be, for anyone above 50 years of age, an instant nostalgia-trigger. Loaves of Manohar bread, each embossed with the company name, used to be a Delhi classic.

Like many good Delhi classics, Manohar bread has its origins in pre-Partition Lahore. Manohar Singh was a landowner’s son who – short on funds and advised against further study by his professor – opened a tuck shop in Government College Lahore’s New Hostel. He started selling chai, samosas and jalebis, “by default, almost by accident”, according to his son, Manmohan Singh, who we met over coffee at the familyowned Manor Hotel. Singh the elder became part of Lahore college lore. “My father’s nature was very different, very generous,” his son recalled. Eventually, Singh began catering for hotels like Nedoo’s and became the city’s biggest caterer. When Partition happened, however, he came to Delhi as a refugee in 1947.

DelhiBread_TimeOutDelhi_Shah1“There was a bakery in Connaught Place, which the government had listed as an evacuee property,” Manmohan told us. “It was given to my father as a refugee by Meher Chand Khanna, who was a minister. My father even lived there for some time, in a communal housing set-up, until he started baking there.” Manohar bakery, set up post-Partition, existed in the middle lane behind Odeon cinema – between B Block and H Block – for over 30 years until finally closing in 1981 or so. According to Manmohan, at its peak, the bakery would produce around 5,000 loaves a day. Manohar and other small bakeries existed alongside large companies like Britannia, and pre-dated even Modern Bread.

“We’ve never used preservatives,” Manmohan told us, “which means that the bread has to be eaten fresh – within a day or two. And the bread was wood-fired – as it still is today – on wooden bhattis. In most of the old bakeries, the bakers were all Muslims from Uttar Pradesh who learnt the art from their fathers and passed it on to their sons. It’s harder and harder to find people from that lineage today.” Singh did make one concession to modernity and bought a dough-beater in the 1970s, but before that, the dough was kneaded by these workers.

Singh managed to expand his business, mostly through the loose network of friendships and contacts in what was then small-town Delhi society. He began catering for Kota House (now the Naval Officer’s Mess on Shahjahan Road), and eventually met Ja D Fonseca, a Portuguese man who had come to Goa as a nine-year-old stowaway. Fonseca ran a hotel that was popular with foreigners, on the spot where the Taj Mahal Hotel now stands on Mansingh Road. Fonseca suggested that Singh open a hotel, where he could accommodate overflow guests. At the time, the cheapest and most spacious area available was Friends Colony, and the “Manor Country House” was built in the early 1950s.

“It was always called Manor,” Manmohan told us, “but people in the area called it Manohar because of the association with my father and with the bread.” Manmohan remembers his father holding court at the hotel. “He wasn’t really a businessman; his business was mixed with philanthropy, with friendship. Any widow who wanted to marry her daughter off would be given the hotel for free. My mother Roop was actually the brains behind the business – the one who kept things afloat.” A few years after her husband died in 1975, however, she closed the bakery in CP. “Now we only bake in small quantities for a limited number of customers,” Manmohan told us.

The bakery, which is now on the premises of the Manor Hotel, supplies their hearty, slightly nutty bread mainly to the Delhi Golf Club and small amounts to vendors in select markets, like Khan. Carrying on his father’s tradition, Manmohan also sends loaves over to family friends.

“I’m looking to revive the bakery somehow,” he said. “For emotional reasons, I’d like to carry it on, but it’s in an in-between stage right now.” The Manor Hotel itself (now leased by Old World Hospitality) is also undergoing a revamp, with new restaurants, a spa and service apartments in the offing. “For practical reasons, we might have to change some things,” Manmohan said, “but it’s something to look at reviving.”

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, January 2009.