According to popular lore, one evening, in the early 1950s, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru polished off the cheese straws that had been served to him with his meal at Assam’s Circuit House and asked for more. This is Shaikh Khoda Nawaz’s favourite story: how, just a few kilometres from where the Prime Minister was dining, Gulu Mistri, a refugee from what was then Burma, would mix cheese with butter and flour to whip up these long, twisty “straws” of cheese in his kitchen.
The recipe died when Gulu died — he refused to share its secrets even with his son — but more than 50 years later, Nawaz’s family-run bakery, the famous Shaikh Brothers of Guwahati, still serves a modified version of Gulu’s cheese straws, besides fresh bread, cakes and cookies.
In the 1880s, businessman Shaikh Ghulam Ibrahim from Bengal’s Hooghly district reached Guwahati’s Uzan Bazar Ghat by ferry, followed soon after by his two brothers. It was Shaikh Brothers, established by the three brothers in 1885, that introduced bread to Guwahati, northeast India’s biggest and busiest city. It sold cakes to a population that knew only pithas (traditional Assamese rice cakes) and it made, as Nawaz delightedly recalls, Nehru ask for more. “When my great grandfather came here, there was not a single bakery in Assam,” says Shaikh Soyeb Hossain, a fourth-generation Shaikh Brother, who, with his cousins and uncles, manages the shop. “But he saw the potential — tea plantations were just sprouting up then, and as the British began to settle in Assam, it was obvious that they would want their bread and cakes.”
By the early 1900s, the bakery was a hit with the British in India. “Since 1905, horse-drawn carts carrying special boxes from Shaikh Brothers bakery for the Governor House in Shillong was a daily affair,” states an excerpt from Heritage Guwahati by historian Dipankar Banerjee. The same book features a diary entry from Shillong, dated November 24, 1923, by John Henry Kerr, the then-governor of Assam: “Today there has been no supply of bread from the Gohati bakery. Local bread is too hard and sticky — Gohati bread is soft.”
Years later, the political elite of the city still patronise Shaikh Brothers. “Even today, we supply butter biscuits to the Chief Minister’s residence,” says Hossain, brandishing a pink receipt for the order placed by CM Sarbananda Sonowal’s residence.
Shaikh Brothers is located in Pan Bazar, an area that once made up part of the “European Ward” of Guwahati. The shop, which also sells provisions and cosmetics, opens at 8 am and sees an average of 1,000-1,300 customers walk in every day. Nawaz, who took over the shop when his uncle, Shaikh Ali Hossain, died in 1975, is now 77, and the oldest partner in the company. He says, “In the 1950s, my uncle’s generation converted the bakery into a department store.”
By 4 pm, the butter biscuits will be sold out. But the flaky bakarkhani — the many-layered Iranian parotta, made every evening — will only begin to sell. As Guwahati transitions into a cosmopolitan city dotted with modern patisseries and kitschy cafes, how does the 134-year-old bakery sustain itself? Nawaz says, “I suppose it’s our secret ingredient. Honesty.” And it’s delicious.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘ Families in food – having their cake’