REPLUG: Karachi baker whisks traditions with flavours of Christmas
What would Christmas be without the sweet smell of cakes lingering around the house? Just like every year, self-taught baker Azra Dias works overtime to prepare yummy cakes for the holiday season.
For the past 25 years, Dias has been baking unique cakes and savoury dishes to make Christmas extra special for all. “I started cooking commercially when I was in my 20's,” she says.
“From December 1, I buy the cherries and currents for my tea cakes and cut them in small chunks so that they can dry easily,” she told SAMAA Digital. “Some people want the rum assorted cake, so I have to get the fruit soaked in the rum a month before.”
Starting from brownies, she is now the master of many signature cakes. Her all-time hit is ‘Bath Cake’ but many people like her fruit and rich walnut cakes too. Dias’ personal favourite is the rum assorted fruit cake. Her cakes range from Rs1,800 to Rs3,000.
She believes that the tradition of baking cakes for Christmas in Pakistan dates back to the time of the British rule. “The Christians residing in India’s Goa used to bake cakes for Christmas.”
Dias is also famous for her cheese straws and milk toffees. “While people usually fry it, I make baked cheese straws,” she remarked. Dias always gets the order for these food items in bulk.
“It’s not that I get orders only during Christmas, my food is equally liked by Hindus, Muslims and Parsis in all seasons,” she added.
For the mother of three, the quality of her cakes is her top priority as all her food is even cooked in mineral water. "If you use the cheap quality products, you will never get the right taste," said Dias. “I don’t keep the profit on my food, for me it always quality over quantity.” She even gets the cinnamons for her baked goods from abroad.
Dias has something for everyone. She even prepares food for small parties of 150 people, for which you can contact her on her Facebook page, Azra's Kitchen.
How did it start?
Dias started baking at a time when gas ovens were not that common. “I told my husband that you better buy me a gas oven as it was my dream to bake something in it,” she shared.
Even after getting a gas oven things did not turn out to be so perfect for her. “When I baked my first-ever batch of brownies, they turned out to be as hard as pappy [twice-baked bread],” she recalls. However, after multiple tries, her brownies began to win everyone over.
One time when she was teaching at the City School, she baked some brownies for the school. Much to her surprise, all the teachers asked her for the recipe after tasting them.
"When one of my friends took the recipe and tried to make the same brownies, they did not turn out to be that juicy," she said. And it was then, that all her friends named her baked goodies ‘Azra’s juicy brownies’.
After her friend’s encouragement, she started baking commercially and kept her brownies at Mr Velloz’s canteen at St Joseph’s College.
It was just the beginning for Dias as Mr Velloz then further referred her food to canteens in other schools such as Beaconhouse School System, The City School, St Michaels and even Karachi Grammar School.
Agha’s Supermarket and Sanis Medical and General Store’s shelves are always decked with Azra’s food items. There was a time when she even started to get orders from Lahore and Islamabad.
“[My friends] used to tell me that if I start selling [my] brownies, I will become a multibillionaire one day,” she said. “I am still not a multibillionaire but I earn good money,” she added with a smirk.
Coping with poor vision
Two years back, life took a little U-turn in Dias’s life when her corneas shrunk and she was diagnosed with partial blindness.
“It was the moment when I thought everything was finished, without my eyes I was nothing,” said Dias. The journey was tough but after multiple surgeries, her sight has improved considerably.
“After taking a gap from my food business, I don’t take order in bulk now,” she said. Dias now enjoys cooking for her family more now.
Dias follows the footsteps of her father and makes special food every Christmas. “Although I am not very fond of eating, I look forward to cooking for my family, friend’s ad loved ones.”
For this year’s Christmas, balchao, sorpotel, roasted cow tongue and turkey is making way to Dias’ dinner table.
Since the practice of making traditional Goan food is slowly dying, Dias calls her all every family member from the start of December to cook together.
Dias, who is the eldest of her siblings, believes that Christmas is all about togetherness.