From 1503 to 1947, Kerala played a vital role in catering to Europe’s Spice requirements. To be more specific, it was the Kingdom of Cochin which contributed the lion’s share of these exports. The rich and vibrant history of traders and visitors from Europe has immensely influenced the journey of food in Kerala, from the banana leaf to silverware.
While we often talk of independence from the British starting from the revolt of 1857, it is pertinent to note that Fort Cochin was under colonial rule since 1503 starting with the Portuguese, and then the Dutch. Unlike the Portuguese or the British who were imperialists, the Dutch were monopolists, and particularly relished on the nutmeg monopoly they had in the 17th century.
Nutmeg was highly significant to the Dutch East India Company (VOC) that it even led to influencing political decisions around the VOC’s spice trade entrepôts. Fort Cochin was the capital of Dutch Malabar from 1663 to 1795, but it was traded to the British in return for Bangka Islands in Indonesia (former Dutch East Indies). The Anglo Dutch treaties of the early 19th century witnessed the settlement of colonies that belonged to the British and the Dutch after the Anglo Dutch wars.
Banda Islands in Indonesia where the purest form of nutmeg grew wild was always a target of Dutch imperialism. As part of the Anglo Dutch treaty, the Dutch even went on to trade modern day Manhattan (then New Amsterdam) to the British in exchange for the Island of Run in Banda only to maintain their nutmeg monopoly. The Banda Islands of which Run was a part was the only source of nutmeg in Europe until then.
Nutmeg is one of the strongest of spices that the different variants of it differ in their application for medicine and food. The endemic variant of wild nutmeg found in Kerala (in the Western Ghats region) are not used the same way as the fragrant variety of nutmeg found in South East Asian countries.
Nothing reflects the Dutch passion for nutmeg than the Breudher. Breudher is one of the oldest Bundt shaped half cake/half bread and is characterised by the inclusion of nutmeg in it, and owes its origin to the Dutch term ‘brood’ for bread.
The Breudher was introduced to Cochin by the Dutch in the 17th century. The bread soon became a part of the local culture and cuisine in most of the Dutch colonies with the gradual increase in the Eurasian population during the 18th century. The cake-like Bloedher in Sri Lanka, and the bread-like Blenda in Melaka, Malaysia, are local adaptations of the Breudher the Dutch introduced in these erstwhile colonies.
In Fort Cochin there are two bakeries which still keep up the tradition of Breudher: Quality Bakery on Pattalam Road, and Elite Bakery on Burgher Street. They would, perhaps, be the only places in India where the Breudher is commercially available today. Nevertheless, the variants available now are mere replicas and the non-documented recipe for the traditional Breudher was lost in adaptation over the years.
While the Portuguese fortified Cochin for the first time on way to establishing Estado da India, the Dutch focused more on turning Cochin into a garden of plants and spices. The Portuguese are credited for introducing a host of new things such as Chilies, potatoes, tomatoes, and tapioca to local the cuisine and for giving Cochin its own version of the Vindalho. The Dutch planted more trees and redefined the landscape of Cochin, and also gave us the Breudher.
The most significant contribution by the Dutch is the ‘Hortus Malabaricus’, a treatise on the flora of Kerala that the Dutch spent 30 years in compiling along with the help of Kerala’s Ayurvedic physicians.
Till date the Dutch Breudher influence is deeply engrained in the cuisine of Fort Cochin. A common way of asking someone whether they have had breakfast is, “kumbaari bread-um pazhavum kazhicha”. While this literally means ‘Compadre (Portuguese word for friend), Have you had bread and banana?’, it goes back to the Dutch ways where Breudher and Green Robusta bananas were a popular breakfast choice.
Breudher is also termed the ‘Bread of the Dead’ owing to the customary Anglo Indian practice of preparing this yeasty cake/bread on occasions such as wake ceremonies or the seventh day of demise. The Anglo Indians of Cochin also make the Breudher for special occasions such as Christmas and Easter, and the presence of raisins/sultanas in addition to nutmeg defines the celebratory version of Breudher.
Until recently, many had forgotten about this 17th century bread/cake and the recipe for the traditional Breudher of Dutch Malabar remained elusive and non-documented. I tried to recreate the traditional Breudher, by fusing traditional recipes from Dutch Ceylon and erstwhile Melaka. Gauging from the response on social media platforms, I can safely say that there is wide interest in the Breudher.
Another person who has come up with a different recipe for traditional Breudher is fellow Cochinite and acclaimed pastry chef Avin Thaliath, who is one of the co-founders of the Lavonne Academy of Baking Science and Pastry Arts in Bengaluru. Avin, as part of his research, combined elements from the Sri Lankan Bloedher and a similar bread recipe from Indonesia.
More and more chefs and culinary enthusiasts are now trying to recreate the Breudher of Dutch Malabar, all thanks to the Internet. If it was pepper that got all eyes on India and it’s wealth of spices, nutmeg has yet another story to tell, one that can never be complete without the story of Breudher.Oneal is a food writer and author of Soul Fried Monologues. Instagram: @fcboy83. Views are personal.