The Baker's Tale

Pokhara is Nepal’s most expensive city, and home to many German-style bakeries, but rising rents in the town have made it a competitive landscape to trade in.

  Pokhara, Kaski, Gandaki, Nepal
  13 min read

We left the guesthouse at 2:00am, the streets of Pokhara in Central Nepal were deserted, apart from a lone barking dog (there’s always a barking dog in Asia). It was cold and calm. As we drew closer to our destination we began to hear a thudding sound. Thud. Thud. Thud, repeated at regular intervals and getting gradually louder as we drew closer to the little shack of a bakery. We were up at this early hour because we had a date with a baker.

View over Pokhara at night.
View over Pokhara at night.

A couple of days earlier, in the Lakeside area of the city, a street vendor had offered us some fresh bakery, we bought a couple of pastries and out of curiosity asked where he buys them, “They’re from a bakery on one of the backstreets,” he revealed. The next morning we tracked down the tiny bakery and bought some pastries for a quarter of the price charged by the street vendors. This is how we ended up meeting the baker. The novelty of meeting a Nepalese man making German-style bakery from a tiny shack in Pokhara was not lost on us.

So-called German Bakeries are found all over towns popular with tourists in Nepal, having grown in favour alongside the rise of tourism in the country. The exact origins of these bakeries is a little hazy, but however the bun baking trend started, the idea has stuck and spread across Nepal.
The flour dusted bakery worktop dominates the space on one side of the room.
The flour dusted bakery worktop dominates the space on one side of the room.
Piles of well-worn baking trays are stacked around the bakery.
Piles of well-worn baking trays are stacked around the bakery.

Stooping, so as not to bump our heads, we left the dark street and entered the postage stamp-sized bakery. The scent of yeast lingered in the damp air and a thin veil of flour clung to every surface. Beneath the dim lightbulbs the baker stood at his worktop, messy apron tied around his waist and beanie hat on his head, shaping dough into familiar forms amidst the chaos of the bakery. The space is cramped and ramshackle, with the majority of room taken up by the brick oven, large worktops, stacks of baking trays and sacks of flour. In one corner stands a bed, piled up with clothes, around which the bare brick walls are pasted with sheets of newspaper.

Getting ready to prepare dough by candlelight during one of the town’s frequent power cuts.
Getting ready to prepare dough by candlelight during one of the town’s frequent power cuts.

The baker is Kumar, softly spoken and with broken English, he has been a baker for some 25 years. “I came to Pokhara to look for work,” he explains “my home village is a two-day bus journey away,” a village in which the job prospects were limited. Like many Nepalis, Kumar made the journey to Pokhara because of the town’s booming tourist industry and the lure of job opportunities. “I followed my sister here, she was the one who taught me to bake,” she still lives in Pokhara, running a nearby hotel.

Preparing dough to make the bread in Pokhara.
Dough slices ready to be shaped into rolls.
Rolling out the dough to make the pastries.

The baking begins at 2am everyday by rolling out the dough that is prepared the evening before and left to prove overnight. Kumar slices and forms the dough mixture into different shapes, his skilful hands nimbly apportioning the right amounts of flour and filling across the uncooked pastries.

Kumar weighs out individual portions of dough to be made into loaves of bread.
Kumar weighs out individual portions of dough to be made into loaves of bread.
Portions of dough are shaped into bread rolls.
Shaped bread sausages.

Despite the chaotic environment of the small room, Kumar seems to dance through the space that’s so familiar to him, carefully placing the pale raw pastries onto oiled trays. Each piece of bakery is positioned a safe distance from its neighbour on the tray to allow room to rise in the oven. When baked they transform into cinnamon swirls, apple turnovers, chocolate twists and bread rolls.

Cinnamon swirls and chocolate twists are arranged on baking trays ready to be cooked in the oven.
Cinnamon swirls and chocolate twists are arranged on baking trays ready to be cooked in the oven.

With the pastries prepared it was time to fire up the large brick oven, which takes up a third of the room and is big enough to hold a person or two. Kumar starts the fire by using his garbage as kindling and stacking the oven with firewood. The room temperature rose quickly as the oven heated up and a thin layer of smoke hovered just beneath the low ceiling, its only escape route through the narrow rectangular gaps chiselled out of the bakery walls.

A layer of smoke undulates below the bakery ceiling as the oven is fired up to bake today’s batch of pastries and breads.
A layer of smoke undulates below the bakery ceiling as the oven is fired up to bake today’s batch of pastries and breads.
The baker's oven pre-heats.

Kumar took a bowl of egg wash and glazed the rows of buns lined up in the trays, before stoking the fire one last time and placing the first batch in the oven to bake. While we waited for the bakery to cook Kumar talked to us more about Pokhara and how he ended up baking in his tiny shack, every so often nodding off to sleep.

The baker coats the pastries with egg wash.
The baker coats the pastries with egg wash.

Pokhara is situated in central Nepal, in a valley that lies in the midland region of the Himalayas and is surrounded by spectacular lakes, valleys and farming terraces, it’s the most expensive city in the country. Up until the 1960s Pokhara could be accessed by foot only, but the building of the Siddhartha Highway in 1968 helped tourism rise and the city to expand. The town’s proximity to the trekking mecca that is the Annapurna Conservation Area, makes it hugely popular with foreign tourists and the main street in the Lakeside area, where most tourists lodge, is awash with a vast range of amenities catering to their every need. Tourist traffic boosts the local economy significantly, creating jobs and helping to develop infrastructure.

But tourism in the town isn't necessarily good for the Nepalese that live here.

Kumar wasn’t always based in a tiny shack on the backstreets of Lakeside, he used to run a bakery and cafe on the glossy main strip, alongside other local entrepreneurs. Since the 1990s the city has urbanised rapidly, causing a rise in the cost of real-estate and making rent prices increasingly unsustainable for people like Kumar. According to Nepalese media reports, foreign investors from countries like China, Japan and South Korea are involved in setting up new hotels and restaurants in Pokhara, and what was once an area of opportunity for small business owners is fast becoming a playground for rich investors, pushing many local-run businesses into the backstreets, including Kumar’s.

Kumar waits for the bread and pastries to bake, occasionally dozing off to sleep.
Kumar waits for the bread and pastries to bake, occasionally dozing off to sleep.

I moved to this shop three years ago,” Kumar tells us. His tiny baking shack is sandwiched in-between chicken coops and kitchen gardens, and is in competition with a dozen or so other small bakeries spread around the area. “I used to have a bakery and cafe on the main road, but the rent got too expensive,” the rental cost had increased 16-fold over recent years, he explained.

Kumar works alone in his bakery, seven days a week, baking around 150 pastries and breads per day, most of which he sells wholesale to middlemen. These intermediaries peddle the pastries on the streets of Lakeside at an inflated price, “it’s too high I think” Kumar tells us. The location of the bakery and its external appearance leave a lot to be desired and, as such, bakers like Kumar are reliant upon middlemen to purchase and resell their products. It’s plain to see that the cramped working conditions are challenging, in fact on one evening visit to the bakery the power cuts out and candles have to be lit. Baking by candlelight may sound like a romantic notion, in reality it’s not conducive to productive work, but power cuts are frequent in Nepal, one of Asia’s poorest nations.

It was approaching 6am and after 30 minutes of baking, the pastries were ready. Kumar picked up his peel to remove the hot trays from the oven and the comforting smell of freshly baked bread pervaded every corner of the little room. The finished pastries were given a final glaze and right on time there was a knock at the door.

The first of the middlemen arrived and immediately began loading his basket with pastries, soon enough two of the trays had been emptied out. More early morning callers arrived and took their share too, whatever was left, if any, would go to others who happened to drop by before closing time at around 9am.

A wholesale buyer snaps up freshly baked breads to sell on the streets of Pokhara, tourists are often charged a hefty mark up for their pastries.
A wholesale buyer snaps up freshly baked breads to sell on the streets of Pokhara, tourists are often charged a hefty mark up for their pastries.

The flurry of early morning customers had left even less space in the tiny bakery and we took our cue to leave. Clutching a batch of warm pastries wrapped up in the pages of yesterday’s newspaper we headed out into the early morning light, bleary-eyed and in search of tea. Somehow, knowing the story behind the bakery made the fresh buns seem more special than they had before. For Kumar there was still work to be done, the clean-up operation, a visit to the market to restock ingredients and perhaps catching up on some sleep, before preparing the dough in the evening. Tomorrow, like everyday, he’ll be up before dawn to do it all over again.

Sunrise view over Pokhara where the Himalayas create a spectacular backdrop.