When I was a little girl, my father would fondly tell me about his childhood shenanigans. He would often mention mobile biscuit shops set up on bicycles and push carts, selling a sweet, buttery and perfectly crumbly biscuit called ‘nankhatai’, which left a slightly salty aftertaste. Just the mention of that biscuit would be enough to make me salivate. It would be several years before I had my first nankhatai. I still remember the day clearly.
While pursuing my Masters at ‘Banaras Hindu University’, I would often wander around the city after my classes were over. On one such evening, I came across a shop at the Lanka market, selling all sorts of baked goods. Being a foodie, I couldn’t resist myself and started scanning all the shelves for something to buy in order to satiate my late-night cravings for a snack. My eyes were immediately drawn towards a packet, labelled ‘Nankhatai’. I was instantly reminded of my childhood and without any further ado, I bought that packet of cookies. The moment I reached my hostel, I ripped the packet open and right from the first bite I became enamoured by these golden, crumbly, shortbread cookies.
Rediscovering Nankhatai: From BHU to JNU
My months left in BHU would see me visiting that same shop, looking for my fix of nankhatai. In fact, while writing my Masters’ dissertation, this desi biskoot would be my companion with a cup of chai during those sleepless nights, foregoing the heavily advertised Western cookies and biscuits. When I shifted to Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, for academic purposes, this shortbread cookie made a reappearance in my life. But this time, it was not in packaged form. I actually found mobile biscuits shops, set up on push carts, baking and selling the piping hot nankhatai in paper bags.
This rustic version of the nankhatai, which was made on griddles placed on coal, tasted a hundred times better and I couldn’t get enough of it. Be it the narrow lanes of Munirka or the bustling streets of Purani Dilli, these mobile biscuit shops were everywhere. I also stumbled upon some traditional bakeries across the streets of Jama Masjid and Zakir Nagar, specialising in desi confectionaries like ‘Papay’ (rusk cake) and ‘Nankhatai’. Here, the cookie is baked in clay ovens (tandoors), rendering an earthy flavour to it.
The Chronicles of ‘Nankhatai’:
As is the case with any other food item and beverage, there are several narratives pertaining to the origin of nankhatai. The most famous of these narratives, traces its origin to a bakery in Surat, set up by a couple of Dutch men in the 16th century. This bakery catered to the local Dutch population and specialised in baking a special kind of bread with toddy (palm wine) as one of the ingredients. When the Dutch left India, the bakery was taken over by a Parsi man named Faramji Pestonji Dotivala.
The Dutch Bread did not find any Indian buyers owing to its alcoholic content. According to one legend, the bread would often remain unsold and become dry and crispy. With the passage of time, some locals started dunking it in hot drink and found it to be delectable. Dotivala soon thought of turning the Dutch bread into cookie sized morsels without egg or toddy. And thus, the deliciously simple nankhatai was born. On the contrary, according to another anecdote, Dotivala began experimenting with various recipes in order to keep his business afloat. In one of those experiments, he combined a local dessert of Surat called ‘Dal’ with Dutch and Iranian baking techniques, giving birth to nankhatai.
Evolution of Nankhatai: From Irani Biscuit to Teatime Staple
With the passage of time, this new shortbread cookie became quite popular across Gujarat. Soon, it was noticed by Gujarati entrepreneurs who changed its shape, oven dried it and started calling it ‘Irani biscuit’. They also realised that Mughlai cuisine owed its popularity to its adaptability to fuse and evolve from other cuisines. Additionally, a strong Persian influence had played a huge role in Mughlai cuisine becoming popular. Hence, they made changes to the packaging and marketing techniques of the cookie, while keeping the ingredients almost the same.
They also gave it a Persian-inspired name, nankhatai. Within no time, the popularity of nankhatai took Bombay by storm, which had a large Gujarati population. This biscuit soon became a favourite teatime staple. As it reached the northern part of the subcontinent, eggs and toddy ceased to be parts of the nankhatai. Instead, cooks started using added quantities of butter and ghee (clarified butter) to make the cookie fluffier.
THE MYSTERY SURROUNDING ITS NAME:
The British called it the “nuncatie”. According to ‘Hobson-Jobson: A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological, historical, geographical and discursive’, they are rich cakes made by the Mohammedans in Western India, chiefly imported into Bombay from Surat. The literal meaning is drawn from the Persian word “naan” meaning bread, and the Afghan word “khatai” meaning biscuit. In other words, it’s a bread biscuit. In an article entitled “Naan Khatai Cookie“, Jennifer Bain writes that the term ‘nankhatai’ has been derived from the words, ‘naan’ (the Persian word for bread) and ‘khat’ which means six.
This is perhaps in reference to the six ingredients supposedly used in the original recipe, viz. clarified butter, palm wine, flour, sugar, eggs, and almonds. Contrarily, according to others, the term ‘khatai’ comes from the word ‘Cathay’, an alternative European historical name for China. According to the famous food blogger, Chowder Singh, the reference to China is probably because during those days, ammonium bicarbonate was used as a rising agent instead of baking soda. Historically, ammonium bicarbonate has also been used for centuries in China to make Chinese almond cookies and steamed buns. Thus translated, ‘nankhatai’ can also be called the ‘Bread of Cathay/China’.
MY TAKE ON NANKHATAI:
On 16th March 2020, the JNU admin “strongly advised” the students to return to their homes. Hence, I booked a flight and landed in Kolkata on the very next day. When the nation went into complete lockdown, the supply chains were suddenly disrupted. There was a shortage of commodities like biscuits and cakes in the market. Our evening tradition of tea time felt incomplete without our favourite sweet and savoury snacks. It was important for my culinary instincts to take over and soon I started experimenting with several dishes. One day, my sister suggested that we bake nankhatai. Although, it would be no match for the original, we could still give it a try.
In the recipe, we added small quantities of besan (gram flour) and sooji (semolina) to the maida (all-purpose flour). Semolina being courser, gives a crumbly texture to the cookies. While gram flour provides an unparalleled flavour and a savoury hint. We then added the mix of sugar, ghee, salt and cardamom. We used baking powder as a leavening agent. At the risk of sounding bougie, we also tossed a few almond slivers on top, before popping the cookies in the oven. The end result was truly an homage to the authentic nankhatai. The fragrance of cardamom and almonds, combined with freshly baked gram flour and ghee wafted through the house, making me feel nostalgic. When I dunked this home-made nankhatai in my cup of chai and had the first bite, I was transported to those simpler times associated with this quintessential desi biskoot.
(Author is a research scholar at CSRD, JNU with a keen interest in history, food, lifestyle & society. She can be reached on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/super_sanskaari_naari/?igshid=ywlamc0ffptr )