A handful of foods are enough to define and signify Indian food culture. And no, it does not start and end at chicken tikka masala. Some of our more intricate and personal journeys with food, those that begin at a young age and provide the same joy decades later, are the ones that truly represent Indians in all their gluttonous glory.
For some, the Hot Chips fresh from the stove at the corner of the street are the epitome of food and family, while for others, the evening samosas are unbeatable and culture-defining. One simple, down to earth food item paired with almost any warm beverage in India, one that transcends state boundaries is that of the biscuit. ‘Cookies’ never took to India the way the humble biskoot did, and continues to do so. With all sorts of love, warmth, and hugs packed into a tiny slate of crunchy goodness, the biscuit is India’s teatime pride and joy. Of course, its variations across the country simply add to the snack’s beauty and its history is just as insightful.
As we work backwards to trace the origin of biscuits in India, we realise that not all of these food items began as the concrete definition of a biscuit. Through evolution, a mixture of flour, fat, and sweetener that was mostly dry, came to be considered the base for what a biscuit really is.
We first look to the Mughals, and apart from the flavour-loaded curries they left with us, they also somewhat opened our eyes to biscuits. With the long distances and never-ending days that they had to travel, the easiest way to pack food that would survive, and also be nutrition-packed is something that was dry and heavy on carbohydrates. Moisture would cause it to go bad, but it also needed to be heavy enough to sit long in their stomachs. So using high calories with the help of fat and substance owed to flour, the Mughals introduced India to what is now popularly known as the rusk –– one of India’s leading accompaniments for chai.
The Dutch and the port city of Surat also contributed to India’s tryst with biscuits. When they entered India through here as traders after the Arabs, they had already established themselves as a people that enjoyed their biscuits. They were good at making them and were definitely known to eat them regularly. At this time, the British also had their version of biscuits but those were much tougher in texture. When the Dutch introduced the more flaky, buttery, and easier to eat biscuits, which are known (in Dutch) as the koejke, the preference was a no-brainer.
The much-renowned nankhatai, a crumbly cookie that India loves, takes its roots from these circumstances. With the influx of Dutch immigrants, a Dutch couple sniffed a business opportunity and offered them a slice of home by opening up a bakery that served Dutch biscuits. These used flour, eggs, toddy (yes, the alcoholic beverage), and sugar. When they departed, the bakery was handed over to a Parsi man, Faramji Pestonji Dotivala. The bakery was failing as such, with a lesser Dutch population each day, and Dotivala had to cope with the losses. Indians, often averse to eggs and alcohol, did not take to the Dutch preparation. Dotivala began selling dry bread and locals usually dipped it in their choice of warm beverage before eating it. Of course, this was not enough to keep the bakery going so Dotivala simply eliminated the eggs and alcohol and revolutionised the Dutch biscuit to the nankhatai –– coming from naan (flatbread) and khatai (biscuit in Afghan).
The biscuit began to be transported to other parts of Gujarat and also to Mumbai where the Gujarati population popularised it. From there, nankhatai mania began to take hold all over India, with much of our population falling in love with the sweet and salty treat. Now, it may be flavoured with almonds or any other desired dried fruit, but its essence carries on in its duality of flavour notes.
India is home to so many more types and varieties of biscuits, all of which come with their unique stories. A regular part of our lives, biscuits in any shape or form are special. They have been, and continue to outline a portion of our day that we look forward to. This could be the 5 AM cup of tea, the evening one, or the late-night coffee we often guilt ourselves over. Much of our culture dictates this food’s tale, it also works the other way around. It’s a co-dependent relationship we have absolutely no qualms with!
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