This article was first published in The Indian Express on October 13 2019.
You’ve probably not given it much thought, but cookies or biscuits are much closer to your heart than you may have expected.
One of my earliest memories of cookies are of “aate waale biscuit“, or wheat cookies. Quintessential to any Punjabi household, I remember how every household in Punjab would always have their first cup of tea by dipping these biscuits into it — a common custom, but one that very aptly defines their presence in our lives.
During a similar session of biscuit-dipped chai on a rainy Mumbai evening, my father recalled how in his childhood in Punjab, he would ride a Hero Atlas to the local bhatti with all the raw materials required for these cookies, and come back with “biskoots” for the family. They’d be made of wheat, oil, sugar, cardamom and sometimes even cumin seeds. Such was its familiarity, that a cup of tea without it was unimaginable.
Today, my aunt owns a reputed bakery in Delhi, and they’ve been in this business for almost five decades now. What started as a bhatti (furnace) is today a chain of bakeries, and the item that still sells the most is — no points for guessing — the atte waale biscuits, along with rusk, jeera biscuits and pista biscuits as well.
This got me wondering about how ingrained is the ‘cookie’ in Indian livelihood and culture?
Curious that I was, I asked Saee Koranne Khandekar, author of ‘Crumbs! Bread Stories and Recipes for the Indian Kitchen’ and ‘Pangat – A Feast’ about how one would define a ‘cookie’ in the Indian context. “Considering baking as we know it came to India quite recently, I would define cookies as any dry sweet/savoury snack that has a long shelf life, involves a great amount of fat to make it short/crisp, and is typically served as an accompaniment to tea/coffee or eaten as a snack. In the Indian context, this would, more often than not, involve deep frying or cooking over a griddle”, she promptly said.
Going by Khandekar’s anecdote, I realised that every Indian regional cuisine has a cookie variant — the mathris and shakkarpare from Punjab, the thekua from Bihar, the aarse or anarse from Maharashtra, roat from the Sindhis, batasa and wine biscuits, fruit and Osmania biscuits from Karachi bakery and the ginger biscuits from Kerala.
It is believed that Thalassery in Kerala was the first to introduce the bakery culture in India back in the 1800s, and since then, cakes and cookies have been an important part of the Malabar tea room culture. Dark but homey shops which smelled of freshly baked cookies and cakes would stock biscuits of a wide variety, ranging from banana to pepper, ginger, masala, butter, sugar cookies and even coconut biscuits, which would be sold hot and would be over in the blink of an eye.
Chef Marina Balakrishnan, today an accomplished chef and baker, recounts tales from her childhood in Thalassery, “I have a penchant for certain flavours that I grew up living in my family’s home. I try and duplicate the masala cookies with a fresh blend of curry leaves, green chillies, ginger and garlic. This is a fresh paste that’s added into the soft and crumbly cookie dough which comprises of flour, butter and salt. This is baked to a fabulous perfection and tastes delicious with a hot cup of tea served in the evening.”
While most of our Indian cookies and biscuits rise from a distant memory attached to families and childhood, there is also a deeper cultural root to them as well. Elucidating this, Khandekar adds, “it is worthwhile studying how the Iyengar bakeries of the south adapted baking to Brahmin standards of no egg and to the palate in general–the Khara biscuit, for instance, is a sweet and savoury shortbread in which a sugary cookie seamlessly marries a masala paste of cumin seeds, coriander, chilies and curry leaves!
While we look beyond the average cookie, no one can one forget the much loved nankhatai, which has a separate fan base all together. Sold hot and fresh on push carts that can be seen in almost all cities and always stocked in chai shops across, this is the first choice for most people who’d want to grab a biscuit with their chai at a local vendor’s.
Unsurprisingly, as a Mumbaikar kid, Khandekar’s first memory of biscuits were linked to nankhatai. She says, “My earliest memory is of this Pathan vendor, who would come to my grandparents’ building every other day, carrying fresh loaves of bread that he would slice before us. He would also carry and a half-open trunk of nankhatai, khaari, and the most irresistible of the lot, sugar khaari — triangular ones, topped with sugar and baked until the sugar caramelises to an amber brown.”
The origin of nankhatai was a circumstantial affair. Faramji Pestonji Dotivala, who took over a failing Dutch bakery after the Dutch left Surat, started selling old, dried bread and puff for very cheap to save his business. He created the nankhatai as an interpretation of a local sweet from Surat called ‘dal’ and also mostly inspired by the Irani ‘Khatai’.
Over time, while the taste grew in popularity, so did variations depending on various cultures and popular beliefs. As Khandekar says, “My great grandmother devised a recipe for baking nankhatais at home, because she was convinced that the bakery version had bad fat. Hers involves ghee, besan and saffron — all of which are star ingredients of an Indian kitchen.”
While nankhatai is a more national example, such instances of improvisation and adaptation are present all across India. Alka Keswani, an expert of the Sindhi cuisine, tells us, “If we can count skillet cookies, or ‘baked’ on a griddle as cookies, then we have the typical Sindhi Koki and Lola. I am not sure if it fits the bill, but many do believe that the word Koki is inspired from the word ‘cookie’, and is hence probably a traditional Sindhi dish inspired from cookies.”
When it comes to such cookies, depending on where you are in India, you can find Sindhi people enjoying fried cookies like ghach and roat, where the dough is made from flour, ghee and sugar or sugar syrup, and shaped differently for different festivals. Keswani tells us about a rather unique one: “Each ‘holi ja roat’ roat is tied with a thick thread and then roasted on dried cow dung cakes, sometimes directly placed on fire while sometimes placed on a clay plate called Danghi, which in turn is placed on the dung fire. Each roat symbolizes ‘Holika’, while the thread represents the mythical Prahlad, as at the end of roasting, it remains intact while the roat gets cooked.”
She also talks about Gulbeda– the most loved biscuits of Sindhi kids born in the 60s or 70s. These are the tiny cookies topped with royal icing that hardens to form a crunchy delight. These cheap biscuits are now found only in some selected Sindhi dominated areas like Ulhasnagar in Mumbai.
Going deeper, these stories get lost in between cups of tea, with the humble cookie being the silent omnipresent element on our dishes, without having received much thought. However, if we look closely, then India’s history with cookies has not just been rich and extensive, but also one that is almost always associated with the feeling of nostalgia in a blue, mid-week evening.
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