People of today lead very busy lifestyles. They wake up early, shower, have breakfast, go to work or university and perform all manners of chores and tasks. This kind of lifestyle can take its toll on a person’s well-being, so it is important to remember to relax sometimes, put everything aside and enjoy some peace and quiet. There are numerous ways to relieve oneself of stress. One good way to do so is with a cup of tea and some biscuits. This is a favourite pastime for many people across the world. If you are one of them, then you might appreciate the simplicity of the Indian Nankhatai biscuits.
Before we explore the history and tradition behind the Nankhatai biscuits, it is important to take a look at Diwali, a five-day-long festival occurring in mid-Autumn in many countries which practice Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism. As was already mentioned, Diwali is a festive time celebrating the victory of light over darkness, where Hindus and other religious groups give their praise to Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and wealth. Diwali is one of the most popular festivals of Hinduism, and it is not hard to see why. People decorate their houses with lamps and bright lights, there are fireworks everywhere and the sweet smell of freshly baked biscuits and other sweets can be felt at every corner. It is a positive time when happiness can be found everywhere.
The “victory of light over darkness” is a symbol for good defeating evil, and knowledge defeating ignorance. Light, of course, is a metaphor for knowledge and consciousness as well. The festival occurs in Autumn (northern hemisphere) and in Spring (southern hemisphere). The preparations for the Diwali festival usually last up to five days. The festival reaches its zenith on the third day, which coincides with the longest night in the Hindu lunisolar month called Kartika. In the Gregorian calendar, the time-table of the festival can be put somewhere between mid-October and mid-September. The reason for the Diwali festival taking place in Autumn is rooted in tradition. It is connected with the ancient harvest festivals which occurred at the end of summer, and it is also mentioned in Hindu sacred texts.
As one of the most famous and popular festivals, celebrants will prepare for Diwali by illuminating their homes, schools and workplaces with a whole assortment of lamps and candles called diyas and offer puja or worship to their goddess Lakshmi. Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and prosperity. At first glance, it might seem odd that the celebrants of Diwali, a festival dedicated to the struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, give their praise to a goddess of prosperity and wealth. The reason for this is also rooted in tradition. The ancient practitioners of the Hindu faith offered their worship to Lakshmi in order to have a bountiful harvest at the end of summer. With the emergence of the Diwali festival, Lakshmi was most likely chosen as the patron goddess of the festival, as it coincides with the end of harvest season, and wealth and prosperity can come from embracing light and knowledge.
Children adore Diwali as well, as they often receive gifts and mithai or sweets, with Nankhatai being one of the staple treats alongside a whole host of other dishes, biscuits and cakes. Entire families also partake in family activities and feasts, and later on enjoy firework shows, which represent the climax of the celebrations. The festival is divided into five days, with the first day generally being called Dhanteras. The names of the festive days vary between different countries and regions which celebrate Diwali, but they are mostly the same. On the first day of Diwali, the celebrants of the festival clean their homes and make decorations, such as the rangoli, which are decorative patterns placed on the floor. The second day is called Choti Diwali, the third is Diwali itself, the day after Diwali is named Govardhan Puja or Diwali Padva, and the last day is known as Bhai Dooj. Govardhan Puja is dedicated to the relationships between husbands and wives, while the last day of the festival, Bhai Dooj, is dedicated to the bonds between brothers and sisters. Some Hindu and Sikh craftsmen communities use the fifth day of Diwali to maintain their workplaces and offer their praise to the gods. These communities mark the fifth day as Vishwakarma Puja. During these five days, the people of India and many other countries wear their finest clothing and enjoy the numerous family activities that the festival has to offer.
As can be seen, Diwali is a very popular and deeply religious festival beloved by many Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and other religious groups around the world. It is not hard to see why. It is a happy time where families come together and celebrate the positive things in life and the hope that the festival represents, how good and light always prevail over evil and darkness. The celebrants also give their thanks and praise for a wealthy harvest and enjoy the fruits of their labour. The festival also has a large economic significance. As with any other religious holiday, many people go shopping for gifts and groceries in order to prepare family feasts.
This leads to a large increase in economic activity, which is always good for the economy of the country. A lot of meals and sweets are made, and Nankhatai cookies are made in droves, both in homes and bakeries across the country. Since Diwali is celebrated at the end of a (hopefully) good harvest, Nankhatai is served as a traditional food during the festival, since without a good harvest, there would not be any Nankhatai biscuits. Numerous bakers can also be seen on the streets during these times, as they bring out their baking stations and serve freshly baked Nankhatai cookies. Indian cuisine is also known for its spicy food, which can sometimes be hard on one’s digestion. And what better way to balance such a cuisine than with a cup of camomile or green tea and a platter of Nankhatai cookies!
Now that we have covered one of the most popular festivals in India and other countries across the globe, it is time to take a look at what is probably one of the most well-known and popular biscuits served during such festivities. It is important to note, however, that Nankhatai biscuits are popular all-year-long, and that it is not just a treat that is baked during holiday seasons. Many Indians and people of other nationalities across the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist world adore the simple Nankhatai biscuits. It is the food of their forefathers, their youth and their present, and they happily create these delightful treats for their children today.
Photo by: Natasha Minocha
It is a biscuit with a history stretching back to the sixteenth century, during the time of the Dutch occupation of Surat. The origin story of the Nankhatai cookies is an interesting one and begins in a bakery in that very same town. In the sixteenth century, one the most powerful and wealthiest organizations in the world was the Dutch East India Company, or officially, the United East India Company. It was one of the first mega-corporations ever created and was founded by an amalgamation of several rival trading companies, under the guidance of the Dutch government. In those times, the spices that we take granted for today were items of immense value, and a single, small bottle of red chilli for example, was enough to set up a person for life. Of course, the route to India was a dangerous and arduous one and required a large amount of resources to be traversed.
Even with proper measures and supplies the journey still involved an ample amount of risks. However, the amount of wealth the Dutch were receiving from the spice trade was well worth it. A Dutch couple of unknown identity, seeing an opportunity to make a fortune, decided to open up a bakery suited to the needs and tastes of the local Dutch populace of Surat. For a time, their business flourished, but the power of the Dutch East India Company started to wane, and the needs of the market started to fluctuate. The Dutch soon afterwards started to leave Surat, and with that, the Dutch couple who opened up a bakery lost its primary source of income.
Instead of simply leaving the bakery as dead capital, they decided to make a last profit out of it and sold it to a Surat local by the name of Faramji Pestonji Dotivala. Mister Dotivala took over the shop, but soon found out that the Dutch cuisine was not to the local’s taste. In order to prevent losses, Dotivala started to dry the Dutch bread which was made with palm toddy for fermentation. He soon started to sell the bread for cheap prices, and the distinct flavour of the bread caught on quickly and became very popular with the local populace. Mister Dotivala soon started to experiment with the dried bread, and created numerous types of biscuits, with the most famous one being the Nankhatai. That is how this simple little biscuit came to be.
The word Nankhatai is derived from a Persian word Naan, meaning bread, and Khatai, an Afghan word for biscuit. In other countries, such as Afghanistan or Iran, Nankhatai biscuits are also called Kulcha-e-Khataye. The exact origin of the word Nankhatai is a debated topic, even today. Some believe that the “khatai” part is a reference to China. Back in the sixteenth century, Ammonium bicarbonate was used in the process of baking biscuits instead of baking soda.
Ammonium bicarbonate had by that time been used in China for centuries in the creation of Chinese steamed buns and almond biscuits. That is why some believe that China is referenced in Nankhatai, while some dismiss this notion and wonder why such silly things are even discussed. To some, the Nankhatai biscuits are a traditional meal which bring much joy, and their origin is of little interest to them. The first Nankhatai cookies were very simple.
Over time, however, different bakeries started adding their own “twists” to the original recipe, creating different variations of the same cookie. The original recipe is made from refined flour, cinnamon powder, curd, powdered sugar, nutmeg powder and pistachio. Other additions include olive oil, icing sugar and/or chopped pistachio.
Some believe that Nankhatai biscuits are part of a dying tradition. The simple Nankhatai is an integral part of every Indian home, be it as snacks for children or something to dip into your afternoon tea. The Nankhatai is here to stay for a long time, if not on shelves of bakeries or supermarkets, then certainly as sweets in family homes and festivals. The origin story of the Nankhatai is also an interesting one and stands as proof that even such basic things as dried biscuits hold a history of their own. If this article interested you in Nankhatai cookies, go fire up the stove, buy a pack in store or bake some yourself using recipes online, heat up some tea, and enjoy some rest and relaxation with these delicious treats.
Leading image: by Highviews/Shutterstock.com