What do Nankhatai Biscuits & Nankhatai Band have in common?
Answer: Both Biscuit and Band were popular in Surat, India.
The soft crumbly nankhatai brings back many a fond memory. The word Nankhatai comes from the Persian word ‘Nan‘ meaning bread and ‘Khatai’ probably comes from ‘Catai’ or ‘Cathay’, the older name for China. Thus translating as ‘Bread of Cathay’. Another version from Northeast Iran / Afganistan is that Khatai is a type of biscuit, also referred to as Kulcha-e-namaki.
These cookies originated in Gujarat, where they are especially popular with Parsis. Surat and Navsari, strongholds of traditional Parsi culture have local mithai shops that make these.
In western India, Mumbai (Bombay), Poona, parts of Gujarat festive processions will often be accompanied by musicians known popularly as nankhatai bands, possibly because some of the bands may have originally been made up of moonlighting bakers and vendors of nankhatai.
The tunes they played were
“Its a Long Way to Tipperary”,
“Marching through Georgia”
” My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean”
“Swanee River” and, in the 1960s, the immensely popular theme from the film “Come September”,
all played slightly off-key with lots of percussion and brass and comic opera uniforms. Nowadays, although the instruments and costumes are the same, the tunes are all drawn from current Hindi film hits.
Note: Anyone have the tunes? Videos? Would like to post them here.
Some more Nankhatai facts:
Dotivala bakery in Surat
The history of the nankhatai in India is quite interesting. Towards the end of the 16th century, a couple of Dutch dudes set up a bakery in Surat to cater to the needs of the local Dutch populace. When the Dutch were leaving India, the bakery owners handed over the bakery to a very enterprising employee of theirs, a Parsi gentleman by the name Faramji Pestonji Dotivala. After the Dutch left; because the bread was made with palm toddy for fermentation, it didn’t find favour with the local Indians. So to save his bakery, Mr. Dotivala started selling the old bread and puff, which’d by now dried out a bit, at a really cheap price. This dried version then became so popular that he had to now start drying the bread before selling it. Later on, the dried version came to be known as the ‘Irani Biscuit’.
Mr. Dotivala, quite the entrepreneur and experimenter, then created the Farmasu Surti Batasa or butter biscuits, which are still very popular. He also created the now famous Nankhatai as an interpretation of a local sweet from Surat called ‘Dal’ and also probably inspired by the Irani / Afghan Khatai. I’m not sure of the exact recipe used by Mr. Dotivala for his original Nankhatai, but my childhood memories are filled with a far more crumbly-textured Nankhatai than what we encounter today, but the smell near the Nankhatai-wala was; Ah ha ha ! Intolerable!
That was because in those days Ammonium bicarbonate was used as a raising agent rather than baking soda. Ammonium bicarbonate has also been used for centuries in China to make Chinese almond cookies and steamed buns. Hence, I believe, the reference to China or ‘Cathay’ in Nankhatai.
If you are making the usual two-inch cookies, this recipe will yield about twenty; or you can make lots of smaller ones. They should be made a day or more ahead, to let the cardamom flavor permeate. Makes about 20.
- 1/2 cup ghee
- 1/2 cup superfine sugar
- 1 teaspoon yogurt
- 2/3 cup all purpose flour
- 2/3 cup fine semolina (suji or rava)
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds, pounded
- 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
- Chironji nuts (charoli), slivered almonds, or cardamom seeds, for decoration
- Using a mixer or food processor, cream the ghee with the sugar and yogurt until pale and fluffy. (If you dont have superfine sugar, sometimes sold as bakers sugar, use regular granulated sugar and give it a few pulses in the food processor before adding to the ghee.) Add the flour, semolina, cardamom, cream of tartar, and baking soda and mix or process until the mixture resembles fine meal. It will not be a dough, nor should it be.
- Heat the oven to 250 degrees.
- Gently press a heaping teaspoon in your palm until it forms a ball, or use a miniature ice cream scoop. Compress the ball slightly by squeezing it between your palms. What you want to end up with is a flattened round. Top with 1 or more charoli. Try putting the nuts in your right palm before plopping in the mixture to be shaped. That way, the mixture shapes itself around the nuts, which are then securely embedded. Any other way of getting them on and stuck in place is just fine. Place on an ungreased baking sheet and repeat with more dough and nuts.
- Bake for 30 to 40 minutes. Nankhatai should cook through without browning at all. Let cool on the sheet until hard enough to handle. When they have completely cooled, store in an airtight container at room temperature.
Note: Charoli (accent on the first syllable) is a nut the size and shape of a large brown lentil, often used in sweets. It is the seed of Buchanania latifolia, commonly called chironji in India, from the family Anacardiaceae, which means its related to mangoes and cashews. You can find it at Indian groceries. Dont buy very much at a time, and store what you dont use in the freezer.