One of my favourite childhood memories is dipping my hands into my blazer pockets a day before Christmas and finding them laden with goodies — nuts, chocolates, and sultanas. One year, Father Christmas left a small plastic packet sealed with a bright red ribbon. It had cookies which were nothing like I had eaten before. They were concave, mostly pale brown and quite a few were speckled with char marks; they exuded an irresistible buttery aroma. The cookies melted away in seconds, leaving a mild aftertaste of cardamom. They are naankhatais, my mother said, a gift from one of her friends.
My mother had met Rita aunty on a bus ride to work, a few months ago. She and her husband, David, who had moved to Delhi from Bombay recently, were keen food raconteurs. The reference to naankhatais had apparently come up when my mother told her friends about her childhood in the Old Delhi. The talks of biscuits fresh from the oven had taken David uncle to his childhood days in Pune and Surat.
In the next few months, we were to learn that my mother’s friends also delighted in cooking. Unlike a lot of food buffs who did not like interference when they were at work in their kitchens, Rita aunty and David uncle regaled in involving friends in their cooking projects. I loved it best when it was naankhatai day.
They used a combination of semolina, maida and chickpea flour. “The besan makes the naankhatai distinct,” Rita aunty would say. But I thought that the recipe’s piece de resistance was ghee. I loved it when the blender whirled to make cream, ghee, cardamom and sugar come together into an effervescent mixture. To this was added the flour mixture. The semolina was for the crunch. The fragrance from the oven would waft in the air and it was only a matter of time before the adults were dipping the cookies into their cups of chai, while the children felt the goodies flake away on their palates.
In a 2015 article in the Dawn, Pakistani writer Bisma Tirmizi credits a Parsi bakery in Surat for discovering these discs of joy. The bakery was bequeathed to the Gujarati businessmen by the descendants of 16th century Dutch explorers. The Europeans used toddy to ferment the dough, but the new owners had to innovate. “Since the locals wouldn’t touch toddy, the bread often sat unsold and became dry and crispy. A few locals started dunking it in some kind of hot beverage. The bakery seized on the idea of turning it into cookie-sized morsels without egg or toddy, and the naankathai was born,” Tirmizi writes, quoting Canadian food writer Jennifer Bain.
Hobson Jobson describes the naankhatai “as rich cakes in W. India chiefly imported into Bombay from Surat”. It was apparently named “naan” after the Persian word for bread, while khatai according to the 19th century compendium derived from “Cathay or China”. Hobson Jobson, though, quotes one Mr Weir, Surat’s Collector, for another explanation: “Khatai refers to the six original ingredients of the shortbread: wheat-flour, eggs, sugar, butter or ghee, leaven produced from toddy or grain, and almonds.”
Today, confectioners in several parts of Delhi sell the concave morsels of delight. It features in most bakeries, even upmarket restaurants like SodaBottleOpenerWala. Meanwhile, the Surat bakery credited with discovering the shortbread, Dotivala, carries on the legacy of its founders. Visiting it is on my New Year wishlist.
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