Among my earliest memories of biscuits or cookies, is the aate waala biscuit, or wheat cookie, a ubiquitous item in every household in Punjab. So essential are these biscuits to the state’s teatime ritual of dipping and eating, that no family has its first cup of tea without them. Made of wheat, oil, sugar, cardamom and, sometimes, even cumin seeds, these “biskoots” were usually made at the local bhatti (furnace), until the advent of modern bakeries.
How intrinsic is the cookie or biscuit to our food traditions? How would they even be defined in the Indian context? Saee Khandekar, author of Crumbs! Bread Stories and Recipes for the Indian Kitchen (2016), says, “Considering that baking as we know it came to India quite recently, I would define cookies as any dry, sweet or savoury snack that has a long shelf life, involves a great amount of fat to make it short or crisp, and is typically served as an accompaniment to tea or coffee or is eaten as a snack. In the Indian context, this would often involve deep frying or cooking over a griddle.”
Going by Khandekar’s definition, every Indian regional cuisine has a cookie variant — the mathris and shakkarpare from Punjab, the thekua from Bihar, the aarse from Garhwal or anarse from Maharashtra, roat made by the Sindhis, batasa and wine biscuits from Irani bakeries, fruit and osmania biscuits from Karachi Bakery of Hyderabad and ginger biscuits from Kerala. It is believed that Thalassery in Kerala was the first place in India where bakery culture was first introduced, sometime in the 1800s. 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 and baker Marina Balakrishnan, who grew up in Thalassery, says, “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 flour, butter and salt. This is baked to a fabulous perfection and tastes delicious with a hot cup of tea served in the evening.”
It may be nankhatai, however, which is the most popular Indian cookie. Sold hot and fresh on push carts that can be seen in almost all cities, this is the first choice for most people who want to grab a biscuit with their chai. Khandekar recalls the nankhatais sold by the Pathan vendor, who would visit her grandparents’ building every other day when she was a child, carrying fresh loaves of bread that were sliced in front of his customers. “He would also carry 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,” she says.
According to restaurateur and food blogger Mohit Balachandran, the origin of nankhatai is usually traced to Faramji Pestonji Dotivala, who took over a failing Dutch bakery after the Dutch left Surat and 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 called dal and also mostly inspired by the Irani khatai.
The biscuit has proved to be very adaptable to regional and cultural preferences. Khandekar points to the eggless variants developed by the Iyengar bakeries down south, which also took into account the local preference for certain flavours. She says, “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.”
The Sindhi community has a variety of 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. One such is the holi ja roat, which is tied with a thick thread and then roasted on dried cow dung cakes. Sindhi food historian and consultant Alka Keswani says, “Each roat symbolises ‘Holika’, while the thread represents the mythical Prahlad, as at the end of roasting, it remains intact while the roat gets cooked.” Keswani also recalls Gulbeda, loved by Sindhis who grew up in the ’60s or the ’70s. These are tiny cookies topped with royal icing that hardens to form a crunchy delight. These biscuits are now found only in a few Sindhi-dominated areas like Ulhasnagar in Mumbai.
Biscuits and cookies are, clearly, more than just triggers for nostalgia; given how well they have been adapted for all kinds of palates and purposes in India, these baked bits of flour, sugar and fat have deeper roots in the food tradition of this country.
Vernika Awal is a food writer and former journalist who also runs a food blog called Delectable Reveries
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines