Origin of the Nankhatai
The soft crumbly nankhatai brings back many a fond memory. The word ‘Nankhatai’ comes from the Persian word ‘Nan’ meaning bread and ‘Khatai’ most probably comes from ‘Catai’ or ‘Cathay’, the older name for China. Thus, loosely translating as ‘Bread of Cathay’. Though it’s hard to confirm this, the Nankhatai was probably inspired from the use of Ammonia bicarbonate in Chinese baking / steaming, which could’ve been adopted by the Persians in making the Nankhatai, leading to this name. Btw, parts of Afghanistan also do a similar sorta biscuit and call it Kulcha khatai
The history of the modern Nankhatai in India is quite fascinating. Towards the end of the 16th century, a couple of Dutch dudes set up a bakery in Surat, then a Dutch outpost, to cater to the needs of the local Dutch populace. When the Dutch were leaving India, the owners handed over the bakery to their very enterprising manager, a Parsi gentleman Faramji Pestonji Dotivala. Since bread in this bakery was made with palm toddy used for raising, it didn’t quite find favour with the local Indians, as alcohol was looked down upon in those days. After many ups and downs, the Dotivala bakery caught on and became popular. Their most popular offering was the Khari biscuit and also nankhatai, which also became popular in due course and spread to other parts of the sub continent
Nankhatai – The dying biskoot
The most wonderful part of the Nankhatai is its crumbliness that comes from ‘shortening’ of the dough, a process of combining fat with flour before the addition of water. The fat added before water, weakens the gluten in flour and decreases the dough’s stretchability. Leading to a much softer and crumbly end result. In the old days Ammonia bicarbonate was used as a raising agent. The smell of ammonia released during baking, is quite strong. Hence the biscuits were cooked for a long time at lower temperatures to allow the smell of ammonia to go away. It’s probably this method/process of using Ammonia bicarbonate as a raising agent which was also used by ancient Chinese to make their Bao; led to these biscuits getting the name Khatai or Cathay. Nowadays, of course, Ammonia bicarbonate has been replaced by the easier-to-use Sodium bicarbonate
The Indian biskoot of today is a dying tradition. Other than a few bakeries, who’ve kept this going, it’s the western inspired baking and commercial biscuits that’ve taken over the market. There was a time that push carts with nankhatai were in plentiful numbers, but now you can hardly see a few. That too not everywhere
It’s high time that we sit up and take note of our food heritage and promote the Nankhatai, even if it’s to our own small circle and in our own small ways of doing so
Happy promoting and chowder-on!