Nankhatai and the dying Indian ‘biskoot’

Origin of nankhatai

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-khataye.

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’.

Nankhatais from Dotiwala, Surat

Nankhatai from Dotiwala, Surat

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.

A typical Nankhatai raydee (hand-cart) in Old Delhi

A typical Nankhatai raedi (hand-cart) in Old Delhi

Nankhatai – The dying biskoot

The traditional Indian biskoot is a dying tradition, fast being replaced by the likes of the dunkin’ Oreos and the constipation-curing McVitties and it doesn’t really help if our Bolly-stars, notably Bipasha-di and Hritik-ji are putting their entire weight behind either the ‘phoren’ or the ‘desi’ conglomerates. I’m not sure if the humble nankhatai wala can hold out for long against the marketing blitzkrieg unleashed by the big companies. And if that’s not enough, come January 26th and every other major festival. The cops would start harassing the nankhatai wala to shut shop early. Not to mention that their battle against the Municipal Corporation of Delhi is ongoing and all year round.

But its the slowly lessening popularity of their product and a decreasing customers base that’s troubling them more than anything else.The nankhatai wala is an endangered species and hopefully he will not become extinct one day. You can get nice tasty nankhatai from any of the pushcarts, pretty much all across Old Delhi. But its a bit of a hunt as they keep moving around.

Raju Bhai making nankhatai at his raydee ( hand-cart) near Chawri Bazaar, New Delhi

Raju Bhai making nankhatai at his raydee ( hand-cart) near Chawri Bazaar, New Delhi

A sureshot place to get Nankhatai is the Main Market in Pahargunj. I find the nankhatai most enjoyable. I hope you do too.

Happy hunting the nankhatai and chow-chow!

About Chowder Singh

Chowder Singh's your perfect guide to offbeat dining and food on the streets of India.

21 Comments

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  1. I m delighted to know that some one has actually thought about the good old nankhatai and written about it . It is certainly a Roadside cuisine that we are loosing on . I can still remember my grandfather used o get these on winter evening still out of the bakery . I think it can give any Cookies from the Supermarket run for its money

    Thanks for posting

  2. Chowder Singh says: (Author)

    I agree with you T.

  3. Dr Subbarayudu says:

    Food is life energy Energy is country currency Life is good option still no motion every people Required happy acuired misseries

  4. Its nice to know all these things about the History of Nankhatai and about old bakeries.
    But, can we have the recipe please ? So that i can try making them at home….actually, i used to make a variety of biscuits and Nan khatai too.
    When i tried it some time back…it wasnt perfect. There was too much fat and i wouldnt want to make that kind of Nan khatais again!

  5. Chowder Singh says: (Author)

    Vandana. May I suggest you search the net for baking blogs. I’m not very good with bakery recipes.

  6. Though I am a gujarati and have grown up on butter biscuits and nankhatai of Dotivala I never knew the history behind it. Very interesting ! Would love to read more such stories on popular food and snacks.

  7. Chowder Singh says: (Author)

    Thank you Seema.

  8. Hi
    I came across your blog through one of my very good friends and found it very very interesting. I’m really happy that people like you are taking so much interest in our desi food and taking efforts to bring it to the notice of people. I particularly liked your article on nan-khatai as it brought back lot of memories and made me very nostalgic. I have grown up on Dotivala’s nan-khatai, butter biscuits, plum cakes, etc to name a few. I’m really glad that you have published this article.
    Chowder Singh. If you want to do some more food research in Surat please do let me know. There are so many local Surti dishes which I’m sure people are not aware of and it would be nice to share it with the whole world and what better than the electronic media :)
    By the way do you know there is a saying in Surat that all Surtis are proud to repeat when an outsider sits back with a sigh of contentment at the end of a satisfying, home-cooked meal: “Surat nu jaman ane Kashi nu maran!” Which means fortunate is the man who can dine in Surat and die in Kashi!

  9. Chowder Singh says: (Author)

    Ishani. Thank you for your comment. Made my day.

  10. Chowder Singh says: (Author)

    After your statement on Surat, a visit there has become a must.

  11. Let me know if you need any help in Surat. Although am now settled in Singapore I can still guide you to the local delicacies :)

  12. Chowder Singh says: (Author)

    Of course Ishani. Please tell us more about Surti delicacies.

  13. Wow, Nan Kathai is still my fav, the smell of butter, the dip of Nan khatai in Chai and the first bite… Yaad aa gaya guzara zamana.

  14. Ravi Gore says:

    I am student of B.tech food technology. we are having hands on training in 7th Semester. so my guide wants me to innovate something new product., so i preapred oat based nankhatai. firstly facing some problems regarding the texture. as it should not hjave any craks on surface they reduce the consumer attraction, but after addition of some more amount of major ingredients we got success into preparing OAT BASED nankhatai…….

  15. Chowder Singh says: (Author)

    Nankhatai does that to you na, Gopal!

  16. Made me nostalgic – Nan Khatai is also famous in Pakistan, which i wasnt aware of till very recently. Something else to link our 2 countries

  17. Chowder Singh says: (Author)

    Absolutely Raj. I believe Lahore has quite a decent Parsi population.

  18. You are absolutely Right ! I am from Indore and nowadays, its so difficult to find bakers who make nankatai. First the old shop (bakeries have closed down) and the new one make only cookies that are horrible. I miss nankatai. :(
    Recently , I went on a spree to find nankatai in Indore, I found only one baker who had made them but unfortunately they were not of best quality and not fresh. As I was desperate to eat them, I settled for them. (for the time being)
    I am still talking to people trying to find more shop who make this delicacy. My mother has told few more shops she remembers where I could find these. (Shops still running in the old part of the city)
    Personally, I feel its has become endangered food ! :P

  19. sir,yes true,dont know why people are becoming stupid progressively.the nankhatai and local bakery biscuits are losing business.
    well i dont get surprised when i see people chew the frozen chiken fries at MNC joints and they actually feel good spending more than double than a local fresh street kabab

    I love local bakery biscuits and they are awesome compared to the packaged MNC products.

  20. Absolutely Right! Bakeries are most perfect place to get baked delicacies. Fresh baked bread and biscuits, the smell intrigues you to have them every day. ;) It lures you towards them.
    Moreover, I fail to understand why the bakeries are not developing as they should be. Why old delicacies /recipes are thrown away ? why cant we have it all ? :D Paris embraces it , England embraces it , so why cant we. Why some shops are doing well and others don’t. Why some have renovated themselves but others don’t want to. Why age old techniques are dying ? Why the old customs and recipes for biscuits and delicacies are dying ?
    Well, I don’t understand why modernizing ourselves we have to leave behind our customs and good food. freshly baked cookies and nankhatai / bread straight from the oven. I tell you , the smell of Nankhatai , the food, it is pure heaven.
    Anyway, another reason for posting here is that some places specially in cities with Muslims majority community , you can find Nankhatai , that too so tasty and delicious. Recently, I went to Aurangabad, and there in one of bakery shops I found Nankhatai, which I bought and finished by myself :P And afterwards I had to go back and buy another one before I left for home , for everyone in family, because they didn’t got a piece from earlier one. :P
    I think Aurangabad Rocks !! They should keep making more and more Healthy and Fresh and Delicious Nankhatai. :)

  21. Aryana Arora says:

    I can never forget these khatai. We used to buy it from a store named ‘frontier’ near our home and I was so mad for these sheer treat to the taste buds. I never got a chance to it these khatai on road , but I am sure it would as delicious as one from the store. Reminds me of my old days. And those khatai look so tempting that I wish I could download them right now.

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