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-namaki.
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.
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.
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!