Karishma Tanna's "Chai Biskoot" Picture Is Nostalgic
Image Credit: Karishma Tanna is a huge fan of chai-biscuits

While some parts of the country are still cold and people are rocking their winterwear and looking oh-so-fashionable, unfortunately, the brief spell of "winter" in Mumbai is, well, over. The two weeks of extraordinary weather the city gets—bad air quality notwithstanding—create enough nostalgia for the rest of the year. Instagram is full of musings about the nip in the air, people in their cozy nooks, and, well, thousands and thousands of pictures of cups of chai. Karishma Tanna, perhaps bidding a fond farewell to winter, also posted a lovely picture of three cups of chai after a day out with designers Ashley Rebello and Sohanna Sinha.

Chai’s best friend is biskoot, and sticking to the rulebook, Karishma too had biscuits on her tea plate. They looked somewhat fancy. While fancy biscuits are not ruled out from the tea routine, the biscuits that we most associate with our chai routine are good old Parle G, Marie, and McVitie’s (the third one of these is a somewhat new entrant to India but an old staple in Britain). But have you ever wondered how biscuits came to be? And indeed, how did biscuits come to be the staple of the tea routine? Surprisingly, and maybe not, the answer lies in colonialism! How exactly? Let’s find out.   

While there is evidence to suggest that some form of "biscuits" existed in the Neolithic era, and the Romans definitely had what we now call ‘rusk,’ it is the British who are most closely associated with biscuits. The term "biscuit" itself comes to English from the French biscuit (bis-qui), which has a Latin root: panis biscotus refers to bread twice-cooked. By the end of the 14th century, "biscuit" had become a part of the English language, and its meaning had started to expand. Hard-baked treats, both sweet and savory, were still quite popular. Other variations, like pancakes, were becoming increasingly common. Wafers, made from a sugary mix cooked on a flame and which could be shaped or flattened as technology improved, became a mainstay of the medieval period. These baked goods weren't just practical, but enjoyable too. They would usually be consumed at the end of the meal to aid digestion, a role they would keep up until the 20th century.

Picture credit - Unsplash

Colonialism—and the required ship voyages—may have resulted in the explosion of biscuits as a staple. As exploration moved into the period of conquest and occupation, sailors spent more and more time away from land. Supplies of fresh food were often hard to come by, but salted meat and hardtack, or "ship's biscuit," were always available. The oldest surviving sample of this type of biscuit dates from 1784. Though the biscuits were almost inedible, they were so sturdy that some sailors even wrote messages on them to send home, like somewhat edible postcards!

With colonies came sweet things to plunder for the British, sometimes literally sweet. Enter sugar. The way biscuits were made began to change in the 17th century. Until that time, sugar was incredibly costly and was only consumed by the wealthiest people; it was imported from the Middle East. By the 1660s, Great Britain had colonized the West Indies, initiating a dark period of history. Although other European countries were also engaged in the slave trade, Britain was the most influential. They set up the plantation system in the West Indies and America, leading to an empire that was based on the suffering of humans. In the UK, the price of sugar decreased, and the goods that contained it became less expensive and more available.

The increased availability of ingredients was not the only reason for a rise in biscuit production during the 17th century. Cooking techniques were evolving as well, and food was gradually transforming as Italian and then French influences began to take shape. The old guild system – where people belonging to a certain guild were the only ones allowed to carry on that profession, was breaking down. The baker’s guild, for example, simply could not stop the people from baking and making biscuits at home! Newer and newer biscuits made their way into recipe books: jumbles, cracknels, macaroons, gingerbread, and what not!  

In the initial days of the biscuit age, there was a lot of crossover between cake and biscuit (wigs, for example). Besides, which course of one’s meal a biscuit belonged to was also a bit of a confusion. Many ate it during the dessert course, and some just casually nibbled. But it was the introduction of new beverages that forever altered the course of biscuits.

In the 1700s, three drinks were brought to Britain: chocolate, coffee, and tea. As tea became more popular, biscuits became part of the newly established afternoon tea custom. Additionally, two biscuits that would become essential in British larders were developed in the 18th century: savoys and ratifias. The former was often baked in long tins, which would eventually be known as ladyfingers, while the latter were very crisp and almond-flavored. Both of these biscuits were frequently used in cooking and were especially popular in trifle.

At the same time, snack biscuits also saw a surge in popularity, mainly due to the sponge-based types, which were generally quite simple yet suited well with a cup of tea. Queen Victoria was an ardent enthusiast and had biscuits prepared at Windsor Castle to be taken along to whichever royal residence she was residing in, for example her much-loved Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. These included langues de chat, chocolate sponges, wafers, petits fours, and rice cakes! Perhaps that also explained the boom in biscuit sales. As the saying goes, "yathaa raja, tathaa prajaa." Jo khaaye Rani, humko bhi khaani! 

Come the industrial revolution, we truly saw how the snack biscuit business boomed. That’s when we saw the Maries and McVities. But those are stories for another time! For now, go dunking.