Nankhatai: The Origin Of The Desi Biscuit
Image Credit: Instagram/food_lets_make. Nankhatai is a tea time snack for those who like their chai with a side of something crumbly.

Indian food culture is defined by many foods which go beyond the usual curries. Outside of India, Indians are represented by food to a great extent and this isn’t limited to chicken tikka masala. Some foods are so intrinsic to the culinary landscape of the country that they can’t be omitted in conversations that revolve around food.

One such food item is the humble biscuit. Be it Parle-G or Little Hearts, Indian biscuits are in a league of their own when it comes to taste and reputation. Food journalists have written articles about them. The masses dunk them into tea and enjoy them as affordable evening snacks. While milk and cookies are a mainstay in the West, chai and ‘biskut’ are the lifeline of millions of people in India. 

The Mughals can be credited with introducing biscuits to India. Emperors had to travel long distances and they packed food that was dry, nutritious, heavy on carbohydrates and had a long shelf life. So, a heavy and high-calorie snack was needed and this led to the invention of the rusk, one of India’s favourite accompaniments to chai.

The Dutch and the port city of Surat also contributed to how India looked at biscuits. The Dutch reached India as traders after the Arabs and gained a reputation for being people who enjoyed their biscuits. They excelled at making them and ate them regularly. During the same time, the British also had their version of biscuits, which had a different texture. However, the Dutch introduced flaky, buttery biscuits called ‘koejke’, which were easier to eat and became more popular than British biscuits. 

The much loved nankhatai, a desi biscuit that India adores, was born under these circumstances. When Dutch immigrants were aplenty, a Dutch couple sensed a business opportunity and opened a bakery selling Dutch biscuits, which were made with flour, eggs, toddy and sugar. When the Dutch left India, a Parsi man named Faramji Pestonji Dotivala took over the bakery. With a diminishing Dutch population, the bakery was struggling to survive and Dotivala was left to manage the losses. Since most Indians at that time were averse to eggs and alcohol, they did not particularly like the Dutch biscuits. As a result, Dotivala began selling dry bread and locals dipped it in their choice of hot beverage before eating it. This was not enough to keep the bakery running so Dotivala got rid of the eggs and toddy, and modified the Dutch biscuit to what we know to be nankhatai. 

The word nankhatai is derived from ‘naan’, which means flatbread, and ‘khatai’, which means biscuit in Afghan. Nankhatai was transported to other parts of Gujarat and also to Mumbai, where the Gujaratis made it popular. It spread like wildfire from there and became one of India’s most loved treats. These days, nankhatai may be flavoured with nuts or dried fruit but its essence remains the same. It’s a tea time snack for those who like their chai with a side of something crumbly.