The Waning Legacy Of Parsi Batasa Biscuits

When dawn peeks in through the windows of the weathered homes of Udvada in Gujarat, morning rituals begin to unfold. Newspapers are unfurled as doodhwallas go about their rounds doling out farm-fresh milk that’s promptly added to a simmering pot of leeli (lemongrass) tea. As the chai comes to fruition and the air is infused with soft citrus, large glass jars are retrieved and from their depths emerge handfuls of small round biscuits, studded with carom seeds and finished in a gentle, tawny brown. An atmosphere of sleepy contentment fills the air as families gather around the table. Each person drops a few biscuits into their steaming mugs and prods at them idly, helping them reach peak saturation before scooping them out and allowing the now soft biscuit to melt in their mouth releasing all its buttery goodness. The belief in many Parsi households across the world is that a day can only truly begin when you’ve had your magic moment with a Batasa.

The Batasa or Surti Biscuit is a remnant of the Dutch occupation of India in the 1700s where in the port city of Surat a man named Faramji Dotivala took over control of a flourishing bakery. He continued to trade successfully but as his British clientele petered out, so did his business success and soon enough he was left with more bread than he knew what to do with. So in an effort to minimise waste, he began distributing the excess among the less fortunate of the locality. 

He also began fermenting his loaves with Toddy – a wine made from palm tree sap – which gave the product a much longer shelf life but also made it a much harder texture. The locals took to the new product and doctors even began suggesting it to their patients because it was filling and easy to digest. The demand started to grow and in an effort to get ahead of the constant requests, Dotivala began drying out the loaves in an oven so they could be packaged and stored in bulk. He also made them smaller into more bite-sized shapes and that was the beginning of the Batasa as we know it today. 

They quickly became a popular teatime snack since their sturdy texture meant they could be amply dunked in liquid without falling apart. Later the recipe was also modified to make them more luxurious by adding ghee and caraway seeds for flavour and replacing the toddy with yeast due to the onset of the alcohol prohibition in the state. 

Today, Batasas have spread far beyond the borders of Gujarat to cities with a strong Parsi or Irani stronghold such as Navsari, Pune and Mumbai. They can usually be found in the iconic Irani tea houses or in bakeries marked by peeling paint and old men in sudrehs (a white vest of religious significance worn by Zoroastrians) at the door. But sadly, aside from these spots, the prominence of the Batasa is dwindling since many of its original makers have moved on to other occupations.

They can be made in a wide variety of flavours with some people adding cardamom, cumin, almonds and even cheese to their mixture. The texture can be flaky or crisp, depending on your technique but the rule of thumb is that it needs to be hard outside and crumbly within. The only true test of a quality Batasa however comes when you drop it into your tea and watch it bob to the surface. If it can remain there, patiently waiting while you finish your morning paper, then you know you’re about to experience a tryst with a true Batasa.