In the light of the government's decision to import wheat this year, it becomes even more apparent that the Ministry of Agriculture is spending far more on promoting horticulture with an eye to increasing exports, than on the cultivation of grain, on which the majority of our population depends for its daily bread. Even in the 17th century, Bernier, in his book of Travels (1656-1668) writes "... wheat is cultivated in sufficient quantity for the consumption of the country, and for the making of excellent and cheap sea-biscuits, with which the crews of the European ships, English, Dutch and Portuguese are supplied."
So besides chapathi and naan and other roti for local consumption, there was even enough surplus wheat to make biscuits. Though biscuits were imported from Huntley and Palmers since 1847, desi biscuits were being made in tandoor ovens. So-called "Hindu biscuits" (actually western style biscuits made of a hard dough) became popular when marketed by Gupta and Company in the late 19th century. The Guptas were later to become the first directors of the Brittania Biscuit Company in 1918, still the largest manufacturers of biscuits in India today.*
During the swadeshi movement, in the drive to become self-reliant, teashops began to add biscuits to their limited menu. The familiar large glass jars with biscuits can still be found in most teashops today.
One of the best and tastiest biscuits made by local bakeries is the nankhatai , supposed to have originated in Surat, from where they are still brought to Bombay. It is a powdery and perfectly shaped little half-circle, wrapped in tissue paper and tied at both ends like a bon-bon to protect it from crumbling.
Naaz bakery in Pune makes a good version , even though they are a bit large. As usual I have a reliable recipe for the biscuit so if you can't get hold of one and you miss dipping your nankhatai in chai try this:
- 1 cup maida
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/4 tsp vanilla essence
- 1/2 cup ghee (clarified butter)
- 1/2 cup castor sugar
- 2 tsps chopped cashews
- (1 tsp cardamom powder)
- (1/4 tsp saffron soak in 1 tbsp hot water)
Seive flour and baking powder together. Add vanilla essence.Mix ghee and sugar till creamy. Add the flour mixture,the saffron and cardomom . Knead well and make into small balls. Flatten and place on greased tray. Dip a fingertip in water and dab on the centre of each ball of dough. Now press a few cashewnut bits on top of each circle of dough.
Bake in oven till cooked for about 20-25 mins at 375 deg.
*A.P Chanda, A Biscuit Named Britannia, Pub. Bangalore 1983.