RAWALPINDI: The combination of a sweet, buttery and perfectly crumbly Nankhatai with a steaming cup of chai is a tradition dating back to the 16th century.
Today, to find the best Nankhatai in the garrison city, one has to make their way through the notorious traffic of Raja Bazaar where the delicious smell of dough rising in clay ovens pulls visitors to the tandoor specialising in traditional confections - Nankhatai, bakarkhani and Kashmiri kulcha.
Other tandoor and bakeries famous for their traditional baked goods can be found in Purana Qila, Bhabara Bazaar, Saidpuri Gate and Banni areas.
According to legend, the Nankhatai was born in a bakery in Surat in India, towards the end of the 16th century.
The bakery had been set up by two Dutch men to cater to Surat’s Dutch population. When the Dutch left India, this bakery was taken over by a Parsi man named Faramji Pestonji Dotivala.
The Dutch bread was not popular among the Indians and to save his business Mr Dotivala began experimenting.
He combined a local sweet of Surat called Dal with Dutch and Iranian baking techniques and created the Nankhatai. The original recipe is said to have used six ingredients - clarified butter, palm wine, flour, sugar, eggs, and almonds. In the garrison city today, the Nankhatai combines semolina, butter and fine wheat flour. The biscuits are often topped with egg wash glaze, cherries, jam tops and nuts before being popped in the oven.
According to some historians, the word Nankhatai perhaps combines nan with khat which means six as the original Nankhatai used six ingredients. However, others assert the word means bread from Cathay, the old name for China.
Muhammad Bashir, who bakes Nankhatai in Sarafa Bazaar shrugged off the question about the origins of the word Nankhatai.
“What’s in a name? People like to eat Nankhatai at breakfast and tea time, so we make it,” he quipped.
A Nankhatai seller at Banni Chowk, Muhammad Zubair, asserted that Nankhatai is a Kashmiri food as it is most commonly made by people from Kashmir and Amritsar.
“We may not be sure about the origins of Nankhatai but we have been making it in Rawalpindi for the last 40 years,” he said.
“We use clean ingredients and never add preservatives or vanilla essence in our Nankhatai. Customers can see us baking several fresh batches each day,” Mr Zubair said.
He said that residents of the garrison city would be able to recall the mobile biscuit shops set up on bicycles, which sold Nankhatai to residents in the past. “Those biscuits would be made on coals instead of tandoor and were often of poor quality,” he said.
“Today, with the mobile biscuit sellers gone, people buy Nankhatai from shops like ours,” he added.
Suleman Raja, a customer at Banni Chowk, said his parents do not like heavy breakfast and always have Nankhatai with tea for breakfast and at teatime.
“Semolina is better for health than flour as it is coarser,” he said.
Another customer, Khalid Malik, said: “When rich tasting, freshly baked Nankhatai is available, why would anyone prefer other types of biscuit.”
Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2015