Naan Khatai is the quintessential desi biscuit; with a predominately melt-in-the-mouth texture, it is as addictive as the greatest addictions out there. One of my fondest memories of the naan khatai is those of the evening tea at my home. I could easily devour half a dozen in one sitting, and coupled with a hot cup of tea, there truly was no better indulgence.
Growing up in Karachi, a daily trip to Crispo Bakery was a must. Bread, eggs and papay were bought fresh every day, unlike my current pantry hoarding in the west. There were many a days when a special treat of naan khatai, zeera biscuit or patties snuck itself into the bakery purchases.
The effervescence of cardamom and pistachio combined with fresh baked flour and butter, roamed the house drawing out all the occupants to the lounge area for naan khatai indulgence.
The Hobson Jobson: A Glossary Of Anglo-Indian words and Phrases describes the naan khatai as;
Nuncaties: Rich cakes made by the Mahommedans in W. India, chiefly imported into Bombay from Surat.
Needless to say, nuncatie is what the British called naan khatai, the literal meaning of the word comes from the Persian word naan meaning bread and the Afghan word khatai meaning biscuit; hence, bread biscuit.
Some sources say that khatai means six in Persian, referring to the six original ingredients used to make the naan khatai.
An article titled Naan Khatai Cookie, written by Jennifer Bain, Food Editor at the Food and Wine section of the Toronto Star, says the following:
This popular cookie from the [subcontinent] is salty, sweet and eggless, writes Janaki Subramaniam of Scarborough. Naan is Hindi for bread, she explains, while some historians claim that khatai is Persian and means six, the original six ingredients in the naan khatai [of the sixteenth century], namely flour, eggs, sugar, butter or ghee, almonds and toddy as leavening agent.
Subramaniam says the cookies date back to the 16th century when Dutch explorers [the original spice traders] ran a bakery in Surat, India, and later sold it to a local employee named Dotivala. The bakery then started serving poor locals instead of Dutch expats, but since the locals wouldn’t touch toddy (sap from a palm tree used to make an alcoholic beverage), the bread often sat unsold and became dry and crispy, and a few locals starting dunking it in some kind of hot beverage. The bakery seized on the idea of turning it into cookie-sized morsels without egg or toddy, and the deliciously simple Naan Kathai was born.
Further research led me to believe that Dotivala, the owner of the bakery, started selling the stale bread to the underprivileged at discounted prices. The public is never short on ideas and started buying the stale bread and began the trend of dunking it into a hot beverage (after its arrival in the subcontinent), and quickly, it became all the rage.
Seeing its popularity the savvy Gujrati businessmen, changed the shape of the bread, oven dried it and called it Irani Biscuit.
Interestingly, they also observed that the popularity of the Mughlai cuisine was because of its fusion and evolution from other cuisines, especially from a strong influence of Persian cuisine. Hence, they changed the packaging and marketing technique of the biscuit, keeping the ingredients almost the same and calling it by the Persian influenced name of naan kathai (bread of Cathay or Chinese Bread, as a similar bread was called in Persia at the time).
The popularity of the biscuit caught on and it started being transported to the markets of Bombay, since the city housed a very large Gujrati population. Naan kathai became a favourite to be consumed at tea times, and as it became increasingly popular in the north, the cooks started doing away with the eggs and toddy, increasing the quantity of the butter/ghee for added fluffiness.
When it was time for me to make naan khatai, I obviously wanted to make them closest to the taste of Pakistani or North Indian naan khatai, infused with cardamom and pistachio. The outcome was absolutely delicious. Here it is, from my kitchen to yours.
¼ cup semolina (sooji)
¾ cup unsalted butter
1 ¼ cup flour
½ cup and 1 tbsp. of powder sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
½ tsp. to ¾ tsp. cardamom powder
2 tbsp. crushed pistachio or almonds (I prefer pistachio for it gives a very authentic taste)
1 egg yolk
Method (makes 10-12)
Sieve the flour, adding sugar, semolina and softened butter, mix the ingredients well.
Add vanilla, cardamom, pistachio into the dough and knead, until it makes a soft crumbly dough. Divide into 12 equal portions, forming little dough balls and pressing (with hands) into a flattened little biscuit-shaped disc.
Refrigerate discs for 40-50 minutes. Remove, brush top with egg yolk, and set in oven, pre-heated at 350 degrees, for 12-15 minutes.
Remove promptly (note: they will be very soft when removed from the oven but will completely harden once entirely cool), and set on wire rack to cool.
Once cool, store in an airtight jar, if they last through the hour that is. Enjoy with a cup of garam garam chai!
Follow our weekly Food Stories here.
—Photos by author.