Food: Have your biskut, and eat it too…
Greatly undervalued food, salty, immaculate, crispy, or sweet, biscuits are forever
Ratna Raman Delhi
I love biscuits. I always have and always will. They are greatly undervalued food. Providing small, portable units of energy, they have transformed us into a nation of biscuit-eaters on the move. I think it is time we factored in biscuits as a nutrient-dense, vacuum-packed, high-protein snack, ensuring optimal food quality for all Indians.
Sometimes, I idly wonder, whether French history would have been different had the executed Marie Antoinette said, "Let them have biscuits." Her choice of the word "cake" precipitated an extremely unfortunate conclusion. If only she had settled for the word 'biscuit' she might have lived to a ripe old age and Cordon Blue chefs in France would have marketed authentic Marie Antoinette biscuits from their stash of secret recipes. (Of course, this would have done Madame Tussaud out of a future in waxworks, but Amitabh, Shahrukh and other celebrities would definitely have shouldered this blow for the sake of the larger biscuit-inclined collective.) Maybe, just maybe, instead of those bland Marie biscuits that are a constant reminder to frugality and stoicism in the wake of cholesterol and diabetes, the Antoinette biscuits might have transported us to a whole new realm.
All over India, whether it is the smallest teashop in the bustling plains or the remote one tucked away somewhere in the hills, biscuits (pronounced bis-kut in the north and bis-ket in the south) form part of essential morning breakfast and evening tea rituals. Whether branded or made locally, biscuits continue to beckon from the insides of glass, and now large plastic jars, and from behind wrapped packages. In the Indian context, our biscuit legacy probably comes from Great Britain. Biscuits are perhaps the parting culinary gift that the British left behind. When we were little, and lived in Delhi's Karol Bagh of the 1960s and 1970s, our favourite haunts were two confectioner's shops on nearby Saraswati Marg. One shop sported the name Britannia and the other announced itself as Volga. The owner of Volga was an exceedingly handsome young man who made the double thumb famous in our childhood, long before Hritik Roshan's twin thumbs became Bollywood lore.
We visited Volga primarily to gawk in prepubescent adoration at the young man in question. The bulk of our confectionary was bought at Britannia, possibly because of subliminal associations and also because the portly, middle-aged owner of Britannia had an infinitely larger display of glass jars and glass cabinets, crammed with all kinds of biscuits. The jars ranged on the counters were filled to the brim with plain biscuits, plain rusks, delectable penny biscuits, animal-shaped biscuits, jam-filled centres, biscuits embellished with pistas or peanuts, cake rusks, macaroons, cream puffs and sweet wafers in all the pastel colours imaginable, all meticulously balanced in symmetrical circles.
The glass cabinets contained tins and shiny paper packaging in gold, red, orange and blue colours, all of which vied for our attention.There were Dalima biscuits, JB Mangaram wafers and biscuits that came in printed tins with elephants abreast of wedding processions, the lovely rectangular blue and red and gold biscuit tins of Britannia and several circular boxes with floral patterns that memory recalls, before they were edged out by the shiny paper stuck cardboard boxes. We demolished mountains of biscuits whenever the opportunity presented itself. Whether it was the round little penny biscuits, or the jam-centered ones, the pink and yellow and orange cream-filled biscuits or the coloured pumpkin-studded cake rusks, chewy and reminiscent of egg, each biscuit had its own little niche in our childhood.
One biscuit well-loved at home was Britannia's Ginger Biscuits. To date, one cannot find better ginger biscuits than the ones sold by Britannia. These communicated comfort and stability when clutched by hand. This chunky biscuit top with its unusual cracked sugar embedded texture and a checked pattern on the reverse, transported the 'biscuiteer' to the edge of a robust heaven at first bite. Gingerbread biscuits from Windmere, hot and freshly baked, near the village school wherein William Wordsworth once taught, only qualify for a runner's-up title.Britannia also marketed delicate coconut biscuits under the brand name Nice. These were wonderful tiffin time fare and demanded handling with care. Bought primarily to serve visitors and vulnerable to breakdown when subjected to minimal pressure, it was de rigueur to serve the rectangular, crisp and thin biscuits whole. The shiny gold paper was ripped off to reveal a box lined with corrugated butter paper, and fragile biscuits, nestling like jewels, were gently lifted out. Broken ones were distributed en masse to the children, who wolfed them down oblivious of niceties. Nice biscuits usually tasted of freshly grated coconut, without the synthetic aftertaste that coated the tongue in the case of coconut biscuits, marketed variously by others in the years to come.The stalwarts among coconut biscuits used to be large coconut macaroons, no longer resident at Delhi's bakeries. The macaroons, made locally with egg white, coconut shavings and sugar, replicated the shape and experience of the coconut. The outside is a lumpy coarse brown texture and biting through this chewy exterior one stumbles into a squelchy, munchy, white interior. Fresh macaroons retain a little moistness at the centre, so eating them provided a childhood bulwark against loneliness and inconsequentiality, for macaroons had the ability to generate happy memories and ensure that they lingered on and on.
We also consumed tonnes of everyday aata (wheat) biscuits, stored in large empty Britannia biscuit tins bought off obliging grocers for two or three rupees. Every March or April, we lugged our supplies of aata, milk, elaichi and sugar to a biscuit maker in Ghaffar Market in Karol Bagh. This was kneaded, shaped and transformed into ready biscuits that miraculously rose out of tin trays yanked out of an enormous clay oven. The evenings were hot, but the fragrance of freshly baked biscuits eclipsed all else. We ate our way through these tins which sustained us in our study breaks during year-end exams and when our fingers brushed the bottom of the tins, it was time to go and place fresh orders of biscuits for relatives in Madras.
Of late, Parle's Glucose and Tiger biscuits have slowly filled this atta biscuit niche. Sometimes, mom ordered naankhatais, near spherical biscuity bombs that exploded in the mouth. These remained household favourites till we succumbed to the hydrogenated fat scare. Naankhatais, though, are still around and sold in chocolate and mango flavours at most local bakeries. Chandini Chowk cart vendors sell a variation even today and they are great fun to eat, hot off the hissing skillet.
Pune-based Kayani make the extraordinary Shrewsbury biscuits, a wonderful Indian take on Scottish shortbread which is poorly counterfeited by several others. Made with real butter and creamy ecru in colour, these hard-at-first-bite biscuits melt magically in the mouth. Occasionally, the odd visitor from Dehradun dropped in with soft, halved-bun rusks and square pista biscuits with blunt edges from Doon bakeries ,which were stored and hoarded for as long as possible. Karachi biscuits from Hyderabad, evoking memories of biscuits from Doon, regularly marched north with visiting relatives.
Britannia's small range of cream biscuits, orange, strawberry and pineapple, satiated and jaded the palate quite swiftly, so one always passed them over for that all time favourite with the French title, the Bourbon, the root of innumerable, childhood quarrels and trade-offs. However, the method of eating any kind of cream biscuit followed strict protocol. Each cream biscuit was carefully prised open. The plainer side was consumed first and then the other side, with its almost undisturbed topping would be nibbled round the edges till one reached the creamy layer. One proceeded to lick and nip at the piece in hand till it gave way and had to be hurriedly slid into the mouth. This was always a very pleasurable moment, the last occasion to have your biscuit and eat it too and was stretched out and postponed for as long as possible.
Britannia continued to pave our way with biscuit delights into the 1980s and the 1990s. Orange Delite made a sassy early debut and was well received. It was followed by Jimjams (double biscuit with jam centres), Little Hearts (powder puff pastry, duplicating gigantic French heart biscuits now stationed at niche coffee shops), and the astounding Pure Magic biscuits with chocolate or vanilla cream centres. The only way to choose the winner was to sample both with a glass of cold, unsugared milk from Mother Dairy.
On such occasions, the lack of clarity in the matter was not an indicator of dubious integrity. Oreo biscuits resemble Pure Magic, but remain far more expensive and are largely gourmet ingredients in cakes and ice creams and chocolate shakes for the eateratti.
In recent years, Pure Magic has borne the brunt of stiff competition from Parle's sleek, square, ribbed, multi-flavoured and chocolate chipped Hide and Seek and the magnificent Milano, the chocolate chip king cookie featuring our own Hritik Roshan, who succumbs entirely to the cookie's seduction, when coaxed by a sultry babe. Lately, Sunfeast has achieved a near duplication of the Pure Magic biscuits, now packaged as Chocolate Fantasy.
Cadbury offers liquefy-on-contact chocolate and strawberry cream wafer fillings called Bytes and Nilgiri's of Bangalore stocks chocolate-dipped arrowroot biscuits, individually draped in silver foil, but the makers of the best chocolate biscuits are undoubtedly Mcvitie's. Incredibly delicious oatmeal biscuits slathered with thick gooey chocolate on one side is the staple of biscuit devourers in all of Scotland and England. This irresistible variety hasn't made its way to the Indian markets because of our challenging hot weather. Oddly, Mcvitie's has opened shop in India with a digestive biscuit, moderate in taste, which will probably be totally eclipsed by Britannia's new releases, the top of the line Digestive and Multigrain.
Britannia biscuits are bigger, and more competitively priced. So perhaps Mcvitie's Digestive may not be around for too long, despite superior packaging to ensure unbroken biscuits. How I wish they had brought on their textured oatmeal biscuits instead! With the exception of the real-butter-oatmeal-cookies sold at Delhi's Lajpat Bhavan, most oatmeal biscuits in India remain fairly pedestrian.
The markets are flooded with Danish butter cookies, nice as new visitors but hugely monochromatic in taste and texture; if you've eaten one, you've eaten them all. Their draw is the lovely tins in which they are packaged, except that Cadbury, with its tinned repertoire, is now edging them out.
Meanwhile, New Delhi's upper end halwais (sweet shops) sell all kinds of biscuits, even offer sugar free variations. The suji rusks (also made by Britannia and everybody else) and the almond and pista biscottis (thin biscuit crisps embedded with chopped nuts, Italian in origin) are a great hit in the festive season. Sugar and Spice and Essex Farms usually stock an amazing range of biscuits.
In fact, this is now true of most local bakeries in big cities, which boast of prepossessing cookie counters. Yet, these recent manifestations, along with a host of new packaged players, have a minimal shelf life and crumble quickly in gastronomic memory.
Threptin biscuits, diminutive in size but with a long history and incredible protein advantage, are possibly the single most important biscuits that India has to offer, and address the quest for nutrition and nourishment through their small diskettes, wrapped in butter foil and tightly sealed in a tin with a lever up lid that can never be opened by hand. One such tin was regularly bought for my grandfather as a food supplement and its contents were forbidden to us. (These were decidedly more expensive than all the other biscuits in the market.) The ban only accelerated our sense of craving and necessitated regular afternoon adventures where tiptoeing past sleeping grandparents, armed with a hair slide to open the tin, we stole little coin-sized biscuits, refitted the lid and snuck out. We were never ever caught; and now, I realise, our luck was bolstered entirely by grandparental indulgence.
Noticing that it was marketed in the 1950s from Chennai, by Raptakoss, Brett and Co (established in 1930), I speculated for long that this supplement was invented for the vegetarian, low protein eating, South Indian. I discovered recently to my great joy that Threptin biscuits are the chosen favourites of the Solicitor General of India, Gopal Subramaniam, and the grand old man of letters, Khushwant Singh. What better endorsement could one ask for? The icing on the proverbial cake is that they are now available in four flavours: regular, pineapple, chocolate and mango!
About savoury biscuits, what really can be said? In a country with an amazing assortment of indigenous snacks made from cereals and lentils, salt biscuits can only make a very miniscule dent into the foodie's fantasies. For the Monaco to gain acceptance, it had to dress itself up for years with cheese and tomato and other add-ons. Despite Sanjay Kapoor's (Aap ki Pasand, Daryaganj, Old Delhi) insistence that the flavour of tea is only enhanced by salted biscuits, I continue to demur.
One sampling of our long list of murukkus, thengoyals, thattais, ribbon pakodams, gattiyas, karaboondis, chaklis, bhakkarvadis, mathris, et al, and it becomes palpably clear as to why salt biscuits will always remain an after -thought. This holds true for Crackers and Britannia Top biscuits and the herb flavoured 50-50. In fact, whenever I hear the Parle Krackjack biscuit jingle: "Meethe hain! Namkeen hain!" (Yes, these are sweet, No, these are salty...) I have always wanted to retort... Jo bhi hain, ye kya hain? (Whichever that be, what are these?)...