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A Week Of An Indian Christmas – Day #1 : Nankhatai (Indian Cardamom Shortbread Biscuits/

Posted Dec 12 2011 12:00am

eing Hindus, we don’t celebrate Christmas though we’ve marked Christmas in our own way on and off. Having lived in places where Christmas was a big celebration, or had lots of neighbours who celebrated, we have rarely been short of Christmas-time goodies that are always sent over on Christmas morning.
In school, I remember we used to have a ritual in our group of 4 very close friends of exchanging gifts on the last day of school before the Christmas holidays began. Many, many years later our then little daughter had wanted to know if Santa Claus visited only Christian homes or would he perhaps also visit a little Hindu girl who wanted to be appreciated with gifts for having been a very good girl!
So we started a ritual of decorating a not so authentic 1 1/2-foot plastic tree (whoever heard of real Xmas trees in the warm tropics?) since her storybooks said Christmas was all about a decorated tree, a chimney (windows in our case) through which Santa came in, and lots of presents to open on Christmas morning!

It’s been a while since we decorated a tree or left our windows were left open for Santa as Akshaya discovered that it was her parents and not Santa who went gift shopping. Yet, the season still casts its spell with cooler days and slightly chilly nights, stars and twinkling lights everywhere, and Ho-Hoing Santas ringing their bells at you when you go shopping. The blogging world has also been taken over by festive food including cookies, cakes and bakes and it difficult to resist getting pulled into the excitement. So this year, I thought I would join the spirit and festivities of the season by doing a series of posts (seven in all) called “A Week Of Christmas”. Indians celebrate Christmas much like the rest of the world, but there are some Christmas-time foods/ bakes which are truly Indian. Some have their origins in the West but have acquired a truly Indian character, while others are very Indian in every way. Examples of some of these Christmas t-time treats, without which no Christian home would celebrate Christmas in the states where these are made, are the Kerala Plum Cake , the Achappam (Rose Cookies/ Rose de Coque Cookies) , Date & Walnut Cake or Bebinca . With this series of seven posts, I’m on a journey of discovery along the western coast of India looking for eats/ treats that are made especially during the Christmas season. The western coast of India is over 850km long and includes the coasts of 4 states of Maharashtra (south-west part), Goa, Karnataka and Kerala. This whole western stretch has the same climate and it isn’t surprising that the various communities that live here, Christian or otherwise, share the same influences on their cuisine to some extent.

So you will find Christians in Goa, Karnataka and Kerala making Rose Cookies, those in Goa and Karnataka making Kulkuls, and Marzipan sweets in Goa and Mumbai (Maharashtra), etc. In Goa (and the Mangalore region of Karnataka), eats/ treats made especially for Christmas are referred to as Kuswar. The first Christmas-time treat in this series is the Nankhatai, perhaps the only Indian cookie. Since baking is way of cooking that is not native to India and came in from the Middle East and the West, the origins of the Nankhatai is probably not Indian. I understand these eggless cookies had their origins in cookie recipes brought by Dutch colonisers who left India as early as 1825. The Dutch set up bakeries in Surat (Gujarat) which were taken over by the Parsis who probably made the first Nankhatais, giving it a very Indian flavour.  These cookies are also very popular in Pakistan, I believe.

Nankhatai is a shortbread-like cookie (somewhat like Snowball Cookies) that originally had only three ingredients – flour, sugar and fat with cardamom for flavour. The fat of choice is ghee (clarified butter) and this along with cardamom is what sets this cookie apart from any other shortbread. The ghee not only gives the cookie flavour but also makes it powdery/ crumbly and melt-in-the mouth rather than crunchy. If you cannot find ghee, you may use butter but then your cookie no longer is an Indian nankhatai.  And in India, the Nankhatai is a biscuit and not a cookie. The term “cookie” is an American import like much else today! You will find Nankhatai recipes which use semolina (rava/ sooji), chickpea/ garbanzo flour (besan) or almond/ pistachio meal as well, some decorated with almonds or pistachios and so on. All of these make very good cookies, but to my mind the true Nankhatai is the one made with plain all-purpose flour with only cardamom to flavour it. So where exactly do they make Nankhatais for Christmas? I’m not too sure, but I have seen them in the Christmas goodies hamper sent over by our neighbours here. Christmas –time is cookie time so why not Nankhatais this year, for a change?

Nankhatais should be slightly rounded and plump-looking cookies with cracked tops (smooth is also fine), though mine look a teeny weeny bit flatter than I would like. You would probably get that shape if you used recipes that use semolina and/ or chickpea flour They didn’t suffer in the taste department though.  
Nankhatai (Indian Cardamom Shortbread Biscuits/ Cookies)

3/4 cup ghee 3/4 cup powdered sugar 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1/4 tsp salt 1/4 tsp baking soda 5 to 6 pods cardamom, powdered 1 tsp yogurt

Put the powdered sugar and the ghee in a large bowl and beat together with a wooden spoon till creamy and light. The ghee should be soft, like very soft butter, but not melted. Sieve together the flour, baking soda and the salt and add to the creamed mixture. Add the powdered cardamom too. Mix everything together with the spoon as much as possible and then add 1 tsp of yogurt. Knead softly by hand (do not knead a s strongly as for bread) until you have a soft dough. Pinch off walnut-sized bitsof dough and roll into smooth balls. Flatten very slightly and place on ungreased baking sheets. Bake the Nankhatai at 180C (350F) for about 15 minutes or till they start becoming a very light golden brown. Nankhatai should have a somewhat pale appearance rather than a brown colour, when they are done Let them cool on the baking sheets for about 5 minutes, then carefully remove them to racks and cool completely. These cookies firm up once they’re cool. They will be light, slightly crisp and crumbly in texture. This recipe makes about 18 to 24 cookies. Serve with coffee or tea.

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