The Biscuity Taste of Nostalgia

Last week, some friends knowing that we had spent several years at Hyderabad, brought us a box of Osmania biscuits. One of the specialities of Hyderabad, as per the box, the recipe for the biscuits wsa thought up on the demand of the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan, who wanted a snack that was a little sweet and a little salty. So teatime this week has been pretty good!

Which made me think about biscuits in general. What exactly is a ‘biscuit’?

The word biscuit came to English from French (bis-qui), which is from the Latin root panis biscotus, which roughly means ‘bread twice cooked’. The origin of biscuits goes way back maybe even to Neolithic times. But for sure the Romans had them. In Roman times, biscuits were basically bread which was re-baked so that it would last longer, and hence could be useful for marching armies or travellers. From the 14th century onwards, biscuits became popular in England and were an important part of naval food supplies, carried on ships which set out on long journeys. These naval biscuits were highly inedible, but still an important part of a ship’s provisions as they could last for very long!

As per the dictionary, a biscuit is ‘a small baked unleavened cake, typically crisp, flat, and sweet’. Which of course is inadequate, as biscuits are often salty, and as we shall see below, sometimes leavened (made with yeast or other raising agent).

Biscuits apparently fall into four broad categories. The categories are differentiated by their recipes (mainly the amount of fat, sweet and water), and the baking process. These are:

Crackers:This covers a wide range of products characterised by crispy, open texture and savoury flavours. They are leavened.

Hard sweet biscuits: They have low sugar and fat. They have an even colour and texture,  and good volume.

Short doughs (moulded biscuits): The doughs for these are ‘short’ (ie, have more fat and less water) compared to the dough for crackers of hard sweet biscuits.

Cookies (inlcuding filled cookies): These are made from very soft doughs which are put directly on to the oven band for baking.

India is a pretty big consumer of biscuits—another legacy of our colonial past, I suppose.  Per capita consumption of biscuits in India has been estimated at 2 kilos. The biscuit industry was valued at Rs. 37,000 crore before the pandemic. Lockdowns were good for biscuits, as people stocked up on these foods with long shelf-lives, and the industry saw sharp growth.  The top-selling brands domestically are: Parle-G, Marie Gold, Good Day, Unibic and Bourbon.

India is also an important producer of biscuits along with the US and China. Significant quantities are exported to Haiti, Ghana, Angola, the UAE and the US

My all-time favourites are from a bygone era. In Delhi, my mother would take tins of atta, ghee and sugar to a nearby bakery in the morning, and send one of us to collect the biscuits in the evening. It was difficult not to slyly ‘steal the cookie from the cookie jar’ on the way home. These atta biscuits had typical stripes running along the length. I don’t know if local bakeries even exist today or take such custom-orders. But those biscuits were delicious!

Another biscuit I miss are the Mangaram wafers, or cream biscuits as we used to call them. They came in yellow and pink. They were more expensive than the normal biscuits and so were a special treat for special occasions—birthdays or if one did exceptionally well in a test or exam! Apparently, the Mangharams were from Sukkur, Sindh and had a major factory there from 1937 onwards (as also factories in Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai). The Sukkur factory was declared evacuee property and given to a Muhammad Yakoob. It was re-named the Yacood Factory. JB Mangharam, the patriarch of the family, settled in Gwalior when they came to India during Partition, and started a factory there. After the death of the founder, the company was restructured in 1969 and again in 1977. In 1983 it became a part of the Britannia Group. Somewhere along the way, the cream biscuits fell out of favour. Was it that the family was too caught up in internal squabbles to pay attention to its star product? Or could they not keep with external competition? Or was it that tastes changed? Whatever the reasons, old-timers like me will always miss those light, sweet, exotic biscuits.

–Meena

PS: Maybe modaks or ladoos would have been a more appropriate topic today. But somehow I feel Ganesha would be game to try something new—a plateful of sweet cookies for instance. Happy Ganesh Chaturthi!

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