March 23, 2006

Nankatai and Chai in Nadirsha Sukhia street

On most days after getting out of Victoria Terminus (renamed CST) in Bombay (renamed Mumbai), I walk down the DN Road in the direction of Flora Fountain. I like the urgency of the chaos that hawkers hawking their wares in the corridors of the old buildings bring to the place. A left turn into any of the narrow side streets returns me to the peace of mind I sometimes long for in the city.

The side streets cut through neighborhoods where buildings sit cheek-by-jowl, ensuring ample shade in the streets for most part of the day. I like the cool of the side streets, the small shops that line their sides, the handcarts parked in front of shops, the flow of people going about their tasks, and the voices that float about the place. There are far fewer motor vehicles to be found in these narrow streets, lending the place a less-hurried feel which suits me well coming from Goa as I do. It is in these streets, the narrow intestines that abut the main thoroughfares - the large intestines - that I get to actually pause and look around without anyone pushing me from behind to make way. It is here that Bombay regains its real age, and displays its veins and the lives that course through them. There is no one place that I can call Bombay’s heart. I find it everywhere. However, there is one narrow street I often return to, sometimes to sit on the wooden bench outside a small one-room hotel opposite the pink building that straddles part of the Cawasji Patel street and the Nadirsha Sukhia street that branches off it, bounded by the Janmabhoomi street on the other side.

The Nadirsha Sukhia street takes it name from the four storey pink structure named Sukhia Building. The building is different from the others. I cannot recollect seeing many buildings in the Fort area painted pink. The balconies are covered with windows made of netting. One can open these windows and look out into the street below. These windows are grouped into sections which are demarcated by wooden pillars. Above each section of six windows in each floor, two glass windows with six panes each are centered in wooden panels. The balconies of each floor appear to have survived their original design except for the first floor balcony whose glass windows are all that’s left of it, though the railings are still intact.

The hotel opposite the Sukhia building is a busy one. I try not to look inside the hotel for, its innards could easily pass for the dissected lungs of a chain smoker, all black, and it can get fairly depressing. The bespectacled owner, in his fifties, has put out three wooden benches in front of his hotel in the street outside. Two benches are placed on either side of the hotel entrance, perpendicular to it, and the third is placed along the wall adjoining the entrance. I prefer the third one because it is off the street and I don’t have to watch my back for the occasional vehicle passing through, moreover I get to lean against the wall and rest my eyes on the Sukhia building and watch the activity in the street while munching nankatai with a glass of chai (tea).

I don’t fancy chai much but I make an exception in these narrow side streets, especially if small hotels that dot the streets put out wooden benches in the street where I can sit with my back resting against the wall and take in the atmosphere of the place, better still if an old building rises up from across the street. One reason why I like the Sukhia building is because it has so many elements to it, especially the balcony which comprises of three elements; the railings, the series of windows above the railings, six to a section and three to each of the two sub-sections within each section, and the wooden panels above these windows which hold two glass windows to each section, with six window panes to each glass window. From below, it looked like a network of squares and rectangles, not dissimilar to paddy fields I see on my train journeys along the West Coast to Goa on the Konkan Railway.

The place has several offices, and workers taking a tea break make their way to the hotel for a glass of chai. To my left where I sit on the low wooden bench, a small mandir (temple) dedicated to Sai Baba is nailed to the wall and tended by a pujari (priest) who sits on a narrow ledge abutting the wall. Every once in a while a passing devotee stops by and places his right hand on his heart and murmurs a short prayer, bows his head in the direction of the mandir and carries on his way. The pujari looks at me, expressionless.

I ask the hotel owner for a glass of chai. He barks the order to his staff inside. After five minutes a young boy, in full sleeved shirt and trousers emerges from the hotel and passes me a glass of tea which I place on the bench to cool.

“Do nankatai de do (Give me two nankatai),” I say to the owner. He nods.

Nankatai (also spelled Nankhatai) is a type of biscuit prepared from maida (refined flour got from milling the endosperm of the wheat kernel, it is white, finely grained, and soft), powdered sugar, and ghee. The ghee is made into a fine paste and the powdered sugar added to it, followed by flour (not all at once) in to get a proper dough which is fashioned into small flattened portions and baked after greasing the tray with ghee until the biscuits turn brown. Alternately one can spread cardamom powder on the surface for taste before baking them. Nankhatai can differ from recipe to recipe, and is considered to be among the popular Indian delicacies. In one variation, semolina, made by processing wheat after separating wheat germ from the rest, is added to maida alongwith a pinch of baking powder before adding the preparation part by part to the mixture of ghee and sugar.

He reaches into one of the two glass jars placed on the counter and draws two round shaped nankatai. He has two varieties of the biscuit, one is shaped round, and the other is elongated.

“No, give me one of each,” I tell him. He returns one of the two biscuits to its jar, and retrieves one from the other jar holding the elongated variety, and passes them to me. They taste different from each other. I like the taste of the elongated nankatai. Though it is not sweet like you would expect many Indian sweet preparations to be, it's more agreeable to the palate than the rounded one. Both are soft, crumble easily. I ask for two more, one of each. A middle aged man steps over to one of the benches and sits down. He is dark, and thin. He asks for a ‘cutting chai.’ In Bombay parlance, ‘cutting’ refers to half a cup of tea.

I sit there in silence, and take a few photographs, of the building, of the man drinking tea before returning the camera to my bag. I finish my tea, and munch the nankatai lazily. Life is peaceful on the bench, even if a tad slow. I sit there a long time, letting time wash over me. Then it is time to go.


Geetika said...

Hi Anil!
Reading this took me back to the time my grand-uncle from Surat sent us Dotiwala's nankhatais. Any self-respecting Parsi family will vouch for the fact that they're the melt-in-the-mouth variety!
Each one was individually wrapped in butter paper and tied at both ends, which made it look like a sweet.
These nankhatais were so buttery and soft that we would take care to unwrap each one very carefuly, lest it crumbles and breaks in our hands!
Now you may ask that if each one was so delicate, how did the entire box of nankhatais survive the jouney from Surat to Bombay (oops Mumbai).
Now that's another story. The pecularity of Gujarat is that there are couriers called 'angadias' who ferry goods from place to place. Each 'angadia' is a one man courier comapany and you could literally trust him with your life. I don't know if this service is still prevalent now.
Sadly, all good things come to an end and when my grand-uncle passed away the nankhatai supply stopped. I just want to say a great big 'thank you' to him. The box of nankhatais was a much longed for treat, for a grand niece and her friends, from insipid hostel fare!

Anil P said...

Hi Geetika,
Alas! Memories are made of such soft moments. The 'angadias' are still there but not anymore in the numbers of long ago, though in the diamond industry back in Gujarat they're still the trusted lot to deliver diamonds safely. I had never tasted nankatais before coming to Bombay though I wish I had. I suppose they taste the best when had fresh like the ones your grand-uncle sent you. Lot of things change with time, most often one is forced to adapt to newer systems which has no place for that of the old. Thanks for visiting.

Bombay Addict said...

Oh, brilliant - lovely work ! Engaging text and - ah! can't get over that snap of that man sipping his cutting.

Are you a Bombay fan? If yes, it feels good to meet another. More so in the blogosphere, where we can freeze time and go back where ever we want.

Keep up the great work Anil.


Anil P said...

To Bombay Addict: You're right, am a Bombay fan for sure, more so of its character in the nooks and corners where the city breathes its history. Thanks for visiting.

Anonymous said...

Description of a restaurant on a mumbai street and the culinary delicacy nankhatai forces the reader to rethink his/her relationship to the words on the page.This article of yours is based on actual events characters and places. It is written with a special concern for language and it tends to be more informal and personal by reviving some memories in reader's life

hope to read more of your eperiences ...



Kusum Rohra said...

I never know what to say, if i ever want to make sense, but this was brilliant :)

Anil P said...

To kusum: Thank you. It's a pleasure. Try the Nankhatai on the Nadirsha Sukhia street sometime. It goes well with the chai you get there, and there is the pink building to whet the appetite :)

hozefa said...

hi anil
it seems people in overseas countries are deprived of the unlimited variety of foods available in india
i was in surat 10 yrs back and tried the famous surat nankathai and fell in love with it. how can i pre-order from surat these famous nankathais. any idea