Indians celebrate Christmas much like the rest of the world but the traditional Christmas-time foods/ bakes are very Indian. Some have their origins in the West but have acquired a truly Indian character. Indian Christmas foods include the Kerala Plum Cake, Achappam (Rose Cookies/ Rose de Coque Cookies), Date & Walnut Cake and Bebinca. Starting today, I’m doing a series of posts I’m calling “A Week of an Indian Christmas“. These are a set of seven posts featuring Indian Christmas foods. Day 1 shall feature the Indian Shortbread Biscuit or Cookie called Nankhatai.
As Hindus, we don’t celebrate Christmas but have marked Christmas in our own way on and off. We have mostly lived in places where Christmas was celebrated. I had 3 close friends in school, and we always exchanged gifts on the last day of school before the Christmas holidays. Years later, our little daughter wanted to know why Santa wasn’t visiting her because she had been a very good girl! So we started celebrating Christmas with a decorated tree, and left an open window for Santa to climb through with her presents as we didn’t have a chimney. She grew up, stopped believing in Santa but continued the Christmas celebrations.
In this series of Christmas posts, I’m looking at the Christian community living along the western coast of India. This coast is over 850km long and covers coastal Maharashtra (south-west part), Goa, Karnataka and Kerala. Naturally, the various communities that live here share similar influences on their cuisine. So you will find Christians in Goa, Karnataka and Kerala making Rose Cookies, and those in Goa and Karnataka making Kulkuls. Similarly, Marzipan sweets are made in Goa, Mumbai (Maharashtra) and Mangalore. In Goa and the Mangalore region of Karnataka, Christmas time treats are referred to as Kuswar.
Nankhatai is a shortbread-like cookie that originally had only three ingredients – flour, sugar and fat with cardamom for flavour. The fat of choice is ghee (at room temperature, not melted). This and cardamom set this cookie apart from any other shortbread. The ghee flavours the Nankhatai and also gives it the characteristic crumbly melt-in-the mouth texture. If you cannot find ghee, you may use butter but then your biscuit/ cookie no longer is an Indian Nankhatai.
You will find Nankhatai recipes which use semolina (rava), chickpea flour (besan) or almond/ pistachio meal even with regular all-purpose flour. They can be made with just all-purpose flour as well. All methods make good biscuits/ cookies but I like the ones made with mix of all-purpose flour and a bit of chickpea flour. Nankhatais are typically slightly round plump-looking cookies with smooth or slightly cracked top
Nankhatais are made and eaten at any time of the year but I have seen them in Goa at Christmas time. They’re a constant in the Christmas hamper sent over by our neighbours. Goan Christians make cookies called Snowballs or Snowball Cookies which are similar but decorated with a piece of candied cherry instead of nuts. Nankhatais are also a part of the Kuswar in Mangalore.
- 2/3 cup powdered or bura sugar icing sugar
- 1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup chickpea flour besan
- A pinch of salt
- 1/4 tsp baking soda
- 5 to 6 pods cardamom powdered
- 1 tbsp yogurt
- 2/3 cup ghee or butter
- Chopped or halved pistachios or almonds for decoration
- Put the powdered sugar all-purpose flour, chickpea flour,salt, baking powder and powdered cardamom in a large bowl and mix using your fingers. Sieve the powdered sugar and chickpea flour if necessary, first, to make sure there are no lumps.
- Add the yogurt and ghee. Knead softly by hand just till a soft dough forms. The texture should be similar to shortbread dough. Do not over knead or the cookies will not have a soft crumbly and melt-in-the-mouth texture
- Pinch off walnut-sized bits of dough and roll into smooth balls. Flatten very slightly and place on ungreased baking sheets. Press a halved (or chopped bits) of almond or pistachio in the centre of each round of dough.
- Bake the Nankhatai at 180C (350F) for about 15 minutes or so,till they start becoming a very light golden brown at the edge. Nankhatai, likeshortbread, 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, thencarefully remove them to racks. Cool completely. These cookies firm up oncethey’re cool. They will be light, slightly crisp and crumbly in texture.