Surat is well-known as the city of silks, satins, brocades and diamonds, but together with textiles and jewellery, few leave the city without buying a box of nankathai, khari and butter biscuits. These confections are the legacy of the Parsee baker families who learnt the art of baking when the port city of Surat was the thriving centre of British, Dutch, Portuguese, French, Persian and Armenian mercantile colonies.
Jamshed Dotivala, the owner of Dotivala Bakers and Confectioners says, “Nanpura in Surat district held the 18th century Dutch Warf, the Dutch Commodore’s bungalow and the Dutch factory, a self-contained residential complex for Dutch factors or merchants. The Dutch employed five Parsee men to work in their kitchens. They learnt to bake bread. Surat’s famous muslin cloth was used as the flour sieve and the dough was made without any water. The dough was fermented with palm wine called toddy, causing the dough to rise and making the bread soft when prepared. These breads were also long-lasting. When the Dutch factory was closed in the 18th century, one of the Parsee bakers named Faramji Pestonji Dotivala continued to supply breads to the remaining colonials. We are his descendants and we are proud of the heritage of our bakery
After many of the factories began to close down, Dotivala says they found a drop in the sale of breads. “The leftover dried breads were sold cheap, which gained considerable popularity due to their lightness and crispy texture. With the increasing demand, the bakers began to dry breads in the ovens especially to achieve the desired dryness and texture. They were also shaped differently. Even today these biscuits are made and are very popular, and are known as Irani biscuits,” says Dotivala. Doctors recommended these biscuits as an easily digestible, relatively low-calorie, energy foods, boosting their popularity. Once the patient had recovered strength, he was advised to eat biscuits with fat so the biscuits were made using excess shortening, giving birth to the Farmasu Surti Batasa or Butter Biscuits that are now a Surat staple. Surti families whether Parsee, Hindu, Jain or Muslim, have these biscuits, often dipped in ‘malai’ with their afternoon cuppa. The Parsee bakers baked the local sweets with dough and pure ghee to make the short-bread like biscuits called Nankhatai. In the absence of flour mills, the wheat was kept in storehouses sealed with cow dung, hand-milled by the women of the families using manual grinding stones, and the resulting coarse flour was sieved through muslin to separate the germ and bran. Refined flour and semolina were also obtained for the confections. When prohibition was introduced in the state of Bombay, and later Gujarat, toddy was replaced by a fermenting agent made of hops and potatoes.
At the time of independence, Dotivala says there were three Parsee owned bakeries in Surat, and the number went up over the decades as others learnt the art of baking and the bakery trade. “While many new bakeries have come up, we are still an iconic brand in Surat with a two century heritage’’, says Dotivala. He adds “This is because we have kept pace with the changing times, launching new products in breads, cookies, cakes, etc, according to the demand and maintaining production standards. We make breads for restaurants, fast food joints and even street-food vendors. My son, Cyrus, has studied food production in Sophia, Mumbai. We have a factory in Sachin, an industrial area in Surat, and three retail outlets—besides our historic shop at Makkai Bridge, Nanpura, on the historic Dutch Road, we have one each at Athwalines and Varachha Road in Surat. Our products are also exported to African and North American countries. Our khari (salted flaky biscuits) moulded in the shape of a butterfly knot, well-known locally as Twisted Khari, has become popular in
Kashmira Saher of Saher Bakery agrees that the old Parsee baker families have sustained their businesses because they kept innovating and adapting to the times. She explains, “There are about 3,000 Parsee families in Surat and a substantial population of Gujarati and North Indian families who have been buying nankathais, batasas and kharis for decades. With the growing diamond processing and textile industry, MNCs and other corporate houses there is a flow of executives, techies, entrepreneurs and white-collar employees from across India to Surat who want products other than these traditional Surti favourites. We get huge orders for plum cakes and Xmas puddings in December from the Kerala Christian population in Surat,” she says. Saher bakery was started in 1803 by her great-grandfather Khurshedji Saher. “My grandfather and father ran this premise at Makaipul near the Dutch Road as a hotel and bakery but now we have closed the hotel section and run only the bakery. Saher Bakery has for decades been known for its cashew and vanilla, cookies, sagla-bagla, which is a mawa and pastry sweet, khummas breads, and other specialties. In the 1970s and 80s there were many Parsee bakeries in Surat, but now some of the old Parsee bakery families have moved to other businesses or left Surat. Dotivala, Saher, Mazda, Khurshed and Persian are the five remaining Parsee owned and run bakeries in the city,” recalls Kashmira.
Sarosh Chinivala of Khurshed Bakery, also in Nanpura, says, “We are not as big as some of the other bakeries, but our shop does have some quality conscious customers who love our handmade and coal-fire baked products. We are specially proud of our mawa cakes. This business was begun by my grandfather in the 1960s and continued by my father who is still the head of our family. My brother, Cyrus, and I bake most of the products. Our production is largely to meet orders and there is very limited stock at our shop.” This means the brothers start work at the crack of dawn to meet the morning orders. “While mawa cake from Iranis like B Merwan and Co in Mumbai or Kayani’s cookies in Pune have become legendary, we feel that the bakery products of Surat’s Parsee families need to become more famous,’’ says Chinivala.