City Food – Rajbir’s Nankhatai, Turkman Gate
A stall of sturggles.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Rajbir is a bearer of two legacies. One is of a street delicacy with origins going back to the Europeans. The other is more intimate. It is the legacy of his life’s struggles.
This afternoon, passersby are coming to his nankhatati cart intermittently, here in Old Delhi’s Turkman Gate. One woman hesitantly enquires about the price. He says, “Dus ke paanch (10 for 5).” Rajbir has been selling nankhatai biscuits in the Walled City for 40 years. He left his MP village when he was a child. “There were problems at home.” His father, who had a stall in Delhi’s Kishanganj, had suddenly died. “I had to earn for the family.”
The career a migrant picks up in a big city is more a matter of chance than choice. Rajbir does not remember his father’s exact trade “but I was introduced to a few helpful people in Dilli who were from my district, and were already established in nankhatai line.”
Nankhatai was first made by the entrepreneurial Parsis in bakeries set up by the Dutch in Surat. Those colonisers had to quit our land way back around 1825. Consequently, they never made it to Delhi, but their presence survives in the nankhatai stalls of the city streets.
For all practical purposes, Rajbir’s establishment is a bakery on wheels. The dough for the biscuits is crammed inside a tin canister. It was prepared earlier in the day by mixing suji, maida, besan flour with khoya, sugar, ghee, cardamom powder, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. To make a fresh batch, Rajbir pulls off some of the dough, splits it into a dozen pieces, pats each into a perfectly round circle. He arranges these on a large platter, which he places on a coal-fired salver. The platter is covered with a karahi, and the biscuits are left to steam for a few minutes.
Rajbir’s year began with a great loss, he says. His wife, Guddi, died in January. His five sons and daughters now live alone in the village. A lack of resources makes it difficult for him to ensure the education of all his children. “I think my sons might have to take up my line.” He sells nankhatatis from 2pm until 11 at night, after which he walks back to his room in Minto Road.
Taste of a life