No one can deny their indelible stamp on the culinary landscape of south Bombay in India, a city where they hold a place of pride all their own. Once ahead of their time, the ‘Irani cafes’ in Bombay (Mumbai) have sadly become a fast disappearing trend.
Perhaps not as popular in rest of the country, a unique set of cafe-style eateries appeared across western India, especially Bombay in the 19th century, catering mainly to the large Parsi-Zoroastrian population settled there.
These gems on the food scene of Bombay were started by later Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran. In order to distinguish themselves from their Parsi-Zoroastrian brethren settled in India for almost a millennium, they came to be called ‘Irani Zoroastrians’. Read here for a deeper insight into the Irani-café culture.
Mouthwatering memories filled my soul as I pictured their crisp lamb mince puffs and savory puff-pastry style ‘khari’ biscuits (also the inspiration behind today’s recipe,) as well as their spicy hard-boiled egg curry served over steaming aromatic rice, making sure I ended my meal with a soft and deceptively rich ‘mawa cake’, made with an amazing batter of milk solids and flour.
These quintessential food establishments are known, as much for their tasty fare and their glass food-display cases filled with treats and pastries, as for their unique cafe-like ambiance with clustered tables topped with tartan tablecloths, ideal for conversation and their high ceilings with large fans, which always had me look up as I walk in.
My personal favorite is ‘khari’ (means savory or salted) biscuit; it’s basically a savory puff pastry dough, baked fresh and crisp, often with a sprinkling of warm spices. After a busy day at college, mom and I’d meet up at our favorite Irani café, chatting away as we bite into warm flaky ‘khari’ biscuit dipped in a hot masala chai.
Recapturing some of that memory, while using the convenience of store-bought puff pastry with some simple flavoring ideas, this is our serving of a much-loved Parsi tea snack…and an ode to the delicious food at classic ‘Irani-cafes.’
Cumin and Almond ‘Khari’ Biscuit
Makes 14 ‘khari’ biscuits
1 sheet store bought puff pastry
½ teaspoon cumin seeds*
¼ teaspoon salt
1 egg, well beaten for the egg wash
* It’s fine to use a teaspoon of almond meal and ¼ teaspoon of ground cumin, if you prefer.
Preheat the oven to 400F.
Using a spice grinder, make a fine powder of the almond and cumin seeds. Add salt to this mix.
Defrost and unfold the puff pastry sheet on a work surface dusted with flour. Using a rolling pin, smooth out the creases in the sheet. Sprinkle the puff pastry liberally with the ground almond-cumin-salt mix.
Fold the sheet into half and run the rolling pin over the folded sheet to press the powder in to the dough. Cut the puff pastry into 14 rectangular pieces and lay them spaced apart on an ungreased baking sheet. You can twist the ‘khari’ biscuit pieces like a bow-tie for a more authentic look or just leave the pieces rectangular.
Using a pastry brush, apply the egg wash to the tops of the puff pastry. Bake the ‘khari’ biscuit at 400F for 15 minutes till they are golden brown, some ovens may need another 1-2 minutes.
Consume the Cumin & Almond ‘khari’ biscuit warm, along with your favorite cuppa…or store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.