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Indian Biscuits: 1947-2022
The Story of the Nation State in Five Biscuits. Words by Sharanya Deepak; Illustrations by Reena Makwana
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Like all British people I was born with a biscuit in my mouth. My mum did not lovingly feed me wet rice with her hands, nor okro stew, but the tea soaked mush of Rich Tea biscuits. My father was a Jammy Dodger. We, the British, don’t have a fully coherent cuisine, but we do have Hobnobs, Digestives, and Jaffa Cakes. ‘The way in which the British eat is as formally structured as a Bach sonata,’ the social anthropologist Mary Douglas once wrote ‘but there is one coda: the biscuit’
I came across the quote in an excellent essay on the industrialisation of the biscuit by Catherine Flood, in the book ‘London’s Kitchen: Industry, Culture and Space in Park Royal’. Flood posits that there were three things that made the biscuit so central to the construction of British identity: slave-produced sugar from the West Indies that made them cheap and available to the working class; their unexpectedly perfect pairing with milky tea, that together formed the tea break; and the ease at which they were industrialised, which allowed for people across the country, no matter what social class, to experience the same sensation (a hundred years before Warhol made the same observation about Coca Cola). ‘The biscuit has a unique relationship with the factory,’ Flood writes ‘not only as an industrially manufactured product, but as a food intimately bound up with the routines of work (and leisure) that the factory system produced.’
Biscuits are a food group that connotes a certain authenticity and democracy, as food writers from Nigella Lawson to Ruby Tandoh have observed. Only yesterday, I went to Anna Higham’s launch of her wonderful book The Last Bite, at which her take on Hobnobs were served to the disappointment of absolutely no-one. In its politician interviews, the forum Mumsnet always asks the question ‘what is your favourite biscuit?’ not for the answer, but to see how they answer it (notoriously Gordon Brown dithered on the question twelve times, prompting the user FlamingoBingo to declare ‘He's lost my vote for good. I'm absolutely livid!’)
Yet the democratic nature of biscuits, as Sharanya Deepak says in today’s newsletter, doesn’t mean they ‘[erase] the sweeping distinctions in the ways that…different classes live and eat’. Nor is the biscuit a neutral, passive observer. India has an even more complex relationship with the biscuit than the British, forced upon a country and then gleefully adopted, overtaking even the British obsession with them. And just as the British biscuit facilitated the move of workers into a factory rhythm, the Indian biscuit has been formed by and then reinforced the new nation state. To consume a Parle-G or a Milk Biki is to participate in story that the nation state tells itself over and over again to birth itself. Reader beware: think about it for too long while dunking and it might just fall off in your chai.
The Story of the Nation State in Five Biscuits, by Sharanya Deepak
As a teenager growing up in East Delhi, biscuits were my chosen snack. They were sweet, portable, and easy to slip into a bag to eat on neighbourhood street corners, where I spent most of my time watching boys fight over beautiful girls and parking spots. In the early 2000s, the Indian snack market was ablaze with new, flashy brands of beverages, biscuits and chips that came in bright packets with slapstick slogans and zany American-sounding names. I was impressed by the different textures of the biscuits – by craters, and crunch, and new fillings like pink strawberry jam and coffee-flavoured biscuit cream. I remember thinking that eating this way would make us more internationally savvy. I have memories of being dizzied by the nifty packaging and plastic colours that accompanied this flush of Western capitalism. These new snacks frightened my mother, but drove both my father and me to hide at the shops, where we sifted through the selection of compact packaged goods.
Today, biscuits are one of the fastest-growing manufactured food industries in India, but not so long ago, before economic liberalisation in the 1990s, the biscuit industry was formed of small manufacturers that emerged from local, regionalised exchange. Before that, it was defined by the British regime in India, where the biscuit market consisted predominantly of tinned boxes of Huntley & Palmers, which remained unaffordable to both the Indian and British working classes. The presence of these biscuits in an elevated, inaccessible market premised an early aspiration to them; even until fifty years ago, the mass-produced biscuit was a luxury, an experiment that industries – first home-grown, then multinational – undertook on the country’s massive consumer base.
Biscuits are, as everything is in India, defined by who eats them, and where. Through looking at shifts in production that defined the biscuit industry post-1947 (after Indian independence), you can track India’s agricultural and industrial production, consumer identities, the aesthetics of consumption, and evolving preferences of taste. These biscuits can tell us about trends, shifts and the influence of global cultures on Indian food – all driven by the engine of the new Indian nation-state.
Parle-G (Post-independence production; refined wheat)
Parle-G is the most consumed biscuit in the world. It is the backbone of many stories of childhood, and is associated with the oft-uttered, much exaggerated phenomenon of being a ‘bridge between rich and poor’, as if occasionally eating a common product erases the sweeping distinctions in the ways that Indians of different classes live and eat. But it also tells of India’s most eaten and most notorious food group: mass-produced, highly refined wheat.
Historically, Indians did not consume mass-produced refined wheat. Even until the twentieth century, the diets of agrarian communities consisted predominantly of native varieties of rice and distinct types of millets. But by the 1920s, wheat was a well-cultivated crop under British rule, with the canal colonies of Punjab, the areas of Berar, and the Central Provinces converted into wheat-growing tracts for exporting grain to British industry. A large amount of this wheat was not used for family-scale domestic consumption; instead, it was used to manufacture foodstuffs such as bread and biscuits – which are, as historian Lizzie Collingham notes, the most ‘durable way to preserve wheat’.
Before Parle, the wheat flour biscuit was a luxury afforded only to colonial officers, memsahibs and elite Indians in the subcontinent. When the Swadeshi movement, which demanded that Indians boycott British goods, began in 1905, Indian businessmen saw an opportunity to start making home-grown versions of popular foods. Among these men was Mohanlal Chauhan, who foresaw the popularity of the manufactured British-style confectionary and opened a factory under the name ‘Parle’ – named after the village ‘Parla’ in Mumbai – in 1929. Chauhan acquired machinery from Europe to make treats like candied toffees and sweets, as well as a glucose biscuit which provided a quick swipe of energy in a compact, flat-shaped biscuit made up of sugar, edible oil, and refined wheat flour. The Parle glucose biscuit was also sent in large quantities to British-Indian soldiers fighting in World War II, and it was through this exporting that Chauhan sustained his business in a time when almost all production in India was geared towards the war.
Meanwhile, India was inching towards freedom from British rule, emerging as a partitioned free country in August 1947 – albeit one swarming with displacement and wide, ravaging hunger. The Parle glucose biscuit stitched itself into this time, promising to provide ‘shakti’, or energy, and becoming a symbolic stand-in for nutrition and sustenance, both of which India lacked. However, independent India was short on food grain. Because wheat was the most abundant and cheaply produced food grain in the nations of the Global North, it was also the main measure of scarcity and relief.
In 1951, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, undertook the ‘wheat loan’ from American President Harry Truman after he was unable to respond to this challenging spell of hunger. Three years later, 10 million tonnes of wheat under Public Law 480 (PL480) was sent by the Eisenhower administration to India as aid. The base Indian diet then had to modify itself to synchronise with this global aid; the PL480 wheat was a non-native hybrid not entirely favourable to Indians, but in desperate times it pervaded kitchens, markets and palates, normalising mass-produced wheat which was then used to make rotis and bread. Even though the United States temporarily stopped its exports of PL480 wheat to India in the 1960s, when the government criticised US bombings in Vietnam, Indian consumers had become accustomed to the taste of wheat, and even developed a desire for it. In the late 1960s – when the Green Revolution took over the agricultural output of the country – refined wheat, once scarce, was now produced everywhere, and available for consumption and processing into wheat flour to make biscuits.
The Karachi Bakery Fruit Biscuit (Local bakeries; fruit flavourings)
Karachi Bakery was one of several food establishments set up by new migrants and refugees after 1947, into both sides of the freshly made border. While companies like Parle set their sights on cultivating pan-national identity, institutions like Karachi Bakery became emblematic of the cities they arrived in and the ones they were from. Today, Karachi Bakery’s most popular product is the ‘fruit biscuit’, a square butter-biscuit that is inlaid with small pieces of bright, multi-coloured candied fruit called tutti-frutti, a name which originates from the Italian phrase for ‘all the fruits’. It is this sweet to which the biscuit owes its fame. Years before it became a phrase used to describe food flavouring, tutti-frutti was the name for a jewellery style devised by the European aristocracy, where gemstones were carved in the Mughal courts in India to form natural motifs that resembled berries, flowers and fruits.
Tutti-frutti was first made in India by a brand named Nilon’s – a small factory started by brothers Suresh and Prafful Sanghavi in Jalgaon, Maharashtra in 1962. Before they set up and licensed their brand, the family behind Nilon’s produced lime cordial and syrups to be shipped to the British army during World War II. Like Parle’s biscuits, exporting regular and tinned fruit was also a lucrative business because these products were manufactured for the war; preserving and pickling were otherwise household activities, not meant for business.
In the 1970s, Nilon’s decided to branch out from making fruit preservatives and emulate tutti-frutti, then popular in the United States. But unlike what its name suggests, the tutti-frutti produced by Nilon’s contained only papaya, which is native to Maharashtra and easy to grow. The fruit was harvested, cut, dried, coloured and then preserved in a sugar syrup before it was packaged in small glass bottles and sent to vendors across the country. The small, chewy bits of sugar didn’t taste like much but they lent theatricality, curiosity, colour and whim to the dishes to which they were added.
In many urban South Asian cuisines, there is an impulse to customise and modify foreign influences. It is what historian Utsa Ray usefully calls ‘indigenising hybridity’ when she speaks about how stews with ghee and spicy mutton cutlets entered the diets of middle-class Bengalis in colonial Bengal. The idea of eating something that mimics foreign fancies is popular in South Asian manufactured foods and, in many ways, tutti-frutti was an original model of this impulse: it took European frills and made an approachable, accessible indulgence for people on the other side of the world.
In 2020, my friend Sadaf Hussain brought my attention back to tutti-frutti when he mentioned a childhood favourite, ‘shake’, that he drank outside university in Ranchi, Jharkhand. Shake is a cold, liquid custard resembling a milkshake, garnished with cashews and tutti-frutti. I asked him what the point of tutti-frutti was in this concoction – ‘It tastes of nothing’, I said. Sadaf ignored my predictable scorn of the condiment. ‘Bas chamatkaar, mazaydaar banana tha kisi cheez ko’, he replied.
‘What do you mean what was the point? It was to make something feel like spectacular, meaningless fun, that’s all.’
Milk Bikis (Industrialisation of milk, and producing milk powder)
With smooth imports of edible oil, the stabilisation of wheat flour biscuits soon became routine, recreational goods. In 1978, Britannia, one of India’s primary biscuit brands, launched ‘Milk Bikis’, which came in small packets and were also, like Parle-G, affordable to most. The biscuit was familiar – flat, sweet and stamped with the basic company logo – but it also introduced the new flavour of milk. Its aroma was claimed to be ‘sweet vanilla’ which, in India, was – and still is – a flavour associated with plain milk, rather than the vanilla bean. But the ingredient that lent Milk Bikis their flavour and texture was not fresh milk. It was milk powder.
Milk powder’s entry into the biscuit industry was sparked by the centralisation and industrialisation of milk in India. In March 1970, a scientist named Verghese Kurien started a programme called Operation Flood, which created a series of dairy cooperatives by weaving together a national milk grid across the country. Before that, dairy was a household industry, operating in localised networks based on region and caste across the subcontinent. Kurien’s model, which started in Gujarat, was called the Anand Milk Union Limited, which would become Amul, the largest milk cooperative in the world. Through Amul, Kurien linked milk producers throughout India with consumers in more than 700 towns and cities. Over the next two decades, Amul set up processing units, creating and supervising hygiene standards and ensuring that excess milk was procured and manufactured into other products like condensed milk, cheese and butter.
Milk powder was another one of these excess products. As the technologies for distilling liquid milk into powder became accessible and less expensive, smaller factories set up units, purchasing large quantities of milk from Amul’s processing plants. Unlike butter, milk powder wasn’t used much in domestic consumption, but it was suitable for industrial methods of food manufacturing and, by the 1980s, it was used to make biscuits, adding compact consistency and a heightened golden colour when used.
The industrialisation of milk changed the course of biscuit-making in India in other ways, too. Amul’s butter is a popular ingredient in many biscuits, the most famous of which is the Shrewsbury biscuit, made by the Parsi-run Kayani Bakery in Pune. The family that runs Kayani is resolute – without Amul butter, their wildly popular biscuit simply would not exist.
Hide & Seek and Little Hearts: The Premium Biscuits (Producing an aesthetic and creating the consumer)
In 1996, Parle launched a biscuit called Hide & Seek, a flat, square biscuit featuring sliced craters set with chocolate chips. Hide & Seek was the size of a functional Indian biscuit like the Parle-G or Milk Bikis, but the flavour and royal purple plastic packaging was more luxurious than the biscuits that came before. Hide & Seek was a ‘premium biscuit’, in a category that also included Britannia’s Pure Magic, a round, dark chocolate bittersweet cream biscuit that came in similarly glitzy packaging and exhibited pools of liquid chocolate. (Today, Pure Magic is even more ornate; its tag line is ‘pure biscuit artistry’.) When I was a teenager, Hide & Seek and Pure Magic were prized items which we would eat during after-school study sessions. When I learned to drive at the age of seventeen, I would keep a packet of Hide & Seek in the dashboard. Every time I drove to McDonalds – then a new feature in our lives – the biscuit would be dessert.
Premium biscuits were introduced to the market during India’s economic liberalisation, which deregulated industries, enabled international trade and allowed for an influx of Western brands and corporations in one sudden sweep. Throughout the next decade, India would swarm with American fast-food outlets and see an increase in popularity of the packaged foods industry: domestic food manufacturers had to step up to this sudden competition. The beginning of the free market created an audience infatuated with mass-produced foods, which kept corporations on their toes. In this period, biscuits became more than just basic products for sustenance; with the availability of new machinery, colouring agents and emulsifiers, they were laden with richer, more memorable textures. As the economy loosened up, biscuits also expanded in their map of aspiration – from being imitations of British confections to borrowing from other Western food cultures. In 1990 Britannia launched Petit Beurre, which was based on a French biscuit from Nantes; by the 2000s, American-style cookies, like Parle-G’s Milano and the Subway chocolate cookie, made headway.
Aiding the rise of these brands was a surge in big-budget televised advertising. Biscuit brands devised story-led ads and brought in celebrities to endorse their products; in 2000, Britannia launched its best-known advert, which featured cricketers Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar as patrons of the Marie biscuit, claiming nonchalantly: ‘Britannia Khao. Cricketer ban jao.’ or ‘Eat Britannia. Become a cricketer.’ In this era of advert-aided consumption, aspiration was no longer tentative and limp; instead, it became bold and self-assured. Brands created identities based on products and the Indian consumer changed – from being grateful for things that came their way, to wanting to be spoken to directly.
One of Britannia’s most successful ad campaigns and biscuits alike was launched in 1993. Little Hearts were small sugared French palmiers, and came onto the scene with romance-themed campaigns, like teenage first dates, that symbolised the independence of Indian youth. This was the first known usage of what would become a popular corporate tactic – to summon the young Indian consumer as emancipated, separate from the structure of the family. This was also the beginning of the corporate-driven manufacturing of identity and nostalgia in India, in which women and young people were targeted as a separate consumer base of their own. The appeal was that, unlike most traditional luxuries – like sweets made from ghee and sugar, which were gatekept by dominant-caste communities – these capitalist goods did not discriminate on traditional grounds; they could exist and be purchased by people across caste, class and gender. Little Hearts promised an aspirational culture, but they also promised liberation – eating a packet of them made for free-footed emancipation from any parental and societal rules, even if fleeting.
Even today, the wheat and biscuit industry run in symbiosis. When, in 2020, Parle cut 10,000 jobs due to high costs during the pandemic, wheat mills worried about their business. And during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when Indian producers looked to sell to European markets for higher prices, Parle decided to launch its own wheat brand, advancing ownership on its most crucial ingredient. Adverts remain central, too: Britannia, for example, relaunched a popular campaign from the 2000s for their brand Good Day; this featured Deepika Padukone, one of Bollywood’s highest-paid actors. Similarly crucial are the entrance of new ingredients with changing legislations: the government’s recent call for people to eat millets and native grains has led biscuit brands to introduce these ingredients into their products.
It is always possible to glimpse the changing spectrums of production through India’s biscuit brands: the industry is a pantomime of need, desire and profit, into which new materials and inclinations are introduced at a terrifying pace. At the border of Bangladesh two years ago, I discovered a new biscuit – a slim, salted potato biscuit somewhat hastily named ‘Potata’ that was to gain a solid following over the next year, achieving cult-level popularity among the Indian biscuit consumer base. Potata is made by the Bangladeshi brand Pran and, while the biscuit points to a constantly changing appetite for new kinds of biscuits, to me it also indicates the permanence of hybrid varieties of potatoes – first introduced as a pervasive cash crop by the British, today they are consumed and grown widely in both Bangladesh and West Bengal. Fast-moving goods remain defined by the production of goods that are historically pervasive, but also viable and profitable to industrial ownership. Even as regional diversity remains, in mass-produced goods like biscuits it is possible to see what a nation’s farmers are driven to produce on large scales.
At the shops nowadays, I habitually gawk at the selection of biscuits available, and as I buy separate brands for different people – cookies for my friends, millet digestive biscuits for my parents – I reorient myself with the luxurious way we now purchase. It remains surprising to me that Indian food is often spoken about in its home-bound forms, when in reality it is beyond the patterns of domestic spaces that the shifts in food consumption occur – and when it is in nifty packages of industrially produced foods that the citizens of this never-ending country seem to eventually define themselves.
Sharanya Deepak is a writer from New Delhi. You can read more of her work on her website: https://www.sharanyadeepak.com/
Many thanks to Meher Varma for additional edits, and to Sophie Whitehead for additional edits and proofing.
Note: this article has been amended to make clear the wheat loan was initiated under Truman but PL480 was under Eisenhower, and the PL480 wheat does not refer to a variety.