Nimrah the Baker

by Thomas Heaton

Parsi baking culture survives in the heart of India, where Nimrah and his staff of 70 pump out tens of thousands of cookies a day. Our correspondent sampled a few.

He doesn’t sit, rather scuttling behind the counter, out of sight. He brings out what seems to be one of everything: date-filled sesame biscuits, fluorescent green pistachio cookies, melty osmania, crescent moon biscuits and raspberry cookies. More Irani chai too.

He speaks to us, takes a call, regails us with more stories, and takes another call before hailing and corralling his staff loudly.

Nimrah abruptly runs off again, pen and paper in hand, giving orders to his troops before retreating to our table. This time with oats biscuits and some other varieties. We’re drowning in The Cookie Monster’s wet dream.

Having just pushed our way through the scrum of hawkers at the feet of Hyderabad main attraction, Charminar, we had already sampled his wares, but he’s grabbed my friend by the wrist and dragged us into his saccharin harem.

We’re not in Iran, nor are we in Pakistan. We are in the heart of India, in the growing city of Hyderabad. Nimrah’s Cafe, a place every local knows, is where we’re dipping in for our morning chai.

A lilypad of condensed milk formed atop the tea, it’s rich and sweet. Slapped onto the table, in espresso cups, the chai spills into the saucer. The biscuits are utilitarian, and could be anything. It’s slightly shocking to find a culture of baking – in this style – here in India. Osmania are much like shortbread, using ghee instead of butter – with an added dose of salt – and oats biscuits are raisin filled versions of Anzac biscuits.

The quickly emptied plates sat on the table, as we hoovered the crumbs and attempt to abate our greed. I hoped my compatriot will abide a second serving, but that was before we were corralled into the depth of Mr Nimrah’s cafe.

The baking culture, as far as I understand, comes from the Parsi people. They emigrated to the area hundreds of years ago from Iran. The chai is aptly named, and differs from spicey varieties everywhere else around the country. It’s strong black tea, mixed with milk and fists of sugar. It lines the mouth.

With our mouths coated, we’re hailed into the actual shop the man in beautifully pressed kurta and milk white topi. With a smile as white as his livery, he shakes our hand with a pull. We’re in another scrum, pushing past staff and customers, dodging incendiary trays of biscuits and sit.

When I get the chance to ask, he answers my questions. He serves between nine and ten thousand people chai each day, but won’t tell me how many cookies he bakes. It’s fair to say they’re baking tens of thousands of them each day, even if the chai drinkers don’t eat one of everything like we did. He has a staff of 70, working shifts between 4am and 11pm, and they’re always busy. His oven is a glorified pizza oven, five trays wide and even-more deep. No temperature gauge, just timing and experience, gets these bikkies into bellies. It’s completely different to the scientifically precise style of western bakeries, but just as consistent.

With thick saccharin sweat on our brows from the heat of the oven and the intense congestion, we push our way out the bakery for a breath of fresh air.

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