Century-long twist to the British biscuit

Ooty varkey is believed to be an ‘Indianised’ version of a British biscuit

Updated - April 25, 2022 04:44 pm IST

Published - April 21, 2022 08:56 pm IST

Varkeys are kept in metal trays and then placed in the fire wood oven.

Varkeys are kept in metal trays and then placed in the fire wood oven. | Photo Credit: M. SATHYAMOORTHY

After being baked, they are sent to the shops for sale.

After being baked, they are sent to the shops for sale. | Photo Credit: M. SATHYAMOORTHY

Most tourists visiting the Nilgiris take home not just memories of the district’s iconic landscapes but also the taste of its unique delicacies. One of the most popular specialities, alongside its homemade chocolates, is the “Ooty varkey,” origins of which can be traced to the late 1800s.

Although its exact origins remain a mystery, it is believed the sweet ‘biscuit’ was produced as an “Indianised” version of a British biscuit, rusk or puff pastry which was popular among the British and Indian aristocracy during the colonial era.

P.J. Vasanthan, a resident of Coonoor and an enthusiast who documents the district’s unique heritage, told The Hindu, “The art of baking is nothing new to these hills, for, going by the accounts of British documentarians, the Irulas were once known to have made unleavened cakes of ragi and other similar grain, baking them with the aid of flat stones which had been preheated over an open fire.”

Mr. Vasanthan said he believes the “Ooty varkey” could have been made as a snack for Indian labourers in the coffee plantations and tea estates run by the British colonists. “As the treat was easy to carry to remote locations for feeding labourers, it makes sense that the varkey could have arisen as a food ration before becoming popular as people began embracing its unique taste and texture.”

Watch | How are Ooty varkeys made?

Typically, the varkey is made from wheat, rice, semolina, water, oil or ghee, sugar and salt, said Mohammed Farooq, president of the Ooty Varkey Producers’ Association. Mr. Farooq, who along with other bakers in the district has been pushing for a Geographical Indication (GI) tag for the unique ‘biscuit’, said the district’s climate and its pure, sweet water separates the Ooty varkey from its counterparts in other districts. “There are many bakers who leave the Nilgiris and move to other districts and try to replicate the taste of the Ooty varkey, but are unsuccessful,” he said.

Bakers from the Nilgiris said that when done to the traditional recipe, a single batch of Ooty varkey could take anywhere between 18 and 24 hours to prepare. “There are four stages of preparation. First the dough is kneaded and allowed to rest for around eight hours so that it can ferment and sweeten. After a few more steps of preparation, it is finally put in the oven. Each baker slightly modifies the recipe, adding more sugar, oil or salt to suit his clientele, but the basic process followed by bakers is almost the same,” explained Mr. Farook.

In Udhagamandalam, there are believed to be only two bakers who still use wood-fired ovens to make the varkey. One of the bakers, who spoke to The Hindu preferring anonymity, said the ovens slightly alter the taste of the varkey, giving the biscuit a smokey, earthy flavour. “It is of course harder to make, but the recipe has been passed down for many generations in our families, and we want to keep the tradition alive as long as we can,” he said.

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