Blog | Fain Khari, And India's Obsession With Its NRI Cousin, The Croissant

Latest and Breaking News on NDTV

Those who come second are, unfortunately, rarely mentioned. One poor snack that has always stood second place in India is the humble "fain khari", often called "puff" in urban India. It is the official sidekick for 'chai'. There's no tea stall in India that doesn't sell the fain khari. But it has never vied for or even received the attention or recognition it deserves. Instead, a foreigner has come around that everyone can't seem to get enough of - like one of those 'foreign return' cousins who is exactly like you, only, with an accent. That foreign cousin to khari is the oh-so-chic croissant, now a rage in Indian cafes and bakeries (its pronunciation is a discussion for another day). 

Is the croissant really all that better compared to the fain khari though? Not really. True, the fain khari is drier and dense, while the croissant is buttery and light. But apart from this technical difference, both are just versions of layered puff pastry. While the fain khari is dunked in tea, the croissant goes well with coffee and hot chocolate.

Even so, the fain khari is barely acknowledged in the culinary halls of fame in India, unlike the croissant and baguette, which have pride of place as the mainstays of French comfort food and breakfast. 

Big Marketing

Why has the humble khari not managed to find the space it deserves in urban eateries, even though almost every Indian home has it? Perhaps it's that big bad villain: marketing. The croissant perfectly fits the image of an "aspirational" India that wants to look beyond all things desi and go global. Croissants are, in a sense, a status symbol in India. If you eat it and pronounce it right, you must be sophisticated and well-travelled. It's another thing that most people wouldn't even know that the croissant is not even French. It's Austrian.

Back in the 1830s, August Zang, an Austrian entrepreneur, opened a cafe on Paris's Rue de Richelieu street. The place was called Boulangerie Viennoise - literally translating to Viennese Bakery. It sold pastries like Kipferl, which later became croissant under French bakers.

Croissants Make You Work

Croissants are not easy. They are high maintenance. Ideally, they have to be eaten fresh, within the very day they were baked, or they turn chewy like rubber. Also, since they are supposed to be eaten warm, they have to be reheated just right; a tad extra heat can turn them into a buttery, gooey, oily mess. And every croissant has a different temperament! You've literally struck gold if you manage to take a croissant out of the microwave just before disaster strikes. Every second counts. The croissant makes you work hard. 

The fain khari, on the other hand, sits faithfully on your kitchen shelves, shoved to one corner, wrapped in a newspaper. Some manufacturers who understand what a precious piece of gastronomy it is sell it in plastic cases or cardboard boxes. And the fain khari stays fresh; you can forget about it for several weeks and still find it waiting for you like a pining lover, ever ready for you to recognise its value. And there's no hard work involved. You eat it as it is.

For the naysayers who think marketing can do only so much, look what marketing did to 'chivda'. Could one ever imagine that a multi-crore cafe chain like Chaayos, the urbanised, luxurious version of a tea stall, would one day sell chivda? But they do, because chivda is now being marketed as a diet snack. Once sold on streetside carts, chivda has today managed to find dedicated space in most urban high-end food stores.

Too 'Desi'

Ultimately, it's not as if departmental stores are not selling commercial cheap versions of the croissant or the fain khari is not packaged well; it's the reigning perception that the fain khari is too desi a snack, while the croissant is a superior pastry with more finesse.

I spoke to a few people and threw the most random question at them: "What do you think about the croissant versus the fain khari?" The answers were fascinating. Most people felt that croissants are more versatile. Although originally meant to be a breakfast snack, croissants can be stuffed with chicken, jam and fancy pistachio and raspberry creams. The chocolate-stuffed version, known as pain au chocolat, would be better categorised as a dessert. In fact, the one complaint about the fain khari was that it cannot be eaten on its own because it sticks in the mouth if not dunked in tea. 

In my opinion, however, the fain khari as a puff pastry stands apart. It is what it is: a scrumptious accompaniment to tea that has stood the test of time and needed no reinventing to prove its value. And it remains humble in its character, a virtue that stands tall in an age where "stuff" is more 'delulu' than real.

(Zainab Sikander is a political analyst and columnist covering Indian politics since the last decade. She's an avid traveller and a bona-fide foodie.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author