My first experience of eating a khatai was purely coincidental, and even fated. That particular day would be well etched into the memories of most of the Pakistani’s; well almost all Pakistani’s. This is the day Pakistan met India in semi-final 2011 world cup. A friend of mine hosted the event in some hall and that day was almost declared a national holiday. As a resident of Islamabad, and spectating the match in Pindi, the twin cities came to a near standstill for the duration of the match. In all the commotion to reach the desired destination prior to the match and have all cable, projectors and seating arrangements completed, we missed out a massive component of the event – food. A rookie mistake. Nonetheless, our host put out a massive cardboard box and kept it in front of his guests, none of who really knew what the contents inside were. The box read, Khalifa Bakers.
The box was extremely non-appealing and the contents seemed probably stale. Except for maybe a couple of people (amongst the fifteen odd people in the hall) no one touched the box. Eventually, hunger did take its toll, and well one needs to munch during such an occasion, I did take out a khatai, and with much trepidation took a bite. That was my first real experience of khatai, and probably the last for quite a while.
During the course of the match, I probably ate more than half the box, and to my recollection it was the two kilo sized one. It was pretty much love at first bite.
Being based in Islamabad, there was no particular place where I found khatai. I ventured and found some khatai at Gourmet bakery Islamabad, but they really were doing a disservice to the name of khatai by selling that product. I still had those a couple of times before it became clear that it would be better if I maintained my distance from these so called khatai. In my couple of trips to Lahore over the next couple of years I had khatai from number of local bakeries but they were mostly a failed visage of the actual product. Sadly, due to paucity of time I never really got to go to Khalifa and all my friends were too apathetic to guide me to the right place as well. A sad state of affairs, I must say.
I learnt that Khalifa does exist somewhere within the old city, inside the winding tiny roads where cars cannot enter. My own laziness along with that of my friends prevented me from taking the time to reach to my destination. Eventually, I forced a friend to take me to the place and I ventured inside the tang galiyaan inside mochi gate to track down this elusive Khalifa bakers. I will have more to say on this a bit later.
As it happened, I discovered the Tehzeeb bakers in Islamabad also had khatai on display. With much skepticism I bought a bit and to my great delight, I discovered, this too was quite brilliant. In fact since this discovery since 2013, I have almost had khatai from there at least twice in a week. It has become one of my most highly consumed product over the course of last one year. Still, it fell short from the brilliance of that which is Khalifa. Since I did not have a benchmark to compare it with Khalifa, I had grown quite accustomed to what I was having from Tehzeeb, and life was going quite smoothly. In between I introduced a weekly khatai party at my office, where one individual would get khatai for the whole team. I hope that tradition still continues. As luck would have it, I was hosted by the ambassador of India by sheer chance and I was offered some sweets. I probably forgot to mention, but sweets, other than chocolate based products, is something I just cannot consume. It is physically painful for me to do so for reasons that cannot be fathomed – well except maybe jalebi and that too from Grato. But that is a story for another day. During this conversation with my host, I offered my apologies and shared that khatai may be one anomaly to this rule. Lo and behold, the Ambassador had recently received a lot of khatai from nowhere other than – you guessed it – Khalifa bakers. Probably a couple of weeks old and kept in cold storage, it took me only a few bites to realize the taste that is in Khalifa khatai and how all others pale in comparison. Even the khatai at Tehzeeb seemed like an poor imitation to the real thing.
The real thing being khatai from Khalifa of course. Since that day at the end of 2014 to this particular day (January 2016), was another dry patch to having Khalifa. My contentment with Tehzeeb had already been shaken. And during the course of the last of few months, I have been thinking of repeatedly making a trip to Khalifa for the khatai. Come new year, I finally made my mind up to visit Lahore ostensibly to catch up with a few people, but primarily to venture back to Khalifa. And, I must say, one of my best decisions this year (in the ten days that have passed). I was once again discouraged from the journey, since as per norm, Lahore is being dug up altogether, especially the old city to make space for the Orange Line. Surprisingly, with all these delivery services springing up, it was very convenient to have it delivered only for Rs. 150 to my residence in Gulberg. While this seemed a rather very comfortable option, I wanted to revisit the location and take in the sights. Not belonging to Lahore, the old city and it pathways are always an eyeful for the traveler.
The rickshaw drops one off at the mochi gate, upon which a fifteen to twenty minutes walk takes one to the destination. Amongst the hustle and bustle of the tang gali, there is always a manifestation of the old and tradition. The winding roads, the clambering of people, the passing housewives, the residential chatter – all add up to the experience of finding Khalifa. I asked a gawker, or an old man relaxing on the steps of stairs of their houses, ‘Khalifa kiss taraf hay ji’. Everyone knows and points to the right direction. I think there is a sense of collective pride for the place too. In the winding roads between cramped houses one keeps walking until eventually out of nowhere springs a grand shop titled Khalifa Bakery.
Its appearance is quite as surprising as finding a water fall at the end of a trek. You know it’s there, but once you find it, its still slightly breathtaking. Amongst all the tiny shops and gawkers that I have passed since passing the mochi gate, this is like entering a grand darbaar. Of course like any darbaar, there are many who are present to pay their respect to the Shehan Shah. The Shehan Shah can only take audience one at a time, and the petitioner must offer some bounty and stand in queue for the emperor to provide them their attention. Even as the sun starts to set, the queue does not seem to subside and more and more petitioners come, to seek the call from the emperor. Eventually, when ones turn comes, the Shehan Shah provides you with his nazr-e-karam and then you leave the darbaar. Almost no dabari leaves the darbaar unsatisfied. No one aims to stay at the darbaar longer than needed, but the wait for the audience is not an uncomfortable experience in itself.
So what makes the Khalifa Khatai so special? After stepping out of the shop I started to make my way back to the entrance of Mochi gate. It was inevitable that I dig into the box and dig out the Khatai from its box.
The first bite into khatai – is shockingly uninspiring. A massive let down. All that build up in my mind for this? I am rather perplexed. The second bite though, is quite pleasing. It does not have the saw dusty residue that is common in the other khatai’s. The crunch in the bite is quite solid and one can munch through the bite without worrying about the pieces crumbling to bits – major giveaway of poorly baked khatai’s. Within a few minutes I am loitering aimlessly and digging out more pieces out of the box in a rather awkward manner. There is roasted almond in each bite. These are really what makes a khatai so pleasing to the palate. In the off chance that there is no almond in the bite, one quickly moves onto the next bite to ensure that there is that almond there. Khalifa puts in these almonds heartily and is not stingy with them.
The easiest parallel is that of chocolate chip cookie. If there is no chocolate in each bite, well then it really shouldn’t be called a chocolate chip cookie should it? The same logic applies for khatai as well. The taste of the khatai is slightly dark and not sweet, and that is more perceptible in the bite that is more cooked and rather caramelised – much like how one would differentiate sugar with brown sugar. The khatai leaves a rather pleasant after-taste, which I am not entirely able to place, but it reminds me of suji. Of course, I am pretty sure that the key ingredient that differentiates the khatai is the desi ghee being used in its manufacturing and probably the type of sugar utilized. It is to be hoped that Khalifa will eventually open more branches and be able to provide its services beyond the limited market it caters to now. One can truly hope.
The Khatai proves to be the perfect companion for the anxiety induced by a cricket match and for the Lahoris, it is an excellent option for a snack for when their team is competing in a PSL match.