One of my favorite holiday traditions took place not during the holidays, but right after. In fact, far away from home and family.
It was back when I attended an all-girls liberal arts college in Bombay, living in a dorm. Each January, after the holidays, we’d return to our dorm rooms with more luggage than we’d left with—suitcases and duffels filled with leftover festive treats our moms would send back to share. What you brought back told stories of where you were from, where you had been, and how your family celebrated (or didn’t). There’d be a rum-drenched Christmas cake (that would naturally get devoured first), sugar syrup-soaked kulkuls from my Goan roommate, rainbow-colored coconut barfi (from my home), even the odd fish pickle (nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas).
On the nights that followed, sitting many to a bed, we’d swap food—and accounts of fleeting romances. Crumbs would be everywhere, hands greasy, homesickness lifted. It felt like the holiday after the holidays.
One year, a friend came back with several boxes of a kind of biscuit I’d never heard of before. They were bought, she said, from Kayani Bakery, a family-owned institution in Pune, a city not three hours east of Bombay. The biscuit was blonder than most, with a slightly darker rim, and stamped “SHREWSBURY.” It was a sweet and buttery shortbread: light, crisp, crumbling in my mouth. Never, since being a kid and devouring boxes of Scottish-made Walkers shortbread in fun Christmas shapes, had I enjoyed a biscuit as much. (My friends in America would call it a cookie. Either way, it’s delicious.)
Over the next few years, the Shrewsbury biscuit made several appearances in our dorm rooms, keeping us company as we navigated the twisty paths of pre-adulthood. Anyone who returned to college from Pune was ordered, not always politely, to bring back a box.
Much later, I finally got the opportunity to go straight to the source. I waited excitedly for my turn in line outside a modest-looking bakery. It was at least half-a-century old, with a big sign that read: “Kayani Bakery,” and underneath it, “We have no other branches.” Inside, old glass cases held all sorts of biscuits, from savory khari and cashew, to elaichi (cardamom) butter and ... the iconic Shrewsbury. I bought several boxes as gifts, but may have opened up a few myself as soon as I got to my hotel room.
The biscuit, I later found out, was an adaptation of a classic English recipe, and named after Shrewsbury, a town in the county of Shropshire. Interestingly, in all my time in the United Kingdom, I had never come across it. One of the earliest mentions of the biscuit was in a Renaissance-era cookbook called The Compleat Cook of 1658, where it is noted that it’s made from dough that contains sugar, flour, eggs, butter, and lemon zest. There are other recipes, in which people swap out lemon with orange zest, or rose water. The version I make, now that I live exactly 7,849 miles away from Kayani Bakery, is an amalgamation of several recipes, and has both lemon zest and lots of caraway seeds, but is less sugary.
In a few weeks, I’m going back to India for the holidays, and an old friend will come to visit from Pune. I don’t need to tell her what I’d like her to bring, because she’ll know. We’ll open the box on my bed, and swap stories from our distanced lives between bites of buttery goodness. Life, at that moment, will pick up right where we left off. Shrewsbury and all. —Arati Menon
Arati grew up hanging off the petticoat-tails of three generations of Indian matriarchs who used food to speak their language of love—and she finds herself instinctually following suit. Her life has taken her all across the world, but she carries with her a menagerie of inherited home and kitchen objects that serve as her anchor, no matter the living situation. She's an impassioned ambassador for life in Brooklyn, and a fierce critic of the vast amounts of cream cheese on a New York bagel.