A slip of the tongue can land you in a soup
Never say one thing while meaning another when you place an order in a restaurant. Or say it at your peril, as I found out the other day when my son’s friends took us out to dinner. Everyone turned to me for the main order and suddenly nervous about making the key gastronomical decision, I stammered, ‘Kulchas’, when I meant ‘Phulkas’.
Kulcha, for those unfamiliar with the dish, is leavened Indian flatbread made from maida or all purpose flour. Excellent description for maida – all purpose flour, for when made into dough it takes on the qualities of rubber, gum and glue with the least amount of fuss. Phulka, which is very close in spirit and texture to roti and chapati, is the more modest but healthier relative of kulcha, being unleavened flatbread made from wheat flour and generally dry and light.
‘How many?’ asked the waiter. Blissfully unaware of my mistake and gaining in confidence, I said, ‘Ten’, sure that in spite of other dishes ordered, the five of us could easily manage two fluffy phulkas each. ‘No, twelve,’ I corrected, ordering an extra couple of them for the more ravenous among us, and felt a warm glow of satisfaction that comes from a job well done. The waiter raised his eyebrows at me and left.
After the mandatory wait of half an hour, a waiter brought in some dishes. He was followed by the one who had taken the order. This man didn't come in as much as stagger in, his hands weighed down by the laden plates he was barely able to balance. He plonked them before me and I was aghast to find the large plates heaped with giant kulchas gleaming wickedly with oil. Being rather thick and big, they had been halved and that explained the two plates. Twenty four huge halves, each the size of two parathas. ‘But these are kulchas!’ I protested, pushing back my chair in my agitation and almost falling off it, ‘I ordered phulkas.’ ‘No, Madam, you ordered kulchas.’
I turned disbelievingly to the others. ‘Did I?’ ‘You did,’ three voices chorused. The fourth, that of my husband, was mute, for he had already begun tucking into the noodles, oblivious to all else. Never one to experiment with food, he orders noodles on all occasions, unless it isn’t on the menu.
Some time was lost in clarifications, precious time, as it turned out, for it helped the kulchas turn cold and limp. Anyone with past experience of kulcha, naan or the Kerala parota, cousins all, knows they have to be eaten hot. I gamely took one as did the others. It felt like leather and behaved like elastic as I tugged and pulled with all my strength. And it tasted like rubber. As I chewed dutifully and laboriously, my jaws ached. Throwing table manners to the winds, I used both my hands to tear off another piece. Someone quickly ordered chapatis as a chunk of kulcha flew to the next table.
I appealed to Ajay, the trencherman who generally does the mopping up. He felt sorry for me and took two more halves, but the others gave them a wide berth. I hate the idea of food being wasted; so I asked for the rest of the kulchas, eighteen halves, to be parcelled. And thus began my kulcha days - kulcha for breakfast, kulcha for lunch, kulcha for supper and kulcha in between. Three days later Ajay called to ask what’s for dinner. Three guesses, I said. Prompt came the reply, ‘Kulcha, kulcha, kulcha?’ ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ I responded.
This was an error of my own making, but certain menu cards make delightful mistakes and offer you very diverting fare. I remember coming across ‘sweat’ cakes under the heading ‘Evening Snakes’ and made me very curious about morning snakes. Another hotel offered a range of guptas – vegetable gupta, paneer gupta, cauliflower gupta, among others. This foxed me for a while. Could they be special dishes made using recipes jealously preserved from the Golden Age of the Guptas? But no, they were actually koftas.
Then there were mutton chaps and finger chaps on offer. This wasn't blatant cannibalism at work, it was only very harmless (not for the goat, though) mutton chops and finger chips. Gopi Manchurian and alu gopis dance enticingly on the menu. Sand ‘witches’ appear spellbinding, meatless chicken sounds like a riddle waiting to be cracked while ‘boreyani’ doesn't tempt.
With eating out becoming so common, you should be on your guard when you choose from the menu. I learnt it the hard way. I'm off kulchas forever but my jaws still ache.
(A weekly column by the city-based writer, academician and author of the Butterfingers series)