Scones. You remember scones, don't you? And cream buns and éclairs. Every schoolgirl with a convent education, of my generation, has drooled over these yummy confections. How did we know they were yummy? Because Ms Blyton said so. Since we had no idea what they looked or smelt like, or felt like on the tongue, we were free to supply them with superlative attributes.
I well remember the year an Indian confectionery company introduced so-called chocolate éclairs into the market. It was a travesty, this rock-hard sweet that looked no different from all those boiled sweets in frilly plastic wrappers displayed in glass bottles in the local kaka shop. A real éclair, I was convinced, would transport me to the nth level of bliss, as would a scone or a cream bun. But would they, really? Aye, there's the rub. Like unheard melodies, uneaten treats are sometimes far sweeter. When you finally encounter an exotic-sounding dish you'd dreamt about, you might be in for a huge disappointment.
Most of my childhood cravings were ignited by storybook pictures. A mouse that stuffed into its hole a dimpled brown bun studded with plump raisins made me believe that buns were more delicious than cakes. There were apples in practically every story, scarlet and inviting, and they filled my head with rosy illusions. I'm sure if someone had given me a yellow Kashmiri apple I would have spurned it for being fake! Such was the power of English — the language as well as the culture that came riding piggyback on it. In high school I didn't need illustrations to deceive me; mere words on the page would do. Dickens made me hanker after eggnog, hot buttered crumpets, and Bob Cratchit's wife's Christmas pudding. As for the meringues in a Katherine Mansfield story, they practically melted in my mouth. It took me years to figure out that I had internalised an alien cultural landscape and that the sense of familiarity I felt was quite, quite false.
Although the mystique has faded, the temptation has not, to try out the exotic now and then. Let me report that I munched on steamed chestnuts in the U.K. and that it bore an eerie resemblance to boiled jackfruit seeds — which I relish, so the experience wasn't a total write-off. Unlike my most recent fiasco, last week, in a food court where a stall hawked waffles, crepes and pancakes. Now I had already fulfilled a wish created by the countless American authors I had read by eating pancakes in the U.S. with its classic accompaniment maple syrup. But the crepes exerted a strange pull over me. Remember crepe suzette? Such a fancy French ring to it.
Techies from the corporate offices on the upper floors thronged the lengthy row of stalls in the food court that offered everything from burgers to wheatgerm and noodles to biriyani. Nobody approached the pancake stall. That should have warned me. Instead, I admired the colourful graphics that advertised the cuisine and pursed my lips at the menu. If there's one thing I have learnt from food advertisements it is that the size of the eatable displayed creates an expectation of something that is thrice the size of what eventually turns up on your plate. Keeping this ratio in mind I decided to order a potato crepe and a mango (why not go Indian?) waffle, believing it would serve as a light teatime snack.
I took a table far enough from the stall so I wouldn't appear too eager, but not so far that I couldn't watch the cook in action. His hands got busy with batter. Some went into a pan and some into a waffle iron. (Oh, I'd seen waffle irons in comic strips.) I got myself a glass of water, bought a carrot-lime-juice from a stall that had “organic” inscribed in multiple spots on its walls, and returned to my table for a long wait.
The cook signalled to me even as his fingers played the last strains of the food sonata. From a jar he spooned out what looked like mango jam into the depressions on the waffle and added a scoop of ice cream on the side. He arranged my order on two plates and placed them on a tray. The first thing I noticed was the size of the portions. Instead of them being a third as big as I'd expected, they were thrice as big. My calculations had gone for a toss.
The crepe was a rectangle cut into several squares. The waffle was several squares joined together. I pierced a square of crepe with my fork and chewed. Ayyo, a maida dosa! Thinly stuffed with plain mashed potatoes laced with white sauce of some kind, and bland as hell. Only 19 more squares to go. After which I would have to mow the vast fields of waffle. Which turned out to be spongy. I guessed that it was made from the same maida-eggs-milk-sugar batter as the crepe. As I stodgily ploughed through the phoren fare, the south Indian stall at the end of the hall mocked me with its presence. “You could have dee-cently eaten a masala dosa,” it said to me.
Yesterday a friend told me she ate a scone in a local café. Let the record show that I am not tempted.
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