There can be many perfect meals but the real trouble is in the middle!
Today, when I moaned to my daughter about not knowing what to write on, she said “Amma, how can you ask? Feeling peckish! At least three times a week you say you’re ‘feeling peckish’.” She’s right, I do. Particularly when I’m trying to eat “carefully”, to abide by the dictum that one should rise from the table almost full, not fully fed up. A couple of hours later, I feel peckish, I feel that I could do with a snack. I thought the word meant slightly hungry, but I checked and it means simply, hungry; but it’s most often used with a qualifier like ‘bit’ or ‘trifle’, as in “I was feeling a bit peckish and found the biscuit tin”. My peak times are mid-morning, mid-afternoon and midnight.
The trouble is that for breakfast I crave two eggs, sunny side up, on crisp buttered toast, a couple — or three — rashers of bacon, a glass of sweet lassi and a cup of coffee; and have instead to stop at a bowl of watermelon, half a mango and a spoonful of upma; it’s no wonder that at 11 o’clock I’m feeling peckish. I try to ignore the feeling and bring lunch forward. I succeed because there’s no alternative. But if I worked in a place whose canteen-fried fresh samosas and bread pakoras come at 11, I would have to succumb. Anita says that, between classes, when she and her colleagues sit down for a cup of tea, someone or the other orders a couple of samosas and when they float by, the smell wafts inescapably in her direction, leaving her with no choice. And she’s quite right because there’s no comparison between hot deep-fried canteen snacks and healthy alternatives like Elevenses and Granola bars.
But mid-afternoon peckishness is harder to ignore, particularly in winter. Lunch is long vanished, there’s a slight torpor, what my daughter calls the 4 o’clock feeling. Her craving then is for a small tub of hummus and some pita bread. For me, though, there’s only one combination that does the trick: something small, sweet and chocolate-y, and a hot something with caffeine in it. I’ve tried to combine it into one sin: a cup of strong, sweetened coffee. But no, what the soul craves for is a chocolate cupcake or a chocolate biscuit. One afternoon, though, I happened to be at home when the peckishness struck. No chocolate anything to be had. But there was a Tupperware box in the fridge, and it contained laddoos from a wedding. Golden yellow, made of the finest motichoor, fried in desi ghee, they lacked nothing but softness, but ten seconds in the microwave oven and there they were as if freshly made, fragile, soft and sweet. I managed to stop at two.
The midnight feeling, of wanting a snack, not a meal, is assuaged by two categories. One is dessert — or a substitute. A forgotten box from L’Opéra, with one almond croissant is perfect. But even cold cakes with solidified cream icing that I wouldn’t bother with at normal dessert time taste better at midnight than fresh. Oh the joy of porous cake with a cold layer of sweet whipped cream icing. It has to be gulped, swallowed, scarfed down, not masticated and lingered over. The cake bit becomes heavy, not airy; it’s cold and solid and the icing tastes like refrigerated butter, cooling the throat as it’s downed. Sometimes I’m in greater luck. Cold bread pudding, which is even better than hot. Hot, it’s good — we all know that: bread soaked and baked till it’s soft and fused with warm eggy custard, with crisp exposed tip-of-the-iceberg bits. But cold, it’s even better. Less sweet, less hot, it takes no effort to eat. So if any’s left over after dinner, I’m happy to feel peckish at midnight. Sometimes, wanting fresh, hot “dessert”, I pour hot milk and honey on cereal (though at breakfast, cereal is better with cold milk) to make a warm sweet mash. Then a sprinkling of sugar and more cereal, a little at a time, so that the sugar doesn’t dissolve and the cereal doesn’t get mushy: both stay crunchy and I add a pinch at a time as I progress through the bowl. When I want fine dining, I add walnuts and raisins. Pudding contentment.
I’ve been rabbiting on about sweets, but I usually want the other, salt. At odd hours I neither want to disturb the routine of the kitchen nor to cook from scratch. So, at the witching hour, I forage. One serendipitous night I found a box of chicken sandwiches: brown bread filled with shredded roast chicken slathered with mayonnaise.
The excitement came from the complete unexpectedness of the discovery. Obviously we’d eaten out and forgotten that these had been made. Clingwrapped, the sandwiches were soft and fresh though the token salad leaves were limp now. They were all consumed. But my favourite “feeling peckish” solution is kabab sandwiches. I fantasise about them. There is no better thing than them. If, just if, a couple or three shami kababs are left over from dinner, I spread two slices of bread with mayo, place the cold kababs on one, smash them roughly with a fork — but not too hard lest I damage the bread and, in any case, I like them chunky — and top with the other. A crisp green chilli on the side and the “meal” is perfect.