It took a recent trip to Ajmer for me to realise how provincial my attitude to food was. For years and years breakfast had meant eggs-and-toast. Eggs anyhow; preferably fried sunny-side-up.
In the age when an egg or two a day was de rigueur, when cholesterol was unheard of, one had the luxury of sometimes having even a boring boiled egg. Sundays meant a French omelette, but usually the egg was fried or scrambled, with a grilled tomato on the side. On a special morning, bacon or sausages, or a cold shammi kabab discovered in the fridge and heated beside the egg in its frying pan. But like all good things, this had to come to an end. The dire advice to eat fewer eggs changed the breakfast regime forever.
After years of simplicity, when no thought was required to make a breakfast menu, I had to devise breakfast sans eggs. For a year or two I tried mushrooms on toast or leftover veggies from the night before. Cheese was a no-no. And, after soliciting recipes from friends, upma, poha and sabudana khichdi. The upma was quite non-standard: wet and runny or dry and knotted with lumps that could be picked up and thrown at an enemy.
Before packaged stuff
This was in the days before the stuff was packaged. Poha was okay. Sabudana khichri was really difficult to crack until I found an online site for NRIs seeking recipes from the old country. Now it’s perfect, with translucent grains, each separate from the other but cooked through. But it took many bad attempts: the result used to be either slimy, like frogspawn, or had white pellets with stone-like kernels that hurt the teeth. The trick is to soak the sabudana for half an hour the night before, then drain and refrigerate it. The moisture gets absorbed through to the core, without dissolving the outer layer and turning it to mucus. The next morning it just has to be tempered as usual with cumin, onions, chopped green chillies and peanuts. Ideally it should be topped with a sprinkling of grated coconut, but that’s not always to hand, so lime juice is enough. I like to add a pinch of powdered sugar right on top, at the table.
I knew that breakfast could offer a wider choice. People do eat idli and dosai at breakfast. My respect and admiration for those who can make them is boundless, but my own capability isn’t. So those are not for me. And there are other options that my kitchen can produce, like parathas and missi roti, but I have this aversion to putting on the tawa at the crack of dawn.
So, over the years, with growing awareness of “healthy” food, our breakfast menu has been refined to fruit and some kind of cereal. At least this way we get to consume a decent quantity of fruit, leaving us guilt-free the rest of the day, free to load on the carbs and proteins.
Back to Ajmer. I was staying at an institute for a training session. It was basic and clean, like the food. But the breakfast menu made me think. They served poha on a couple of mornings, with sliced white bread and red mixed-fruit jam on the side. Fine. And then one morning there was no poha, though there was bread. And, in a large stainless-steel dish, namkeen mixture: besan sevian. I was hungry and made a sandwich with the namkeen and some tomato ketchup squashed between two slices of bread. Not bad at all. Then the poha arrived and I saw everyone around me piling their plates with it and topping it with the crunchy namkeen.
I asked whether this was a traditional breakfast and they said no, not here; this is what “they” ate in Gujarat. The next morning breakfast was namkeen again, though a different kind, with peanuts and many things of different shapes but all made of besan. That was it;the team made a meal of it with cups of sweet, milky tea. They seemed perfectly satisfied, because they ate platefuls and set off for the day’s field work, full of beans. Sorry, legumes.
I was told that in some parts of Rajasthan, the first meal is bajre ki khichri mixed with chhachh, buttermilk. The khichri is usually eaten hot, for dinner, and then dished up cold for breakfast with the buttermilk, which is supposed to be beneficially cooling. Actually breakfast for most of us used to be leftovers from the night before: rice kanji in the East, basi roti in the North. Or fresh parathas, stuffed or not. In whatever form, the staple grain was eaten again for breakfast, particularly for those still connected with the land.
Now in the cities it’s all Kellogs and Tropicana juice, but I remember a description of breakfast in the old part of Moradabad, not so long ago. A boy was sent out every morning to the market, which wasn’t far because the house was in a gali in the bazaar. He would come back with hot, crisp, just-fried jalebis. And in a leaf doona, moong ki dal which had been boiled and mashed to a paste, mixed with chopped onions, green chillies and lime juice. A third packet would contain dal moth, which was eaten on hot buttered toast. So breakfast of namkeen should have come as no surprise.
Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi and works with Pratham’s ASER (Annual Status of Education Report).