Misery of a foodie among philistines

Among the words that are no longer in use or are rarely, if ever, heard is 'tiffin'. It has been substituted, as with so many other words that were part of our daily lives, by the American slang, 'snack'. So, instead of a 'tiffin break' when we would eat our tiffin at a leisurely pace, we now have a 'snack break' when snacks are consumed (as opposed to eaten) at a break-neck speed.

Growing up in a small town in east India during the 1970s, one of the things we learned early in life was that tiffin was not something to be trifled with. Great care and attention went into the preparation of tiffin, which was twice a day. There was mid-morning tiffin, to be eaten at school (or at home if it was a holiday) halfway through breakfast and lunch, and there was evening tiffin which was served before you settled down to do your homework in the evening. The routine was pretty much the same for adults too, just that they did not have homework to do.

The reason I mention tiffin is not on account of a sudden attack of nostalgia but because with its demise we have also lost a host of mouth-watering preparations, most of them of Anglo-Indian origin. For instance, spicy and fluffy puffs, deep-fried vegetable chops and, for those not gifted with a strong disposition, plain and easy-to-digest kedgeree.

What was unique about them was they were prepared, more often than not, with leftovers from that day's lunch or the previous night's dinner. The puffs would be stuffed with leftover meat or chicken taken off the bones while leftover salad went into the making of vegetable chops. The ingenuity of Anglo-Indian women ("Waste not, want not," as Roger's mom once sternly told my ma) was a boon for all wives and mothers.
There used to be confectioners in Kolkata where you could buy puffs and patties that almost tasted the same as what you had eaten as a child. The vegetable chop hung on precariously to wedding feast menus at Bengali homes before it was unceremoniously dropped and tandoori paneer included. Flury's on Park Street bravely tried to keep the tradition of tiffin alive for a long time, but has now given up trying. Thankfully, it still serves Darjeeling tea though not in a china tea pot.

Out here in Delhi which has been home for me for two decades, there is a philistinian disdain towards anything that is not of Punjabi origin. The only exception that is made is for masala dosa which tastes nothing like masala dosa. Pizza and pasta have long been Punjabified with the help of palak and paneer. The more adventurous venture forth into the byzantine lanes around Jama Masjid, but those who have tasted Mughlai cuisine as it is meant to be cooked would know that the Firdausi Korma which Karim's serves is an ersatz version.

Frankly, eating out in Delhi for those who know their food and are not impressed by the carrot trimmings arranged daintily around a miserable slice of fish that breathed its last many moons ago is a depressing experience. You could run up a huge bill and yet return home famished and frustrated. A great deal is made of Punjabi cuisine, but there's only that much you can do with palak and paneer. Chicken and mutton taste the same once they have been doused with garam masala and bathed with ladles of oil.

Mumbai, on the other hand, is a foodie's paradise. A vada pav, either mid-morning or early-evening, makes for excellent tiffin. The taste lingers on for hours after the last morsel has been had and the fingers licked clean of the green chutney. This year I have had to travel frequently to Mumbai and each visit has fetched me new delights in eating out as it is meant to be.

The eatery I have frequented the most is Mahesh Lunch Home at Fort and it gets my vote for serving delectable, wholesome traditional meals for which the bill is negligible, at least by Delhi standards. On one visit, my wife joined me for an extended weekend and we tried Mahesh at Juhu. It was an unmitigated disaster. We left without eating. Highway Gomantak, highly rated though it is, didn't measure up to our expectations. I am sure there are many more places to explore and discover new wonders.

The point really is eating out reflects the culture, or its absence, of a city. Delhi pretends to be a city, but it really doesn't qualify to be recognised as one, not the least because it doesn't know what eating out is all about. Concrete structures and chrome-and-glass malls alone don't make a city. For that, you need a jest for life. Mumbai has it. Delhi doesn't.

The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist

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