Tiffin chronicles

Jun 28, 2015, 07:35 IST | Anu Prabhakar

Rukmini Srinivas, television chef and author of Tiffin: Memories and Recipes of Indian Vegetarian Food, on interweaving family history with long-forgotten recipes

The tiffin, writer ECP Hull once wrote, should ‘invariably be light, and consist only of bread or biscuit, fruits and a glass of sherry or claret’. In the book — The European in India or Anglo-Indian’s Vade-mecum: Anglo-Indian Social Customs and Native Character: AND Medical Guide for Anglo-Indians — he cautions: Heavy tiffins make men heavy, sleepy and interfere with due performance of active work in the after-part of the day.

Masala Vadai
Masala Vadai

Television chef Rukmini Srinivas’s latest cookbook-cum-memoir, titled Tiffin: Memories and Recipes of Indian Vegetarian Food, is replete with such delightful tidbits about the meal. For instance, the colloquial term ‘tiffin’ (which first appeared in AD 1807 in Anglo-Indian writing), she writes, is believed to have been derived from ‘tiffing’, ‘an eighteenth-century English slang term for sipping'.

In an email interview, Srinivas explains that it was at the insistence of her two daughters that she wrote the book. “They wanted me to record the recipes not only for their benefit but for everyone’s children, so that, we do not lose our heritage,” she explains. Traditional recipes are no longer in vogue, points out the 87-year-old. “In my bookshelf, with over hundreds of cookbooks, I couldn’t find even one about the tiffin. So, I decided that it would be a good subject for a cookbook-cum-memoir,” adds the author, who began listing the recipes while corresponding with her daughters who flew to the US for higher education. “They would write in asking for recipes of dishes they craved.” When the Internet came in, this correspondence took place over email, and, later over the phone, she adds.

Rukmini Srinivas writes about new methods of cooking and traditional recipes in her book
Rukmini Srinivas writes about new methods of cooking and traditional recipes in her book

The writer fills the pages of her book with tales about living in pre- and post-Independent India, interspersed with her trysts with food. There are references to her rectangular, metal school dabba and the culture of ‘small meals’, stories about her mother’s ‘pre-puberty marriage’ at 13 and subsequent shift to Quetta (now Pakistan) where she learnt to make a mean biryani from her Pushtoon landlady, ‘quixotic’ uncle and ‘crazy’ aunts. But, the central figure of most stories is perhaps her father, whose lifelong concern about diet and health made the tiffin an important part of the family’s meals. “I grew up in British India in a vegetarian family.

My father, who was an officer in the Military Accounts Department, would be posted to a different city in India every three years,” Srinivas tells us. “He suffered from asthma and that, coupled with his dread of obesity, made him careful about his diet and when he ate the last meal of the day.” Hence, light meals post sunset consisted of light soups, thin, well-cooked dals, salads, fruits, steamed dalia upma with chopped vegetables, aval (or, beaten rice flakes) and so on.

cashew Gulkand Barfi
Cashew Gulkand Barfi

With great fondness, Srinivas recalls her mother’s cooking as a ‘daily treat’. “Some days, my mother would ask us just before we left for school what we would like for tiffin. My favourites were ras malai and sabudana vada, while my sister’s picks were gulab jamun and masala dosai. But what we as children did not know was that if served at tiffin time, masala dosai, or for that matter even sada dosai, needed to be planned a day in advance. We would have crispy rava dosai, with coconut chutney.”

The writer, who married anthropologist MN Srinivas in 1955, travelled across India and abroad. “I made many friends through food, learnt new methods of cooking and experimented with new recipes, bringing my own touch to traditional recipes which I share in this book,” she elaborates.

The message of her book, says Srinivas, is simple. “I emphasise the value of food and family, of eating home-cooked food together as a route to good health and well being. I believe that regardless of how busy we may be, cooking a meal is an important part of our lives and it should remain so,” she says.

Excerpts from the book

Dr Chitappa (Srinivas’s uncle) often tried his hand at cooking when my aunt was away with her three young children, visiting her parents ... A connoisseur of south Indian food, Dr Chitappa’s claim to fame was his masala vadai, the south Indian falafel; spicy, crunchy, deep-fried lentil patty, aromatic herbs and pungent with green chillies and sharp onions, I remember them as being fabulous!

I remember one special Deepavali celebration in Tanjore the year my elder sister Kamala was married … for weeks in advance, the Tanjore home kitchen was a hive of activity. My aunt Annam arrived a couple of weeks earlier to help make the sweets. My favourites that Deepavali were sticky coconut toffee, therattipal, cashew gulkand barfi, sweet boondi, chocolate mounds with sweetened coconut, crunchy naada pakoda, gulab jamun (deep purple spongy balls of reduced milk solids floating in an aromatic syrup) and Kanchipuram idli, an interesting and tasty version of the regular rice idli which we routinely had at least once a week for tiffin.

Pidi Kozhukattai

>> 1 cup raw rice
>> ¼ cup tur dal
>> 1 tablespoon chana dal
>> 2 dry red chillies
>> ½ teaspoon black peppercorn
>> 2 tablespoons oil
>> ½ teaspoon brown mustard seeds
>> 1 teaspoon chana dal
>> 2 green chillies, chopped in thin rings
>> 12 curry leaves, torn in pieces
>> ¼ teaspoon asafoetida powder
>> 2 cups water
>> ¾ cup shredded conconut, fresh or frozen
>> ¼ cup grated carrots
>> ¼ cup chopped methi (fenugreek leaves)
>> ¼ cup dill
>> ¼ cup mint leaves (optional)
>> Salt to taste

Pidi Kozhukattai
Pidi Kozhukattai. Pics and recipe courtesy: Tiffin: Memories and Recipes of Indian Vegetarian Food, by Rupa Publications

Method first stage
>> Dry grind the first 5 ingredients to a coarse consistency, resembling corn grits or coarse semolina.
>> Dry roast the ground mix on medium low heat in a heavy pan till it is just warm to the touch, stirring continuously for two minutes
>> Empty the roasted mix into a bowl and set aside


>> Heat the oil in a wok on medium heat
>> Add mustard seeds, and when they pop, lower the heat, add the chana dal and roast till the grains turn light golden-brown
>> Stir in the green chillies, curry leaves and asfoetoida. Add 2 cups water and salt, raise the heat to medium and bring to
a boil
>> Add the coconut, herbs and vegetables, if you are using them. Bring to a second boil
>> Drizzle 1 cup of the ground mix, little by little, stirring and breaking all lumps that may form
>> Keep stirring and cooking till all the water in absorbed. If the mix is too dry, sprinkle 1 or 2 tablespoons water and stir, and if too wet, add a little more of the ground mix and stir. Turn off the stove
>> Add salt to taste and empty into a bowl. The mix when cooked should be moist enough to hold togetherthird stage
>> Wet your fingers in a bowl of water and take 1 tbsp of the warm mix, and loosely roll into an oval dumpling in the palm of your hand
>> Set aside on a platter and keep covered. Roll and make rest of the dumplings
>> Fill the bottom pan of a steamer with water to a depth of two inches. Set to boil on medium heat.
>> Grease the steamer plate with a smear of opil
>> Transfer the dumplings from the platter to the steamer plate and steam, covered, for 5 to 7 minutes
>> Remove lid and test by inserting a toothpick which should come out clean. Remove and arrange the pidi kpzhukattai on a serving platter
>> Steam all the pidi kozhukattais in batches. Serve with a drizzle of hot melted ghee or butter, and coconut chutney or spicy pulimilagai on the side

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