When we were kids, my eldest sister needed some help with math. My resourceful mother unearthed a colleague’s husband, a math teacher by day, who was happy to help my sister out. He duly arrived every day for a month, but flatly refused any payment for his services.
Being extremely un-posh and therefore labouring under the burden of reciprocity, mummy came up with a canny plan: She would simply feed the tutor his fees. So, no sooner had the books been spread out on the dining table, than she would begin to send out a moveable feast of snacks, a succession of yummies of every shape, colour, size and cooking technique.
A typical session could consist of aloo bondas, pound cake, cheese straws, and sandwiches with green chutney, tomatoes and cucumbers, their crusts cut off and placed flower like on a delicate plate. To wash this down would be frothy cold coffee or lassi. On another day, snack bounty could consist of coconut macaroons fresh from the oven, potato croquettes with a crunchy vermicelli crust (yes, they are yummy and my mother makes the best ones), and fruit chaat with ice cold Rooh Afza with condensation on the outside of the glass.
My middle sister and I used to wait behind anxiously twitching curtains for the class to finish. As soon as the tutor, escorted from the table by a bowing and scraping mummy mounted his waiting Lambretta scooter, we attacked whatever was left on the plates in a feeding frenzy that stopped only when everything edible was polished off.
The private lessons were a huge success: The tutor added his own body weight to the already portly mass quivering atop the Lambretta and my middle sister and I feasted on the leftovers of the guru dakshina in a rare show of sisterly camaraderie. It is not entirely clear that the student benefited in any manner other than gustatory but, regardless, after a month the Hindu middle class tea room folded its tent and silently stole away.
My sisters and I were devastated. The Disneyland of delights that constitutes an Indian snack food feast had given way to the wasteland of everyday food and we were naturally in deep depression. The truth is that snacks titillate our taste buds and fire our imagination in a way that meals, even special occasion meals, never can. Snack foods exist not to satisfy hunger cravings as much as lure and entice the taste buds and the appetite. There is the delicious contrast between the tininess of the treat and the speed with which it can be demolished. Also, let’s face it: Meals roll around thrice every day, while snacks may or may not pop up in a typical day for most of us, making them all the more irresistible.
Essentially, if meals are the long-standing spouses of the food world – comfortable and loved – snacks are the trophy girlfriends or the toy boys, exciting and designed to get the pulse racing. No one understands this more than the Gujaratis, who have learnt to maintain perfect harmony between both sorts of edible worlds, figuratively speaking.
A typical Gujarati meal is a perfect confluence of meal like food and snakes (the technical term for snacks in Gujarati). In fact, snakes are much beloved and integral to Gujarati cuisine. There’s nashta – a selection of dry savouries such as chivda, bhakarwadi, ganthia, etc., which are served as elevenses. And there’s farsan (Gujarati for happy but fat), yummy items of incredible deliciousness served during a meal: dhoklas, khaman dhoklas, ghugra – a crescent horn-shaped savoury pastry shell with a green pea stuffing – khandvi, ragda pattis (fried potato patties, like, but quite distinct from, aloo tikkis), patra (arbi leaves rolled with gram flour, steamed and then tempered, cut and served pinwheel style), the world famous batata wada ( a version of the aloo bonda that so comprehensively paralysed my sister and me with longing) and a million other yummies.
Basically, India is an everyday snack food festival on speed. Everywhere, delicious bits of yumminess are routinely fried, baked, tossed together with spices and chutneys, steamed and sautéed and served up as snacks. The Marwaris contemplate their business empires over a nashta of bhujia, kachori, nasal, samosa and kalmi vada. At the other end of the country, the Bengalis soothe themselves that there is in fact a God when meal times seem dreadfully distant with their own spread. Cutlets (fancifully called chops), slightly sweetened with beetroot and raisins and crunchy with peanuts, and the breadcrumb fried prawn and chicken kobirajis, eaten dipped into the mouth puckeringly delicious kashundi. Every state has some version of chickpea batter fried vegetables known variously as pakoras or bhajiyas or pyaanji, which make rainy days even more magical. And the national snack, the momo, now mandated by law to be sold everywhere where more than seven people gather together.
Which leads me to one of the central questions that men have asked themselves since the beginning of time: What would MY Desert Island Snack platter consist of? In addition to the gustatory pleasure of consumption, they would need to provide warmth, comfort, nostalgia and joy and be ones I could bear to eat again and again and again.
I’ve thought long and hard about this (what can I say? I have a philosopher’s soul) – and, in no particular order, here’s what I have come up with: The pahadi pakoras my nani and mum used to make, with vegetables cut in a longish dice roughly thrown together, bound with (rather than dipped in) besan batter and fried, eaten with a sharp green chutney. Idlis in some shape or form, maybe an aloo bonda over a batata wada (I adore batata wadas, but the bondas speak to me more), sabudana vadas, crisp with peanuts and sharp with chillies, jhaal moori with the mustard oil twist, tapioca chips freshly fried with that deadly red masala on them, khandvi sprinkled over with shaved coconut and pomegranate, a tiny wodge of the Bombay rasta sandwich with green chutney and potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes, and most definitely the potato croquettes with the crisp vermicelli crust.
Many many years have passed and many many snack foods have passed my lips since the math tutor on his Lambretta scooter came to teach my sister calculus. And yet, looking at all the snacks I want to clutch with me to eternity, it’s clear his lessons have had a lasting impact.