Some years back, we went on a holiday to Cambodia. After a week of tramping up and down the largest temple complexes in the world with incredibly detailed bas relief carved murals and massive Buddha heads carved out of stone and entire temples carved out of steep mountainsides, we returned home all culture-vultured out.
Our daughter was quite young then, and when school reopened she was asked to draw where she had been for her summer vacation. When I saw how this incredibly gifted, talented, sensitive child had represented the wonder of the world she had just experienced, I was moved to tears, for she had drawn a vast table groaning with things. For those lacking her sophistication and unfamiliar with world heritage, she had helpfully labelled the things on the table: mufin bakn eggs choklet sosej ham kroson jam joos. Over the claims of one of the most admired, visited and feted architectural wonders of the world, she had chosen to draw the endless breakfast buffet at the marvellous hotel we had stayed at, at which we had lingered for hours.
And while I would like to believe these were early signs of her genius, the truth of the matter is that anyone with even a solitary grey cell to call their own knows that a good breakfast buffet is easily the equal of any of Unesco’s World Heritage sites. And the best of them are an unbeatable testament to all that is gloriously uplifting and joyous about the human spirit.
A good breakfast buffet is all about the infinite promise that each day holds, a promise made edible. The wealth of choice, the feast of options, the breaking of the fast with such abundance—there is something about a good breakfast buffet that can make the world seem like a better place, full of possibilities. As Samuel Johnson said (or would have defi said if he had ever been to a fabulous breakfast buffet), “when a man is tired of breakfast goodies, he is tired of life.” Because there’s not a person alive who hasn’t felt their pulse race when looking at their favourite bits of the buffet.
This is true only of breakfast though: Buffets seem to lose their sheen rapidly as the day progresses. What seems sparkling and exuberant in the morning starts becoming less magical and more limp and ordinary with every passing hour. So, a lunch buffet holds pleasures mainly for those whose appetites exceed their means and a dinner buffet is the wildly unsuccessful result of everything unfinished at the end of the day in the restaurant kitchen meeting clueless diners.
As someone who adores breakfast and regards it as my reward to myself for having stumbled out of bed every day, a buffet with yummies is one of my life’s great pleasures. I choose and rate hotels based on the spread they provide and can scythe my way through a vast selection of breakfast goodies from every culture and culinary tradition. I have now formulated a system that allows me to pitch my spectacular greed at the level where I can do it most justice and still not be so incapacitated by it that I have to be carried out of the breakfast room in a food-induced coma. And here it is, my time-honed system, yours for free. You’re welcome.
While the time and resources I spend at breakfast are obviously determined by what the day ahead looks like, my rules for the buffet are the same. First a leisurely but systematic recce to see what is on offer and then, a series of planned and targeted raids to snag what I like: attacks that would shame Mahmud Ghazni who only managed to plunder India 17 times.
I always start with fruit, because I love it and also because it makes me feel pious. The thing is that fruit has negative calories so when you eat some, the weight melts off of you. (While this may not be strictly true in the strictest sense of the word “true”, I’m not willing to be convinced by any argument against it, because some things you have to take on faith.) So I start with a heaping high plate of negative calories and I also snag some uncut fruit alongside because world hunger is always just right around the corner and I am not willing to be caught unawares. However, to balance this influx of weight loss particles in my system, I steadfastly ignore the seductive charms of all the fruit juices on offer. (I’m nothing if not moderate)
The next course (known worldwide as bread-eggs-cheese-meats) is where breakfast actually begins. While in the cheese and bread section I am second to none and at the egg station I am a little boring and always ask for an omelette with everything; the meats is one place I always look to my children for inspiration. These young tender souls are fearless in the way they attack this portion of the buffet. Many is the time that I have asked them to leave at least part of the animal for others to enjoy, but with their attitude of selfless service to all humanity, they persevere till no trace of it remains on the table. So bacon, sausage, ham, salamis, smoked meat are filled in wheelbarrows and brought to our table where they are systematically demolished and sometimes serve staff bringing in fresh platters to replenish the empty ones at the table are waylaid and plundered before they reach their destination.
I love this part of breakfast – actually, I love all parts, but this part makes me feel virtuous because I’m officially eating the things I routinely eat at breakfast so I can always tell myself that, a few thousand calories here or there, it’s business as usual. The only thing I miss, that very few places seem to have, is a selection of butters as well. Because there are butters and then there are butters. There are things that taste just so with the salty buttercup yellow kiss of Amul and then those that would sing with the tang and the sensuous slow melt of French / European butter. I love white butter too and, while I’m not a paratha- puri eater at breakfast buffets, I’m sure those who are, would appreciate pats of white butter melting on sizzling parathas on their plates.
Meanwhile, my hardworking family chow their way through pancakes and waffles and Danishes and banana breads and yoghurt flavoured with every fruit known to man, but those are typically not paths I follow in my quest for buffet salvation. I’m much more interested in the native goodie section. So, after the eggs and cheese and meats are wolfed down, my next raids are targeted at the idlis, dosas, wadas with piping hot sambar and an array of chutneys, pho and congee with a hundred bits and bobs to bung in, hoppers with eggs and spicy sambals and creamy curries. Obviously not all are eaten at the same breakfast – you can’t expect miracles even from those of us who eat for India. This is a great time to hit up chefs for recipes by the way: The slow end of the breakfast service (somehow I am always there, demolishing an astonishing number of things) is when I have got many recipes from many chefs delighted to see evidence of their own genius in my drooling greed.
Finally, one step away from passing out from food exhaustion, I always end with tea (a pot of English breakfast) and a croissant (kroson to those of who haven’t been to Cambodia) with lashings of butter and jam. But, as important as what I do eat are the things I steer very far away from. This is a much shorter list, but here are the top things I never stop to plunder at a breakfast buffet.
* Puri and everything that is served with puri: alu, cholla, halwa etc ( because while puri is one of the culinary achievements of our civilization, a breakfast buffet is not where I choose to partake of it)
* Parathas (see note above for puri)
* Salad (WHO are these people who eat salads at a breakfast buffet and how sad are their lives??)
*The beige squelchy Birchers muesli that seems to exist simply to make people feel bad about themselves as they roll by with their plates piled high with pig. Everything else is fair game.
This is my system, my blueprint to breakfast happiness. If you have a better system, you can always invite me to a breakfast buffet and in the spirit of friendly competition we can see whose is better. (Mine!)
For all of you who love breakfast buffets as much as I do, here’s another very good reason you should frequent them much more often than you do. A breakfast buffet is not just an early morning feast but also an eerily accurate test of friendship and compatibility. So if you know someone who is grumpy even in the face of 10 varieties of sausage lying cheek by jowl with 10 varieties of cheese, walk away from that person immediately. That relationship is doomed because, let’s face it, no one has room for such negativity in their life.
So here’s my new plan and you should make it yours as well. Take every single person you know to a marvellous breakfast buffet. Even if you end up minus a friend you will end up plus a very good breakfast.
And in my book, that’s a fair trade indeed.
Vatsala Mamgain is a glutton, cook, runner, tree lover, shopper, reader, and talker