My mother is a fabulous cook and we have always eaten like kings. Always, except for our school tiffin that is. Mummy was working right through our school lives and so, the fact that she never had much time in the morning, may have had a role to play in this. Day after day after day, in the ultimate enactment of the triumph of hope over experience, I would race to open up my tiffin box. (Being impressively greedy this would be perhaps an hour into the school day – waiting for break was for entirely more civilized souls than I.) And day after day the same kheera-tamatar sandwich would stare unblinkingly back at me.
I would look longingly at everyone else’s tiffins because everyone’s tiffins were vastly more interesting than mine. There would be parathas with wedges of spicy, oily achar (that sometimes leaked oil over notebooks and forever stained them yellow and scented them with mustard oil), aalu chaat, idlis in masala, cutlets with a tiny stainless steel sindoor box full of ketchup, light and fragrant poha with bits of green chillies and crunchy peanuts, homemade rolls, vadas studded with ginger and chunks of coconut, French toast sticky and caramelized and a zillion other things. But I knew I was doomed, forever excluded from the warm embrace of these yummies.
The predictability of Mummy’s daily offering was exactly inversely proportional to its trade value: Even with coercion and pity thrown in, my tiffin was pretty much untouchable. Even those unfortunates who got sandwiches managed chutney sandwiches, jam sandwiches, toasted sandwiches with cheese and tomato oozing out of the middle, and sometimes even salami sandwiches, egg sandwiches, chicken sandwiches; basically sandwiches that were all much much higher on the caste and class totem than my own wildly unseductive kheera-tamatar sandwiches.
Ergo, I spent my entire school life cosmically hungry and panting after the contents of everyone else’s tiffin box. For a long time, I thought this was because my mum had no time; but I realized somewhere along the way that it was because she never really understood the role of tiffin. She, who whipped up incredible things routinely and could so easily have chucked a few leftovers into our tiffin boxes, thus transforming the tenor of our school days, stoutly stuck to her kheera-tamatar guns; because she believed that tiffin was something one needed to ingest as efficiently as possible without any thought or drama. In her view, being intravenously pumped with Wisdom and Knowledge was quite enough excitement and pleasure in itself and tiffin was just the boring bit in the middle.
Which, of course, is the exact antithesis of ALL Knowledge and Wisdom. Any preschooler can attest to the inescapable fact that in the bleak landscape of formal education that is a regular school day, Tiffin = Happiness.
While education has changed immeasurably and so have the foods that children like, some truths will always be eternal. For the bored and bewildered hordes who populate our temples of learning, tiffin will often be the only break most can catch in a day. Whether the contents of the tiffin box are a delightful discovery or something that is opened with a groan, tiffin is tiffin. It exists not to provide sustenance to inquisitive minds (are you listening, mummy?) but to provide a pause in the dreary, soul-deadening business of chasing knowledge and to savour, however momentarily, the pleasures of freedom.
A good tiffin is by definition a good tiffin. But no matter what it contains, it needs to strike a balance between being something yummy enough to be able to have trade value and yet not so irresistible that you don’t get a look in yourself before the hordes demolish it. Something unexpected is always wonderful but when you know what awaits you at break, being able to drool in anticipation right from morning assembly, is also a rare and precious gift. An assortment of yummies is wonderful—these were the tiffins I most lusted after in my youth—little bits and bobs of baked and fried and homemade and store-bought things like a lucky dip. But sometimes, all you need is enough of just one thing, so you are cosmically and gastroenterically replete. And of course, while treats are always treats, no matter how often one gets them, variety is always critical; I bet Marie Antoinette’s boy got sick of cake in his tiffin every day.
So whether you opened up your tiffin only at break time as all good law-abiding kids did, or whether you opened it at your desk and kept it open and then snuck your snout in and started grazing right after the second period bell rang, you must have had a favourite tiffin. One that made your heart sing, that made the hideousness of lessons bearable, that made you momentarily forget the science project that was due in the fourth period for which you had exactly jack to turn in and made Miss so-and-so who taught Hindi seem less nasal and nasty.
Mine was Hindu noodles (so christened before the cuisine Sino-Ludhianvi became recognized world over)—leftovers from the previous night, which I had to remember to ask mummy specially for. She was an ace at making them: Tossing egg noodles in a large wok with shredded carrots and beans and many evil looking sauces and, improbably enough, tons of pepper. This graced my tiffin box very rarely but, when it did, how happy it made me; at par with the achar paratha-masala idli-cutlet ketchup brigade.
That was my dream tiffin (and I could still demolish a few lock in lock boxes of it behind a desk at 10am if asked to, just saying). Yours?
Vatsala Mamgain is a glutton, cook, runner, tree lover, shopper, reader, and talker.