Has this happened to you? It is late at night and you are doing what you normally do—watching a game on TV, answering an email, reading a book, whatever. Next to you is a snack; some sort of Indian namkeen—masala peanuts, potato chips, or channa chur. You reach into the jar in a rhythm that is part-desire, part-desperation and mostly guilt. You have skipped dinner that night, you see, announcing to everyone that you are on a diet. Now, the household is in bed and you are downing fistfuls of this spicy siren of a snack, every mouthful making a mockery of your diet and your statement. The worst part? This isn’t the first time this has happened.
Forbidden: But most Indians succumb to the namkeen. Hemant Mishra / Mint
There is a theory that most of us regress to our roots in different ways. We may be English-speaking, martini-swigging, secular, cosmopolitan, globally travelled Indians. But in some aspect of our lives, we go back to our childhood. Bankers in London who have shed every vestige of their Indian past find themselves crooning to babies in their native Sindhi or Marathi. The Goan advertising executive who only savours the finest cigars and wine might take a secret swig of feni. The suave lady whose parents migrated from Lucknow to Lodhi Estate might speak no Urdu, save for swear words. The westernized Punjabi executive in Colaba who specifically chose a stunning Brazilian model as wife suddenly finds his sari-clad neighbour sexy.
For many of us, this regression has to do with food cravings, typically at midnight, typically when away from home. Even the CEO who has distanced himself from the caste, class, religion and region that he was born into yearns for curd rice or poshto when alone in a foreign hotel room. As for me, I must have been Marwari in my previous birth. My cravings have little to do with the idli and dosa I grew up with. Me, I desire Bikaneri bhujia, usually after dark.
The craving hits at midnight, after everyone has gone to sleep. Only my dog is witness to my transgressions. I start off insouciantly, elegantly spooning handfuls of bhujia sev into a bowl, ostensibly to calm down hunger pangs. I finish the bowl and find that I cannot stop. Namkeens are my secret pleasure and my dieting pitfall. Thenkozhal from Grand Sweets in Chennai; chaklis from Hubli; kakda from Chaddha Stores in Mumbai; a muri mixture from Kolkata; I have them all in my cabinet.
Also Read Shoba Narayan’s previous Lounge columns
I am a savoury, not unsavoury character (sorry, couldn’t resist). I can look a gulab jamun in the eye and turn away without flinching. Gajar ka halwa is an afterthought. The purans that stretch all the way up the Konkan coast do nothing for me. As for any sweet that has a coconut filling, I scorn them entirely, having grown up with seven coconut trees, ergo, a childhood’s worth of burfis. Only Kolkata’s sweets will stir some saliva in my mouth. Forget sandesh. Too dry. I like my sweets gooey—like tiramisu and mousse. Kolkata’s rasgullas come close. They are spongy and rich and not too sweet.
Savouries, on the other hand, are my—and I would argue, an Indian— weakness. I can polish off an entire table of them and often have, usually while reading a book. I think one of India’s great inventions is the notion of a savoury snack that is not bland like a pretzel or cheese ball. Our namkeens are pungent, tart and spicy. Like dal moth, channa chur, cornflakes mixture and my personal favourite, bhujia sev.
When I was a kid growing up in Chennai, my mother would take us to Parry’s Corner to the Marwari stronghold. There, amid the narrow bylanes with shops selling yards of electrical coil and hanging lights, you could buy bhujia sev that was made fresh every day. My brother and I would mix the bhujia sev with thick yogurt and eat it at night after dinner. It was divine; and rationed out. I still crave namkeens at night, usually after a satisfying music concert or other satisfying activities. Other people roll over after—oh, I don’t know—a television show and smoke a cigarette. I roll over and reach for my jar of bhujia.
A couple of years ago, I stayed at Chhatra Sagar, an ethereal tented camp in Nimaj, Rajasthan. Dashing Harsh Vardhan Singh, who runs the camp with his brothers, mentioned that the secret ingredient in the bhujia is Bikaneri desert sand. That’s what gives it its unmistakable crunch. A pinch of desert sand along with a generous dash of red chilli powder fried with besan. What could be better?
For us vegetarians, namkeens are a great balancer to the meat-eaters who sing the pleasures of pork chops and mutton biryani. Non-vegetarian delights may be beyond our palate’s reach but namkeens are egalitarian; available to all. I could be wrong but I think Gujarat and Rajasthan are namkeen havens. The south too has savouries but ours— murukkus, ompodi, and chaklis—don’t have that spicy kick. Gujarat, in particular, with its penchant for farsan, would be a namkeen taster’s paradise. Gujarati farsans are not chilli-hot, but the besan flour gives it a flavour that is exotic to my south Indian tastebuds, given that most south Indian namkeens have a base of rice or urad-dal flour.
I wonder if we Indians crave sweets or savouries. I would wager savouries. What do you eat or drink at night, after dinner, when you are alone? It may tell you who you are far better than a Myers-Briggs test can.
Shoba Narayan also eats dark chocolates after dark. Write to her at email@example.com