By Raamesh Gowri Raghavan
Tiffin – a word that belonged to Victorian England, but which has now been completely annexed by Indians. And especially South Indians at that, who have given it its rich, nuanced meanings.
A word that immediately summons daydreams of crisp vadai, ambade, dosai, bajji, paper roast, maddur vade, mysore bonda, with sambar or rasam or chutney (or all of them) when you see the ‘Tiffin Ready’ board outside a ‘hotel’.
Or a word that can mean a nightmarish, hastily (half-)cooked upma when your wife / mother / daughter-in-law throws out the question on a Sunday afternoon, “What shall I make for tiffin?”, even after you have listed forty-six potential items.
Or a word that means cold idlis, flimsy dosais or thickset curd rice when you open your office or school ‘tiffin-box’, even though you saw the hot, delectable avatar being packed when you left home in the morning.
This blogpost will concern itself with the last meaning. Because for the last twenty-five years, since I first began to have afternoon meals in my first standard classroom, one question has vexed me. And not just me, but those who have concerned themselves with my welfare – “What is to be packed for lunch today?”
During my tenth standard board examinations, I carried without fail, pongal in my tiffin box. Everyday. Yes, Everyday. Because I believed it was a sort of lucky talisman. That a good mixture of the carbohydrates from rice, protein from the dal and alkaloids from the pepper would keep the devils at bay and keep me energetic and alert.
Every morning of those nerve-wracking days, I would see Amma pack a hot, glutinous mixture into the tiffin box. And every afternoon, in the break between examinations, I would open the box to see a cooled, curdled mass, most of its water separated from it. With the spoon provided, you mashed the stuff back into its original consistency, but the fun was dead. It was carbohydrates, proteins and alkaloids alright; it just wasn’t the national dish of the Tamils that is so amazing at breakfast. Which is why, when faced with the prospect of carrying pongal to office nowadays, I quickly say that I will eat in the canteen.
Sometimes I let myself be persuaded to carry idlis instead. In that case, I prefer them to be coated with oiled gunpowder (milagaipodi). There is no way I am going to carry sambar or chutney in a little plastic dabba that fits snugly within the larger tiffin box. There are two things I hate consuming – instant coffee, and cold sambar. I will consume hemlock more readily.
As for chutney, there is no way you can make me carry that to office – only to witness the ground copra congeal away from the white water and green chilly fragments. The gunpowder coating is no improvement, but it keeps its fieriness, which compensates for the coldness (and increasing hardness) of the idli.
The most common item that sits in my tiffin box is chapati-bhaji. (Living in Mumbai, I’m used to saying ‘bhaji’ instead of the word ‘subzi’ which is more common in the north). I can’t quite complain about it. The chapatis are cold and sometimes beginning to turn into hard, papad-like things, but at least you can eat them. If you remember to pack them in foil (or even a cloth), you are lucky for the day. Else on days when it gets really late for lunch because of a pointless meeting, your chapatis have turned into khakhras (an extremely dry version of the chapati, prepared by Gujaratis). The bhaji is also cold, but it retains its consistency and taste most times.
Some chaps carry puris in their boxes instead of chapatis, but I am happy to leave them and their boxes alone. The oil separating from the puri and running amok in the tiffin box is not a pleasant sight. Nor is the sight of the puri, hardening slowly into a material which I think will make an excellent substitute for rubber. Of the kind you need for making truck tyres.
You can carry dal or chana or rajma instead of bhaji on some days. But if you are a connoisseur of these things (as I think I am), it hurts you to have to eat them cold (or reheated in the microwave. I can’t decide which is worse.) They will most certainly be leftovers from yesternight’s dinner, which you might still remember; this only serves to amplify the distress. I guess that holds true for any leftovers carried the next day.
There are two items which are a strict no-no in my house. Packing these in my lunch-box will, as my family member know, lead to a permanent and damaging rupture in my relationship with you. These are curd rice and dosais.
Imagine opening your box (especially if it has a tight lid that opens with a jerk), only to see the buttermilk spill out onto the table, or more dramatically, fly onto your face. You spend the first minute of your much-awaited lunch break cleaning up the mess. What could be a more inauspicious start? Then you look at the rice – now only thinly coated with the solid elements of the curd. Your whole commute – by bus, autorickshaw, local train or Bengaluru’s much-celebrated Namma Metro – has been an involuntary exercise in churning the curd into whey. Then you look at the pickle. It’s oil has spread all over your rice, the lemon or mango reduced to a dry, shrivelled piece on one corner of the rice. Can you do anything other than burst into silent tears? Then if you’ve been delayed, the whole thing turns sour, both literally and metaphorically.
Take dosais. Utterly crisp, flat brown things when you eat them at home. (The crisper and flatter they are, the flabbier and rounder you become, but that is another matter.) Look at what the tiffin-box did to them. Colourless, flaccid, vapid, insipid things, a mere ghost of what they could be. Add to that the tragic fate of the chutney, whose water will have permeated them to add to the sogginess. You eat them, but only as a compromise with yourself, in the hope that you can compensate the experience with something hot and satisfying at home.
Can you blame me for banning them from my lunch box, even at the risk of severing social relations?
Also banned is lemon rice, because I detest it in any form, hot or cold. That also holds true for rava upma, dalia upma and tomato bhath.
A practical option in Mumbai is to take theplas. They are halfway between chapatis and khakhras, and the Gujaratis eat them as travel food. But I resent having them in my tiffin-box, if only to arrest at some point, the creeping Gujaratification that happens to every family settled in Mumbai. No offence to the Gujaratis; I love their khandvis and patras for a hot Sunday snack, but not in my tiffin-box please.
Two-minute noodles was something I carried during my schooldays. The issue in school was that it would congeal into a thick mass (too many things congeal in a tiffin box, don’t they?). The issue in adulthood is that people give you funny stares. Besides, nowadays the canteen fellow keeps a few packets in his store, so if that is what you have to eat, better to get it made hot in the canteen.
Utter desperation will persuade me to carry cucumber-tomato sandwiches. This is when nothing can be cooked because of illness or cooking gas running out. Or when I binged the previous night and an inner guilty voice suggest eating ‘healthy food’ for a couple of days. Luckily such situations blow over as fast as they come.
Life is not so dreary however. There are such items as can be enjoyed both hot and cold, from a plate or from a box. I’m sure there will be folks here who will disagree with me (which is good for democracy but perhaps not for digestion). But I do think coconut rice, puliyodharai rice and vathal kuzhambu rice are good tiffin box options.
The coconut remains crunchy and the spices spicy, and there is no danger of any fluid running all over the place. Similarly for puliyodharai and vathal kuzhambu, the rice and tamarind retain both their marriage and consistency, and the tanginess is nice and enjoyable. On your lucky day, there may be a crumbled poppadom or banana chips to go with it. If you can live with eating tangy stuff at lunch every single day of your working life, you are a contented office worker indeed.
If you are not, the question still vexes, ”What is to be packed for lunch today?”
(pic courtesy : www.tastefullyveggie.blogspot.com)