The Savory Breakfast

18 Feb


When you grow up in a home where they serve sambar for breakfast, the idea of a savory start to the morning is something less than the radical idea proposed by the New York Times.

But I can appreciate how liberating it must be for someone like Mark Bittman, especially if he grew up ploughing his way through cream of wheat with a little salt thrown in every morning, to find out that people elsewhere like to begin their days in considerably more flavorful fashion.

In fact, I appreciate it so much, I feel like an ingrate. After all, back when I was growing up, I was offered some excellent early morning fare, full of flavor and nutrition, cooked without any thought as to time or convenience, and I always turned my nose up at it.

You can chalk it up to my being a nightbird if you like, but the reason why breakfast has been a relatively recent addition to my diet is because I had to leave for school at half past seven. It sounds bizarre but you simply can’t force my body to swallow food at that hour of the morning. Around nine o’clock my body is finally awake enough to keep the food down, but anything before that and my stomach stages an instant revolt.

For a while there my mother thought it might have something to do with her idlis and dosas, and so out came the cornflakes and cold milk. No go. So she tried it again with warm milk. I ran for the bathroom and refused to come out unless she removed the revolting mess from the table. On Sunday morning, Daddy sat down to our weekly breakfast of leisure and asked for the despised cornflakes – “Me too,” I piped up. “If you vomit, I won’t take care of you,” my mother threatened. I rolled my eyes at her naivete. It was Sunday, it was nearly ten in the morning, why on earth would I waste my precious day off by barfing up my guts?

Next came the toast and eggs. I didn’t even get to eat that. (Any of that: she tried them hard boiled, soft boiled, poached, sunny side up and in an omelet. Zip.) The smell alone was enough to make me gag. She simply handed me my pocket money for the day and asked me to make sure I got in a good meal at recess before shooing me out. When I came back home, she asked me what I’d like to eat for lunch – “Toast and eggs, please,” I said. “Sunny side up. I’ve been dreaming of it all day.” She pursed her lips tightly and asked the cook to take care of it.

So then she went Punjabi on me and the parathas she usually made for my lunch made their appearance on the breakfast table as well. But then – problem! She didn’t think it was good for me to eat pickle at seven in the morning and she couldn’t serve it with curd because I wouldn’t touch that stuff at any hour of the day. Harassed, she gave it to me with jam. I surprised both of us by enjoying every bite. And then I came home early from school because I’d thrown up everywhere.

She toyed with the idea of toasted sandwiches long enough to actually buy a toaster. My best friend in school had recently opened my eyes to the fact that tomatoes could actually be very yummy, especially if you mixed them up with a little red onion and cheese before toasting the whole. I excitedly shared my discovery with my mother who carefully restrained herself from tearing me limb from limb and screaming “But I Made You That and You Refused to Eat It, You Evil Devil Child!” Somebody else’s kitchen was obviously the missing spice.

In the end she decided eleven o’clock was early enough for me to eat my first proper meal of the day and stopped trying to feed me before I left for school.

But the simple fact of the matter is that Ma’s example is something of an increasing rarity these days. Not only was she a stay at home mother, she had live in help who could cope with the kitchen while she sat guard outside the bathroom, banging on the door every five minutes to make sure I would be ready on time and on my way to school. She could experiment with recipes by simply telling other people to do this and that. I can’t imagine the average mother today having either the energy or the time, much less the convenience, to come up with an elaborate breakfast on a daily basis.

Or even dads for that matter. Mine was a workaholic who worked almost around the clock and the only reason he stayed home on Sundays was because he could never get anyone else to come in on that day – even with the promise of a free lunch. But he would still find the time to fix me my early morning chocolate milk and pick me up after school so he could eat lunch with me… and the reason he could do all that was because he was considerably older when he had me and was the boss man at work so he could arrange his schedule to suit his parenting needs.

I find it simplistic when people think money equals privilege, when it’s time that is the real privilege, at least as it pertains to raising a family. Money obviously helps, but by itself it’s limited in what it can do for you – it is what it facilitates that really gives it worth. Bittman, for example, is a food writer for the New York Times. In money terms, it’s probably pretty average if not low on the totem pole, especially by Manhattan standards… but it’s a high status job that allows him to change his dietary habits around so he can eat a polenta that took 40 minutes to cook for breakfast. Maybe he made it the night before and heated it up the next morning – but it’s still a lot more work than the usual person would sign up for, isn’t it?

It’s one of the paradoxes of the slow food movement that fascinates me, especially as an Indian who has seen the clock move so radically in her own, relatively short, lifespan:

The items Bittman recommends in his article, be it the congee or the polenta, are food that the people native to the lands that inspired them have consumed for ages. And it’s food that developed organically because it was the most convenient and cheap item available. Congee for instance is a dish from the rice growing parts of Asia, and it basically involves you throwing a little rice in with a lot of water and boiling it to hell and back, adding whatever you want on top to give it flavor, drinking it starchy water and all. You could even eat it plain with nothing but a little salt: it’s the Asian version of cream of wheat.

But such food is becoming increasingly marginalized in the countries of its birth, because it’s too time consuming to allow the people who traditionally ate it to compete satisfactorily with people who usually nuke a bowl of cream of wheat for breakfast. So they buy a box of Kelloggs or Poptarts or what have you because that allows them to run out the door faster in the morning, which in turn allows them to be more competitive.

And when they’re more competitive, it’ll lead to more success, which leads to their achieving a position of privilege… where it becomes once more possible to go back to the things that they discarded to get ahead in the first place.

Everyone’s either giving an excellent imitation of a hamster on a wheel or there’s a deeper philosophical comment to be inferred here.


Posted by on February 18, 2009 in Desipundit, Life, Personal


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

23 responses to “The Savory Breakfast

  1. pitu

    February 18, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    Let me start by saying the dialog generations of moms have said – “When you have your own kids, you will APPRECIATE what I did for you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” 😉

    I totally get what you mean. My mom was a homemaker too, with help in the form of a cook, a driver and a nanny for me. Breakfast was always 2 dishes- something namkeen for me (always Koki- it’s a Sindhi dish) and sheera for my dad who had a massive sweet tooth. Oh and brain food in the form of blanched, peeled almonds. And a glass of milk for me with a dash of rose syrup to mask the smell of the one RAW EGG she’d put in the glass. Also, I refused to drink ‘rose syrupified and raw egged milk’ without a straw. The kind that bent in the middle. And colored and striped :p

    Since I got married, breakfast is oatmeal. And so now all I can do is wait to go back to India so I can be lord and master while Mamma makes me breakfast 😉

    Also, have you tried Bittman’s pizza dough recipe? It’s foolproof! I am so glad I discovered it!

  2. sagarone

    February 18, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    Good post! Being a foodie at heart, I really enjoyed it. Oh those glorious days when one could eat anything one wanted to……….!

  3. Overated Outcast

    February 18, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Oh My God!! I was the same. In my years of school and college I never once ate breakfast for the fear of throwing up. There is no breakfast food item my mother did not try. Hell, my parents even took me to a doctor but even after consuming three hundred tablets of Liv 52, I was still the same. 😛 …

    And all your throwing up stories brings back some memories of my own ….

    Wow is that gross?

  4. pitu

    February 18, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    Liv 52!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 😀

  5. M

    February 18, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Add one more to the no-solid-food-before-10-am-brigade! Thankfully, my mother realised very early what the issue was, and sent me off with breakfast and lunch packed in the tiffin carrier! (What’s with the 7:30 school start anyway – mine did too – school bus at 7:10, and hell broke loose if I missed it!)

    All that apart, you *Were* a total joy as a child weren’t you? 🙂

    As for time to make breakfasts – we seem to go through cycles here…I usually have a pot of idli or dosa batter available, but my kids seem to prefer cereal or fruit or cheese sandwiches (yes my son is a little wierd 🙂 )

    IME the traditional Indian breakfasts are dying out only among the young single crowd…and that because most of them can’t cook, or live in horrible shared accomodation without cooking facilities and work around the clock on American time! All the young cousins in the family, as soon as they set up a proper home (either due to getting married or earning enough to let them rent a place with a single roomie) seem to start cooking again, and most S. Indian breakfast foods are easy – upma of all kinds, dosa/idli (pre-ground batter available in most cities now), even maggi seem to be on their breakfast menu.


  6. DewdropDream

    February 18, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    Thank goodness!!! I kept wondering if I was the only weird one not able to stomach food before 10 a.m. God… the things mother has tried when I was in school! Thankfully school wasn’t as early for me but to date I cannot stand hot milk, have to have warm milk ONLY with my cereal and avoid heavy food till lunch like … well you know. All because I was fed daal chawal in the mornings (apparently to make my sehat coz I used to cycle 6 kms and was super skinny) … and then I used to fall asleep in the very first class. Sigh.

    Haven’t had breakfast for ages now.. prefer mid-morning snacks. I actually suffer from a temporary case of lock jaw if I eat or drink anything before I leave for work. gah

  7. Banno

    February 19, 2009 at 1:38 am

    I had to change Dhanno’s school when her classes moved to a 6.45 am shift, which meant that she had to be up at 5.30 and leave by 6. She certainly could not eat at that time, nor could I trust her to eat at 10 during recess. Anyway!

    We still do a lot of slow cooking around here, of course, because we have help. I’d give up all my ideas of loving to cook, if I had to do it all myself, the cleaning, peeling, cutting, grinding. 🙂

  8. sirensongs

    February 19, 2009 at 4:12 am

    The savoury, nutritious breakfast (as opposed to sweet and starchy) is one of my favourite parts of Indian cuisine and life. Idly, vada, pongal, puttu, aloo paratha with dahi and pickle…. mmmmmmmmmm

  9. sachita

    February 19, 2009 at 4:39 am

    Ms. Am,
    That was beautifully written, the last para suits ppl like me who are thinking of not joining the race and rather have their morning cup of choc. milk peacefully. ( idlis are a far cry but a breakfast at my own pace i can try).

    my mom did not have any help in the kitchen, but she did idlis and dosas,spoiling me in the process so today i refuse to touch any restaurant idlis. instead i wait for my soft idli during the few vacation days in a year. ( people can have sweet for breakfast was something of a cultural shock for me, i learnt abt it only after coming to us).

    ps: my school used to start @ 9.00/9.30 though. some students used to faint in the prayer hall, dont know if it was the breakfast/the sun.

  10. naren

    February 19, 2009 at 5:13 am

    My mom had a simple deal. eat whatever I give you for breakfast or I knock your teeth out. I found it quite easy to find space for the breakfast which was 180 days a year idli and 180 days a year dosa. The balance 5 days would be wada sambar. Exciting. I miss my childhood

  11. RZD

    February 19, 2009 at 5:42 am

    Brilliantly written.
    + 1 to the club, for phases in my life, I could not eat solids before say 10 AM… but I think I am getting over it. Growing up it was chapatis and bread on alternate days and then the occasional rice cakes… how much I miss those days!

  12. desigirl

    February 19, 2009 at 6:05 am

    I find it simplistic when people think money equals privilege, when it’s time that is the real privilege, at least as it pertains to raising a family. Money obviously helps, but by itself it’s limited in what it can do for you – it is what it facilitates that really gives it worth.

    bootiful. yes, yes. *nodding sagely*

  13. complicateur

    February 19, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    *Nods head vigorously while stuffing mouth with homemade Dosa, Sambhar, Cocunut Chutney, Ground Chilli Chutney and Peanut Chutney.* [Yes Peanut. No I dont ask Questions. I just stuff my face!] I am in Carbohydrate heaven.

  14. Amrita

    February 19, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    Ha, more freaks like me!

    Pitu – omg, RAW EGG! Thankfully my mother is far too squeamish to do stuff like that… the battles I fought when introducing her to carbonara sauces! I do however, love rose milk. YUM! And I love oatmeal too. with a little fruit added in, it’s the best thing ever. I haven’t tried his pizza dough yet, no. I do have some gorgonzola that might work.

    Sagarone – i still eat everything i want! and then i pay for it 😦

    OO – HAHAHA, did they make you drink castor oil?

    M – ahem, how DO you mean? 😳 The only good thing about those blasted 7 am starts is that you could be back home by two at the latest. I guess my big problem about dosas and idlis is that I’m spoiled and I like it “properly” ground in the big wet grinder. Of course, that’s nonsense for a single person unless you eat like my brothers and tuck away ten idlis at one go. God bless MTR Rava Idli Mix.

    DDD – damn girl, lockjaw? That is no joke! I once had it for like a minute and I thought I was going to die. It still gives me the creeps when I think about it. I can’t have very hot milk either. I like cold with my cereal, unless its oatmeal but even warm milk has to be at a certain lukewarm temperature. I’m beginning to think I’m a fussy eater. 😀

    Banno – 6?! Forget the kid, I would go sit in dharna outside the school gates if I had to get up at 5.30 and fix tiffin. As far as cooking alone goes… yeah, no go. I don’t even mind if I have to do all the chores myself, I just need someone there to talk to me while I do it so I don’t feel like “This is my life”, you know? I know it is, but I don’t need to be reminded of it.

    Sirensongs – you’re making me hungry!

    Sachita – thanks 🙂 and LOL @ people fainting. When we moved to south India was when the timing changed to 9 in the morning and it was such a culture shock to me. The only time someone fainted though was when some massive bore came to give a morning talk and droned on for 45 minutes about something or the other until one girl in the front row slowly keeled over. And he STILL kept talking for another 10 minutes.

    Naren – yeah, that sounds like my mom, except my dad would never let her carry out her threat so I was ok. I want wada sambar now. Udipi style. You wouldn’t happen to have the recipe for udipi sambar would you?

    RZD – thank you. The highlight of the month was when y mother wanted to do something different on a sunday and she would make puris. sometimes with halva if she felt esp north indian. The. Best.

    DG – stop mocking me. someday i too will have children and then it will be a true. 😀

    Complicateur – How does one get a ticket there? 😦

  15. DewdropDream

    February 19, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Goodness! So it does happen to other people?! I really ought to come out into civilisation more…

    I think according to our respective mothers, everybody is a fussy eater 😀

  16. Overated Outcast

    February 19, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    No thankfully. No castor or codliver oil.

    But the doctor was an asshole. He told me that “Sab gar se nashta kar ke jaatay hain, app ulti kar ke jaate ho. Hahaha”

    Oh don’t worry. I got back to him by throwing up on his plush new desk.

    😛 …

    How did a blog post about having a nice breakfast turn into a forum to swap throwing up war stories?

  17. Mythili

    February 20, 2009 at 12:23 am

    :)) Lovely !! esp . the “And when they’re more competitive, it’ll lead to more success, which leads to their achieving a position of privilege… where it becomes once more possible to go back to the things that they discarded to get ahead in the first place.” part !
    I was having my breakfast as I was reading this … and i totally know what u mean when u talk of the moms of today ! and breakfast choices of cornflakes(which incidenatally , my home maker mom believes thinks its failure on her part to imbibe it to me that “You cook breakfast!”

  18. Hades

    February 20, 2009 at 2:25 am

    What about Paya*? I challenge you to throw up after eating that, other than for reasons of stuffing yourself too much.

    Of course, this doesn’t hold for the veggies.

    *Lets see, the closest firangi equivalent would be trotter soup. Of course Paya is super slow food. The soup is kept on dum for something like six to eight hours. My mum only ventures to make it when she has a spare gas cylinder. You might get it in Old Delhi although many shops would have stopped making it by now (it’s a winter breakfast).

  19. Revathi

    February 20, 2009 at 6:21 am

    There are heaps of people who start the day with the lunch. So you are in good company.
    A tip for eating good breakfast is to eat an early dinner in the evening and get up at the crack of dawn. Sounds a bit like a prison doesnt it?

  20. dipali

    February 21, 2009 at 4:31 am

    Lovely post. I’m so glad none of my kids were so majorly finicky about their food!

  21. pitu

    February 21, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    All you people who have a handy pot of idli/dosa batter available, can I come live in your house? I *want* yummy S Indian food!


  22. M

    February 21, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    The sultan is welcome…to sweeten the pot, the weather here is a balmy 70 degrees today!


  23. Amrita

    February 22, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    DDD – well, it’s never happened to me when I was eating, but it did happen spontaneously one day when I was talking too much 😳

    OO – just the way we roll I guess 🙂

    Mythili – that reminds me of another habit I’ve now picked up… I can’t sit and eat breakfast like a normal person, I have to check the internet as I eat, to catch up on all that took place when I was asleep. it’s a disease.

    Hades – Paya in the morning? I can barely eat sambar, paya has no chance. For some reason I don’t care for meat first thing. Bacon maybe but even that is a big if. I had an aunt who used to make me appams and chicken curry for breakfast and I thought it was barbaric.

    Revathi – I’d rather starve till lunch, thanks 😀 I do have an early dinner though, coz I don’t like to sleep on a full stomach. if it weren’t for breakfast, I’d be keeping retirement hours.

    Dipali – well, I usually tell people to kiss their mothers for being so nice to them so it gives me great pleasure to tell you to give them a big kissy for being such nice kiddies!

    Pitu/ M – I called dibs on M first you hussy! It’s mine, all mine! Muahahahah! er…..

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