I read Bill Bryson’s book on English, in which he comments on how some languages — or cultures — have words for the most unlikely concepts. And quotes a Highland Scottish word: sgiomlaireachd. It means “the habit of dropping in at meal times”. Which evokes three mixed feelings in me: irritation, gratitude and satisfaction.
Irritation because Oh my God, everything’s finished, the kitchen’s just been wound up, now what do we do? But then there’s my friend Ira who had just finished feeding lunch to the extended family, the servants had eaten and pots and pans were washed and lying upside down to drain and she had just sat down for a five-minute snooze when an Ambassador with a UP number plate trundled up their drive, seven aunts, uncles and cousins disembarked and her mother-in-law said Oh lovely! Since we had poori-alu for lunch let’s just knead some atta while the oil heats up and the potatoes boil. Ira weakly said But how about eggs and toast... Obviously her voice wasn’t strong enough because there she was, rolling pooris and peeling alu yet again, at 4 p.m.
Actually people landing up while you’re eating, or just about to start, is easier to deal with. That’s when you’re grateful they came when they did, and not after the kadhais were scraped. Family limits its rations, the lady of the house manages to press food on the visitor while kicking her kids under the table, there’s always some pickle or left over odds and ends that can be brought out, the guests themselves realise that the situation isn’t normal, so a warm welcome makes up for the thin spread. And whoever drops in without warning is more than likely to be someone you’re really easy with, whom you’re not supposed to be trying to impress with your hospitality and culinary skills. Like the time I was fast asleep and thought my toe was being consumed by a monster, but it was Kavita — who had leapt over the locked gate, climbed a wall, crested the porch and got her leg over and into our balcony. She was the monster tugging at my toe, saying, as I awoke, What do you have in your fridge? Okay — so she could be fed eggs and toast, which is only a modern variation of the standard Punjabi last-minute paratha-ande-ki-bhujia.
Which brings me to another type: a great aunt by marriage, Sushila mamiji. And she said her greatest happiness came when someone came to her house — at an odd hour — and said: mamiji (or chachiji, as the case may be) Ple-eze will you make me a paratha?
To be fair to us 21st century nuclear-family types, Sushila mamiji made parathas with her own fair hands almost a century ago. And she had a vast household with many, many slaves who at least kneaded the dough and washed the dishes once she was done with her cooking. And she wasn’t between flights, power point presentations, the broadband packing up, parent-teacher meetings, a revolving door domestic help syndrome and dressing for two dinner parties in one evening while running to pick up a bottle of wine for one of them. Her amusement, her satisfaction, came from friends and family; that was her life, not an unwelcome interruption.
The best-case scenario today, in my kitchen, is that unexpected guests should drop in for a meal when the fridge contains either of two combinations: chicken/mutton curry, a cooked vegetable, some dal, some dahi and cold parathas. I’m willing to cut a salad and microwave the rest (thank God for those, doomsday-sayers notwithstanding!). At a pinch, if there’s some atta, I might just make a couple of fresh parathas. The other combination should be a variety of cheese, cold roast chicken, ingredients for a salad, some good bread — actually even sliced and white will do — and eggs. Some mayo in a jar. And some interesting sauce. If only. That list looks like a planned dinner menu. Or as my daughter said the day after a biggish dinner party, Amma, now is when people should just drop in — the flowers are looking lovely, there’s so much yum stuff left over... If only.
So if you’re a frequent victim of sgiomlaireachd, I guess the trick is to always stock certain things. For the desi option, I’d say keep kulchas in the freezer. They keep almost indefinitely, given sufficient wrapping. Keep boiled potatoes, unpeeled — some magical preservative in the skin, because they go off and slimy pretty damn quick if kept peeled. Keep lots of pickles. Dahi’s pretty de rigueur in homes where it’s a regular feature. Tomatoes and onions. Paneer is a life saver — it keeps, refrigerated, for at least two days, and takes exactly four minutes to cook. No cutting-peeeling-grinding. A couple of packets of masala pastes: the ginger-garlic variety. Skip onions.
And for the “delicatessen” option. Cheese, particularly hard ones, should be cling-filmed tightly and kept really chilled. A jar of olives. Roast chicken could be home made, but cold tandoori murg isn’t half bad. Smoked roast chicken is a girl’s best friend and now neat, clean, trimmed breasts are packaged, frozen and available all over the place. Just remember to replenish the freezer on Saturday. Meanwhile, depending on how many trenchermen at your table, debone, shred and serve separately or multiply: remember the boiled potatoes? Add a couple of dollops of mayonnaise and some crunchy raw stuff. And when in doubt, make eggs. Scrambled, in an omelette or frittata, hard boiled... make some toast, and we’re back to eggs-and-toast.
The author is a Delhi-based food writer. She is with the ASER Centre.