I am a breakfast person. I love breakfast. A good breakfast is a good start to the day, isn’t it?
I especially like to plan what I’ll have the night before, especially if I’ve just baked something breakfast-y, but also if it is eggs, or avocado toast, or steel cut oats. It doesn’t matter; I just like to know before I sleep. Growing up on the east coast made me a bagel lover, so planning on bagels makes me giddy. And, thanks to my friend, Chelsea, I have a refrigerator bran muffin recipe that allows weeks of daily indulgence— yes, I’m one of the odd ones who absolutely loves a bran muffin with raisins and two mugs of coffee (+ cream) to start my day.
I say all this, but I’m in India now. There are no bran muffins, no bagels. In fact, I never plan my menu the night before because I eat at my mother-in-law’s table, and the surprise is half the fun each morning as we lift the covers from the vessels to “oo” and “ahh” over the contents.
We always have hot breakfast in India, and it is most always savory, sometimes even spicy. If we go most basic, with an omelet, my husband is most happy with the masala omelet- masala meaning spice- which turns your plain-egg omelet into one with onion, cilantro and green chilis. Try it; you’ll start your day bright eyed and whistling!
Most of the breakfasts, though, might leave an average American bewildered. There are so many vessels to uncover. First, the locked, insulted tub often filled with my favorite, the idlis. An idli is a steamed, fermented rice cake made from soaked and ground special rice and lentils, left to ferment until doubled. You commonly eat idlis with a richly spiced vegetable and dal (lentil) dish called sambar, and coconut chutney. (If you have never eaten coconut chutney, in all of its fresh, creamy, spicy wonder, you’re missing out on one of the world’s great condiments.) Also, if you are having an especially perfect plate of idlis, you might also get some homemade podi, roasted and ground spices- generally a “house recipe”- that you form into a little volcano shape on your plate, fill with ghee, and then mix into a paste with your pointer finger. Finally, you’ll sop up the sambar, the chutney, and the podi mix with those fluffy, steamed idlis. You’ll eat until you might burst because you can’t find idlis like this- if you can find them at all- in Holland, MI. Eat them now while you can.
I should mention that Indians eat sans utensils, with the right hand/fingers only. Assuredly, it takes practice and humility for those of us raised with forks, spoons, and knives. But the art of eating with your fingers is worth the effort, the errors, and the extra exertion because it tastes all the more appreciatively Indian. If you’re in India, by all means be brave and eat with your fingers.
When you finish your meal, and wash your hand, my mother-in-law will bring a small cup of filter coffee, milky and sweet. You’ll smile your way through the sips, and then you’ll start the day.
Because I love breakfast, and India, I could go on and on. In fact, I may have lost more than a few of you along the way already. Foodie blogs aren’t for everyone, even in our fantastically multicultural world. People like to start their day with something familiar, their own personal comfort food. A bowl of Rice Krispies. Pop Tarts. Scrambled Eggs. Pancakes. Those are things I knew before India, all American things- like bagels and bran muffins. Lots of people don’t even eat breakfast, or maybe just down a can of Coke. To each their own, I guess. And I’m sorry if I’ve lost you.
My family is in India now, our second home. Since my two children were babies they came to India, and early-on, they spent up to half their lives here. The Covid catastrophe put a long, slow hold on our visiting. It had been five years since I last visited India with a group of students from Western Theological Seminary, and it had been six years for my kids. We were longing for India, for the landscape our other heart’s home.
I’m going to be honest, though: It had been so long since we last dwelt here, that in a quiet place, deep in my being, I was asking questions. Would India still feel like home? Would India still accept me- even when I’m different, awkward, white, frizzy-haired? (I’ve always been all of those things and still been accepted, but I still worried.) What about my children? They are that much older, that much more American. Would they still be at home?
Well, a whole array of happenings help me answer, “Yes.” (I’ll just mention a few.)
First, I disembarked from the plane and immediately smelled India. I’m not sure why, but there is always the scent of spice, curry-like, creeping through the air even two steps down the bridge gate, even at one in the morning.
Second, it just felt like India. The air, despite the air-conditioned airport, was humid- a damp thickness, weighing me down, beginning to frizz my hair- as I gathered with many others in the corralled area for our “visas-upon-arrival.” It also felt like India because of a typical uptick in group confusion that was exacerbated by lack of instruction and bossy, low-ranking employees who shuffled us slowly through the immigration process. The technology didn’t work right, the wrong people directed the flow, and we were, all of us, disoriented and uncertain. But the immigration officer managed a chat with me about my Indian last name, and he smiled at me while instructing me to do this and that. He bobbled his head and let me through. It felt more-or-less like he said, “Welcome Home.”
Then we took a wee-hours car ride, complete with horn-honking and at least one cow-in-the-street, followed by a number of hours gratefully prone on beds. Then we tumbled ourselves into Mom’s kitchen, slurping at our tiny cups of filter coffee. When we pried the lid from the insulated tub, it was idlis, of course. Beside them, the coconut chutney and Mom’s perfect podi.
It had been five years, but it tasted just the same. It tasted, unsurprisingly, like home.
Mom’s Coconut Chutney by JP Sundararajan