The Malgudi Day

It was last Saturday afternoon that we were walking down Syed Alwi Road in Singapore’s Indian restaurant quarter looking for an interesting eatery where we could gorge on Indian food and satisfy our rumbling tummies. That’s when we eyed ‘Malgudi’ – an authentic Chettinad and North Indian “multi cuisine” restaurant. The décor looked inviting and we decided to take a chance and stepped in. 

You must be familiar with the adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’. Well, add this one as well ‘never judge a restaurant by its décor/ambiance’ – and my review of Malgudi will tell you why. 

The ambiance: One would expect a restaurant with a name like “Malgudi” to have some semblance to south Indian décor. Except for the few Tanjore paintings on the walls the décor was everything but south Indian. You may argue saying that Malgudi is after all a figment of R K Narayan’s imagination, but you mustn’t forget that he himself proclaimed that the town, albeit a fictional one, is located in South India. Let us suppose I overlook the fact that the décor is not south Indian (I mean it really isn’t a big deal. There is no hard and fast rule that a south Indian named restaurant must have a similar décor.); I would still expect a sense of warmth and a certain “feel good factor” when I enter a restaurant. However, it felt strangely cold and devoid of any personality. This was further accentuated by the cold blast of air that was hitting me from the air-con vent just above our table. A quick look around and I could see that all the tables had the vent placed just above them. Unable to bear the cold, I had to request the restaurant staff to turn down the air-con temperature. I quickly told myself not to be critical and that perhaps the food would be good. After all that’s what matters in the end anyways. With my stomach rumbling, I was looking forward to having a luscious lunch. 

The menu: Quite an impressive list of dishes ranging from biryanis, Indian breads, tandoori fare, chettinad meals, chindian (Chinese food Indian style), etc. 

The food: Inspired by my Friday evening hindi serial, where the protagonists drive to a Delhi Dhabba which served the best butter chicken and shammi kebabs that melt in the mouth, I was determined to have paneer butter masala (I’m vegetarian and butter chicken wasn’t an option) with some Indian breads. There weren’t any shammi kebabs on the menu and so it was Gobi 65’ that I ordered instead. 

Ten minutes after we were seated, our complimentary paapads arrived. They were quite dismal and that’s putting it mildly. I was horrified at the amount of oil that was glistening and dripping off them. I politely pushed the plate aside and waited for the Gobi 65 with trepid anticipation. 15 minutes passed and there was no sign of our food arriving. 15 minutes is an agonizingly long time if you’re hungry. I cannot fathom what took them so long as the restaurant only had a few patrons (of course I now understand why!). When I thought that I would almost faint out of hunger the Gobi 65 arrived. It was daylight robbery – approx. S$7.00 for a few measly florets of deep fried cauliflower. By now, I had given up on the rest of the meal. Anyways, the main course arrived after another 15 minute wait. Surprisingly the naan and tandoori roti were good; the paneer butter masala was palatable. I’m sorry I don’t have pictures of the main course. You see I was so starved that as soon as the food arrived I pounced on it. 

The service: Oh dear! It’s poor! The waiting time is far too long and that is simply unacceptable. 

The damage: It depends on what you order. S$7.00 for the Gobi 65 starter is unreasonable considering the portion that was served. The breads (approx. S$3.00) and vegetables (approx. S$6.00-S$8.00) were priced at the standard norm. 

The verdict: Malgudi has lost me as a patron for sure. 

“If Broadway shows charge preview prices while the cast is in dress rehearsal, why should restaurants charge full price when their dining room and kitchen staffs are still practicing?” – Marian Burros 

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From bentos to tiffin boxes – reminiscing the lunch box culture

The other day as I was channel surfing, I stumbled upon a very interesting TV program that was centered on the bento culture in Japan. Apparently, bento is the Japanese term for a homemade meal packed in a lunch-box. According to Wikipedia, “bento is a single-portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine. A traditional bento consists of rice, fish or meat, and one or more pickled or cooked vegetables, usually in a box-shaped container. Containers range from disposable mass produced boxes to hand crafted lacquer ware. Although bento are readily available in many places throughout Japan, including convenience stores, bento shops, train stations, and department stores, it is still common for Japanese homemakers to spend time and energy for their spouse, child, or themselves producing a carefully prepared lunch box.”

The program revealed how Japanese housewives or even office-going women wake up early and carefully prepare the well-crafted and visually appealing bentos for the entire family. This youtube video will give you a clear picture of what I’m talking about. I was quite intrigued by the concept as I always held the notion that the lunch-box culture was peculiar only to India. The Indian tiffin box culture is akin to the Japanese bentos. Indian homemakers and working women still wake up earlier than the rest of the family just so that they can prepare the tiffin boxes for their children, husbands and themselves. I have fond memories of my mum’s tiffin box snacks and lunches that she used to faithfully pack for me every single day for 25 odd years.

I still have a photograph where I am all ready to go to kindergarten and I’m striking a pose with my orange plastic lunch basket that held my tiffin box and water bottle. I also vividly remember my first few tiffin boxes which were made of aluminum. I had a flat peacock blue colored aluminum tiffin box, with two compartments inside to separate the food items. It slowly progressed to an oval steel “dabba” which held my tuck. The steel dabba soon gave way to a plastic snack box shaped as “Hello Kitty” with a matching plastic spoon and fork. As I grew older, the Hello Kitty box gave way to more ordinary looking plastic boxes of various shapes, sizes and colors. Finally, when Tupperware invaded Indian homes, my lunch box was the round flat Tupperware box. I have however never carried the traditional tiffin box which has stacked containers with a carry handle and a unique locking system with a spoon (wish I had a picture of this!).

It is only now that I realize the value of those lunch box meals and the labor that went behind packing them every single day. In retrospect, those homemade lunches were a reminder of home in an otherwise busy day at school, college or work. I actually used to look forward to opening the box to find one of mom’s treats inside. I remember the extra effort that mom used to put into packing the meals so that they were convenient to eat. The theplas had a generous layer of butter and were neatly rolled and placed lengthwise in my box. The oothapams were smeared with the mollagai podi and were cut into quarters to facilitate eating. Idllys were similarly dipped in mollagai podi so that I didn’t have to get my fingers messy. The soft chapattis that were rolled with curried vegetables were delicious despite being cold. The sandwiches were cut to bite size pieces and arranged neatly with no gaps in the box. Aloo parathas with tomamto sauce, masala puris with mum’s sweet mango pickle, pooris and potato sag…yum scrum. I also remember that when I was younger, mum used to cut my sandwiches in various shapes – I used to love the round shape the most. Lemon rice, coconut rice and tamarind rice were always accompanied with applams that were packed separately in a plastic bag to retain their crispness. My lunch box was always accompanied by a neatly folded cotton napkin and a steel spoon. During the summer season mum used to tuck in a plastic glass of buttermilk that was seasoned with salt, garlic, coriander, ginger, and cumin. Despite grumbling about how bulky my lunch bag used to get I can’t deny how much I enjoyed gulping the buttermilk during those sweltering afternoons. It gave the meal a sense of completeness and cooled my system.

The advantage of the tiffin box culture that is widely prevalent in India is that you get to sample various Indian cuisines from the lunch boxes of friends and colleagues. So while my friends were busy polishing off my theplas, I was busy licking tangy onion-tomato chutney off my fingers and gobbling mini oothapams from my tam-brahm friends’ tiffin box. The well-mashed thaiyr saadam with a piece of spicy mango avakaai tasted the best from tiffin boxes that came from south Indian households.

While one would expect the lunch box culture to fade away with modern day India, it is heartening to know that the tiffin box culture still exists. It is a tradition and a mind set that is hard to break. It is after all our passion for home cooked food that created the ingenious 125 year old dabbawallah system as exemplified by this youtube video.

The bentos of Japan and the tiffin boxes of India are not just homemade lunches packed in a box; rather, they are a symbol of tradition.

Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch. – Orson Welles

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