It’s Lent. For Christians all over the world, it’s 40 days of fasting, and giving up food you really like. Most do this as a gesture of repentance and sacrifice, possibly for self-restrained and definitely for detox. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on the day before Easter Sunday. The day before Lent begins is Shrove Tuesday, or what is famously known as Pancake Tuesday (ebruary 28, 2017). On this day, all over the world, and in India, Christians about to embark on their fast make pancakes at home. But what is the significance of making pancakes?
As with everything else, this, too, is an old English custom. Since ye olde fellas were all starting a 40-day fast, the one thing they needed to do urgently was to use up all the fattening ingredients in the house. In those days, that meant eggs and milk, and the simplest way to use them up was to combine them with flour and make pancakes.
Call it a pancake, a crêpe, a flapjack, or a Johnnycake, it’s a recipe as old as the hills. It’s a thin, round, flat cake created from a semi-liquid batter and cooked on a hot griddle or frying pan, in oil or butter.
It is so ancient that the whole world makes some sort of pancake. The ancient Greeks and Romans made pancakes and sweetened them with honey; the Elizabethans flipped them with sherry and apples. And the Goans make them with coconut and jaggery and call them alle belle. Goan pancakes are as thin as crêpes, smooth, elastic and soft, with a filling of freshly scraped coconut and jaggery. No Goan home is happy without alle belles on Pancake Tuesdays.
In the West, it’s a breakfast dish often eaten with butter and golden syrup or honey. In France, crêpes are really thin and are sold on the street, served with sweet (stewed fruit, ice cream or jam) or savoury (cheese and spinach, or ham) filling. The most famous of these is the crêpe Suzette: with a sauce of caramelised sugar and butter, with orange juice, spiked with Grand Marnier or orange curaçao and flambéed. It’s a pancake with attitude.
In India, nearly every region makes their own pancake. Not necessarily from flour, milk and eggs, but with diverse ingredients such as besan, udad daal and rice flour. We add onions, tomatoes, coriander and green chillies to the batter. We spice the batter up with turmeric, chilli powder and asafoetida. But the method remains the same. A thin, round cake created from a semi-liquid batter and cooked on a hot pan. It’s still a pancake.
Then it could be the dosa — crisp, hot and paper-thin, with a tangy, spicy sambhar. Or a podgy uttapam with onion, tomato and green chillies. Maybe a delicate appam served with chutney and stew, or with an egg fried in its heart. Better still, a green gram pesarattu, crisp at the edges, soft in the centre. Or a Maharashtrain thalipeeth: dark, spicy, crisp, and deep-fried. Or a north Indian moong daal or besan ka cheela, floppy and healthy. Still a pancake. Why should I have pancakes only on Tuesday when I can have a different one on every day of the year?
Author and TV show host Vijayakar is “always hungry”. Follow him on Twitter @kunalvijayakar