School dinners are a complicated business as you will know if you've been to boarding school or lived in a college hostel. I received most of my education at residential establishments far from home, living in boarding schools and hostels for over a dozen years.
My memories of institutional catering from that period are not those I cherish. On the whole, the food at the two schools I attended (one in India, the other in the UK) was dire. At University, the food served to the undergraduates in my college was so disgusting that after the first term, I resolved never to eat in the college's dining room ("Hall", as it was called) if I could help it.
But the reason I began by saying that our attitude to school meals is complex is because experience demonstrates that no matter how much we hate hostel food, we spend much of our lives trying to recreate the flavours we ate as children. In England, for instance, one reason that is often cited for the hideously inedible character of that nation's food is that the upper classes - traditionally the people who enjoy haute cuisine in such European countries as France and Italy - only want to eat the sort of slop they were served at Eton, Harrow, Winchester or wherever.
Why is hostel food so dire? In my last few years at boarding school at Ajmer, I got on to the Mess Committee to try and see if there was any way of making things better. The conclusion I came to was: not really, no. Partly it was the cost. Even in the early Seventies, the average cost of a meal at Mayo College, my school, was around Rs 3 per head. If the school had charged more, then the fees would have gone up and parents would not have been pleased. Nobody wants to shell out more cash only so that kids can get better meat or more paneer.
But equally, the low cost was often used as an excuse to cover up sloppiness. I remember some boys who found insects in the rice and took it to a master (now dead, so I will not name him) to complain. "Insects! Insects!" he thundered. "Of course there are only insects! For the price you pay, what do you expect? A tiger?'' It may sound funny now. But at the time we were outraged. (One consequence of eating at Mayo is that I still find myself automatically looking for insects in my rice. What's worrying is the number of times I have found them - even at fancy restaurants at deluxe hotels.)
Part of the problem was also that nobody cared. If you run a restaurant and the food is bad, then customers will stop coming and your restaurant will go bust. But when you run a kitchen in a hostel or a boarding school, then the kids are your prisoners. Even if they don't like the food, there's simply nowhere they can go. Most days, they are so hungry that they will eat whatever rubbish you serve them.
But clearly these are not hard and fast rules. Years ago when I wrote about how bad boarding school food usually is, many angry letters to the editor arrived. They were from Doon School boys who said that the food at their school was jolly nice and gosh, they still missed that wonderful spaghetti Bolognaise! (spaghetti Bolognaise? Wow! All we Mayo boys got for most of the week was
But I wonder if, like all other boarding school boys, I have been more influenced by school dinners than I'm willing to admit. Take breakfast. Till I went to Mayo, the only people I knew who ate porridge, bread and eggs for breakfast were characters in Enid Blyton books. At home in Bombay, our breakfast was always Indian (parathas, theplas, khaari pooris, gathiya, jalebi etc. - and very delicious they all were, too!), so I was nonplussed to discover that Mayo College expected us to eat a congealed fried egg with a circle of yellow plastic yolk in the centre. About the only edible egg dish was Rumble Tumble, or a very watery scrambled egg that was served hot at the table. To this day, I will not eat a scrambled egg if it is too dry. It must have the consistency of the Mayo Rumble-Tumble for me to enjoy it.
Then, there's the matter of dessert. My love of custard dates directly back to school where it was the pudding ("sweet dish", as they called it) at nearly every meal. Sometimes they would make a custard that was so thick that it solidified. They then cut it into little squares and gave us one each ("Block Custard", it was called.) Or there was Cake Custard, a basic cake topped with custard.
When ice-cream was served (rarely, very rarely) it was the home-made, hard-cranked variety. And even now, that's still the kind I prefer. Once a week we got bread-and-butter pudding which is still among my favourite desserts.
So yes, I have to concede that school food has influenced my tastes, no matter how much I hated it at the time. The revelation struck me last month when I visited the newly opened WelcomHotel in Jodhpur. It is a lovely property - a sort of cross between Agra's ITC Mughal and Calcutta's ITC Sonar - and because it is a WelcomHotel rather than a full-fledged ITC luxury hotel, rates are remarkably reasonable, much lower than either the majestic Umaid Bhawan or even the trendy Raas.
It was while sitting in the hotel's coffee shop that I saw a dish described on the menu as 'Mayo College Mutton Curry'. I've known Akshraj Jodha, the hotel's chef, for a very long time and I know he's not from Mayo. So I asked him why he included the dish. Besides, I was not even sure that there was such a thing as a Mayo curry. My memories of mutton curries from school were of watery gravies and meat that was all bone. Was Jodha sure that there was even a dish that was significant enough to warrant being called a Mayo College curry? He was certain that this was the real thing, he insisted. He had found a guy who had cooked in the Mayo College kitchen for 30 years and had asked him if there was an archetypal Mayo College curry. Yes, said the cook, and taught Akshraj's chefs how to make it.
Somewhat dubious about this story and sceptical about the provenance of the curry, I ordered it anyway. When it did arrive, I was stunned. The gravy was much less watery. And there were actual chunks of meat in it, not just pieces of bone. But otherwise it was exactly the same curry that I'd been served for seven years at school.
When I got back from Jodhpur, I phoned Rohit Sangwan, the celebrated pastry chef who was many, many years junior to me at Mayo. Did he have any fond memories of the cuisine at school? It turned out that Rohit's generation got a much better deal than mine. He described huge, warm omelettes with bread crumbs that I have no recollection of, and talked fondly of a Mayo trifle that had not even been dreamt of in my time. (Still, Rohit's memories sound real enough. He says that the Mayo trifle was made with lots of jam and a glucose biscuit. Now, that sounds like the kind of cheapo Mayo cuisine I remember!)
But Rohit remembered the Block Custard. It is the easiest thing in the world to make, he said. All you have to do is to double the custard powder you put into a normal custard. Then you pour the custard mixture into a tray, stick the tray in the fridge and wait for the custard to solidify. Once it is hard, you can slice it into the little blocks we remember.
What about the Cake Custard "sweet dish" we used to long for? Easy, he said, any fool can make it. You need the simplest cake in the world and as for the custard, don't bother to make a real custard, just use powder. So here it is. Rohit Sangwan's recipe for a completely authentic Mayo College-style Cake Custard. And I've also included the recipe that Jodha procured for a Mayo College Mutton Curry.
I hope you like them. But if you don't, think only of this: I suffered this food for seven years. Now it's your turn!
For the Cake:Butter: 100gm; castor sugar: 100gm; eggs: 2 (you can replace the egg with 100ml of milk); flour: 100gm; baking powder: 2 pinch (3gms); vanilla essence: 1/2 tsp
For the Custard:Milk: 200ml; sugar: 35gm; custard powder: 10gm; water: 2tsp
(For three to four servings)
For the cake:Bake room temperature butter and sugar in a bowl cream it with a back of a wooden spoon till it's light in colour and fluffy.
Add eggs slowly to the mixture and keep beating. Once both are mixed, add the vanilla essence, sieve flour and baking powder together and fold it together with the butter mixture.
Bake it in a small cake tin at 175 Degree C. To check if it's baked, take a toothpick and prick it in the centre and if it comes out clean then the cake is ready.
For the custard:Boil milk and sugar, mix cold water and custard powder. Once the milk is boiling add the custard mixture and boil.
Slice the cake and pour custard over it.
Mayo Mutton Curry
coriander powder: 50gm; red chilli powder: 25gm; turmeric powder: 10gm; garam masala powder: 5gm; yoghurt: 150gm; fresh tomato puree: 100gm; kachri powder: 50gm; coriander leaves: for garnish
Add sliced onions and brown till the colour turns gold.
Add lamb, ginger paste, garlic paste, salt, coriander powder, red chili powder, turmeric powder, kachri powder and cook till moisture evaporates and lamb turns brown in colour.
Add in yoghurt and tomato puree and cook well.
Adjust consistency by adding water.
Sprinkle garam masala powder on top and garnish with fresh coriander leaves.
From HT Brunch, March 23
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