There are children’s birthday parties today, and there were children’s birthday parties when times were a little simpler, kids were somewhat nonbelligerent, and their desires a bit less coveting.
A birthday meant a party on a terrace, a large living room, or at the most, in the corner of the children’s area of a club. There were balloons, streamers, caps, whistles, and if the parents were rich, a magician or a puppet show. As far as the food goes, it never globe-trotted beyond sandwiches, cake and wafers.
Yes, wafers. These wafers came from bhattis — hot caverns with huge ‘kadhais’ on wood or coal fires, deep-frying thinly sliced potato. As potatoes went into the hot vanaspati, the salty rich aroma of frying would slowly waft through the lanes.
Bhattis like Golden Wafers in Grant Road, Victory Wafers in Colaba, B-Wafers at Forjett Hill, A-1 Wafers at Tardeo dished out wafers that were hot, round, crisp, fresh, made daily in ghee and dollops of butter. Those were wafers. Not the dehydrated, compressed potato, extruded and cut in standardised slices that flood the market today.
Then, there were the sandwiches. Chicken sandwiches, made of fresh white bread (none of the multigrain nonsense), with the edges trimmed. Peppered, boiled shredded chicken in gooey sweet mayonnaise, and a dash of some English mustard between the slices. A green chutney made of coconut, mint, coriander and chilly, with just the right amount of sweetness for the kids, and with lots of butter, constituted the chutney sandwiches.
Today, of course, the average kiddy birthday party needs an event manager to spearhead it and a chef to craft the menu. One I attended a few weeks ago had noodles, French fries, mini versions of pizzas, hot dogs, burgers, dosas, and samosas, and a whole chaat counter.
Wait, I am not yet finished. Freshly made Subway sandwiches, a live Mexican counter, and a sponsorship from McDonald’s and Dominoes. All that was missing was a page 3 photographer.
Which brings me to adult parties. And by that, I don’t mean “adult” parties. As far back as I remember, party snacks, oops, I mean, ‘hors-d’oeuvres’, used to just be Amul cheese and pineapple on toothpicks, with a fake maraschino cherry at the end, slices of boiled egg on Monaco biscuit with a drop of ketchup, or thin melba toast with corn and chutney. Trays would be left on the table and we would pick up something as we moved about.
Today, your party is a failure if it does not boast of a counter, showcasing the best of imported cheese, meats and cold cuts. The menu incorporates an inventory of tastes that are South American, Moroccan, Turkish, or generally from across the world.
To top that all, for some reason, all snacks seem to be served in Chinese soup spoons or small shot glasses or test-tubes. If you peer around in the dark of the cocktail party, you will find fried shrimp in Wasabi, grilled lobster tails with blue cheese dipping sauce, baba ghanoush, and hummus with toasted pita, and the ultimate request the hostess will make of the caterer. “I don’t care how you do it, but I must have some smoked pink salmon”.
Okay, let me not be a reverse snob. I have to confess that cocktail party food today is far more imaginative. At least we knew what we were eating. While the glitzy step out for a night at the penthouse, few know the difference between a tempura and a tarama, or between a chermoula and a chorizo.
So, I sometimes feel: enough of the hoity-toity, pretentious, white-saucy-herby, braised-demi-glazed, tarragon sprinkled, insipid, minusculely proportioned, daintily decorated, filo pastry excuse of a party. Let’s get back to the basics. Could I have a plate of kebabs and some fried prawns?
Author and TV show host Kunal Vijayakar is “always hungry”. He tweets as @kunalvijayakar