If you are a frequent visitor to Bangalore, then the chances are that you have at least heard of – if not actually been to – the legendary MTR restaurant. MTR is a perfectly good south Indian vegetarian restaurant during the day but it really comes into its own at breakfast time. It’s not as though it serves anything unusual. It is more that the standard south Indian breakfast is cooked with such skill that people flock to the restaurant from all over the country. Most mornings there is a long queue for tables and you have to be there early if you want to be sure of getting in.
I am sure there are other restaurants like MTR elsewhere in India but the notion of a breakfast place is still something of a rarity in our country. In the West, many restaurants are famed for the quality of their breakfasts and when restaurants are rated, breakfast is almost as important as lunch or dinner. Global attitudes to breakfast are so varied as to make generalisations impossible. But over the years, a few broad conclusions have struck me.
Breakfast as an occasion
In the West, and especially in America, it is common to meet for breakfast. In India, the only people who favour breakfast meetings are those who work for international companies. The rest of us find it difficult enough to stagger into office each morning without having to conduct business in the early hours. Besides, breakfast is family time for us in India. We don’t mind meeting relatives for breakfast at home. Or having long chats over paranthas with our children or our parents. It is the notion of eating with strangers, first thing in the morning, that puts us off.
Why do we make this distinction? I think it flows from another, more basic distinction: washed or unwashed? In India, we wake up, eat breakfast and then go for a shower. In the West, they get dressed and then eat breakfast. So even when they eat at home their breakfasts are already more formal than ours.
Cooked or uncooked
If you wake up in the morning and eat a piece of toast with your coffee, then you are probably not eating breakfast. That at least, is the Indian definition. Breakfast is nearly always a meal that involves cooking, whether it is poories, paranthas, idlis, dosas, or eggs. So it is in America and in England, though these days with the paucity of time, more and more Americans are adding milk to cereal and pretending that this is breakfast.
In the Continent, however, a cooked breakfast is rare. In France and Italy, breakfast usually means coffee and some sort of baked good (bread, cake, etc.). When they want a more elaborate breakfast, they will add fruit, cheese, or cold meat. Rarely will they cook anything for breakfast.
It is all about time
It is tempting to ascribe variations in breakfast habits to the nature of cuisines. But the time factor also plays an important role. Americans start their day very early. They break for a short lunch at around one and usually only eat a sandwich or something equally unsubstantial. The French, on the other hand, rarely get to office before nine and then break for a full three-course lunch. (In France, it is not uncommon for shops to be closed while salespeople sit down to long lunches.) So, Americans need large breakfasts to be able to sustain themselves through the day. Europeans, on the other hand, only need a little something to start the day with because they know that a good lunch is on the way. Most Indians still like the idea of a cooked lunch, ideally one that comes from home, in a lunch box or tiffin. So, we eat relatively simple breakfasts. The really big breakfasts tend to be weekend affairs.
Sweet or savoury?
The basic difference between an English breakfast and one on the Continent is the sweetness factor. A full English breakfast is not just full of fat and oil but it is almost entirely savoury: eggs, bacon, sausages, toast, tomatoes and mushrooms. Even the one sweet element – the preserve – often takes the form of unsweetened marmalade. On the Continent, on the other hand, sweetness is an integral part of breakfast. No matter what bakery product is consumed, there is nearly always something sweet about it.
Nutritionists tell us that a breakfast with some carbohydrate and a little sugar is a good way to start the day because it prepares the body to metabolise carbs. Moreover, it also gives us a dose of energy while the full English breakfast can make us feel satiated and sluggish. This probably explains why Continentals tend to be thinner than English people.
Americans are the fattest people in the world and their breakfast habits reflect this. I remember watching in horror over a decade ago at a diner in the American South as many very fat people ordered large breakfasts of bacon and scrambled eggs and then proceeded to pour maple syrup over their breakfast. But that’s the American way. At breakfast time, the distinction between sweet and savoury is eroded. They can have their waffles with sausages or they can have them with butter and syrup. It is all the same to them.
Indian breakfasts are unusual in the sense that they replicate almost completely the flavours of a normal Indian meal. You will get the bread (in some form or the other) or the rice (as an idli, a dosa, etc.), the subzi and often, even the dal (as sambar). Unlike, say, the Brits, we don’t have a tradition of very different breakfast foods. Our breakfasts are mini-meals and therefore, sweets have only a subsidiary role.
Vegetarian or non-vegetarian?
I always think that the true expression of Indian Hinduism comes at breakfast time. With a few exceptions, most Hindus cannot face a lot of meat early in the morning. Even people who are otherwise non-vegetarian will prefer, say, an aloo parantha to a
first thing in the morning.
Nakul Anand, who heads ITC Hotels, told me that the most popular breakfast at all properties across the chain was dosas and idlis. Even hard-core north Indian non-vegetarians preferred to start their day with something delicate and vegetarian.
In that sense, we are not unlike Europe, where a sweet pastry or bread is all they need in the morning. Contrast this with the English, who must have some sort of dead pig (bacon, sausages, etc.) or ancient fish (kippers) or unspeakable part of hapless animal (kidneys) before they can start their day. Think also of the Americans who have an omnivorous attitude to breakfast, cheerfully consuming minute steaks (which are anything but minute) along with their eggs and hash browns.
What makes the difference? I am not sure it is exclusively cultural. Among Indian Muslims, it is entirely acceptable to eat keema or nihari first thing in the morning. Nor are Indian Christians squeamish about non-vegetarian breakfasts. So, all my secular instincts notwithstanding, I have to say that it is Hinduism that makes the difference.
We have all been brought up to think of the egg as the universal breakfast food. In fact, only a tiny minority of the world’s population bothers with eggs. The egg is not a part of Indian breakfasts. They don’t bother with it in the Far East or the Middle-East. In Europe, they rarely if ever, cook eggs for breakfast. They do eat eggs in America, but they also eat many other things: waffles, pancakes, steaks, muffins, French toast, etc. It is only the Brits who believe that you must eat eggs in the morning. Our faith in the power of the egg does not stem from our own cultural traditions or from the egg’s ubiquity in the rest of the world. It is merely a colonial hangover.
Great indian breakfasts
Nakul Anand’s revelation about the popularity of south Indian breakfasts tells us something about how rapidly Indian food habits are changing. As recently as the 1970s, many north Indians had never eaten a dosa. (It is still unknown in Pakistan.) Now, the dosa and the idli are ubiquitous breakfast dishes in India.
Naturally, I applaud this development. But part of me can’t help feeling that we are missing out on many other excellent breakfasts. It saddens me that the north Indian stuffed parantha has become a novelty dish on breakfast menus and is still believed to be best represented by street stalls where they deep-fry the damn things and rob paranthas of their home-made subtlety. And perhaps inevitably, my Gujarati parochialism comes to the fore. The best breakfasts in India come from Gujarat.
What about crisp masala poories dipped in fresh dahi, seasoned with mango pickle? Or warm theplas, studded with flakes of garlic or scented with the delicate aroma of methi? Or small Gujarati poories with a khatta potato-shaak? Or, if you want to go all Kathiawadi, then an amazing sweet-savoury combination of warm jalebis and delicious ganthias? Don’t get me wrong. I’ll join the queue at MTR any day. Of course, south Indian breakfasts are terrific. But for real gastronomic class, you’ll have to come to Gujarat...