The Rift of the Maggi

Maggi noodles has never been my comfort food. Unless you count the countless times it has helped comfort me from hunger away in a hostel that served consistently bland food. But I experimented. Maggi, Top Ramen, Yippee, Wai Wai. They all worked for me. I threw in a generous amount of tomato ketchup to get the right tang. Goodbye, soul wrenching hunger. But the health people can’t let us lie in peace, it seems. Exactly how you feel when you spot a red ant in the bottom of your lemonade glass – after you’ve finished it.

Maggi has too much MSG, it seems. That’s monosodium glutamate for you. Very bad for your health. It also has excess lead. Imagine lead! At a time when even gasoline comes unleaded. I experience deja vu about that time Coke had pesticides, Cadbury had worms and Dominos pizzas had filth (apart from loads of calories, of course). Unsavoury substances have a curious habit of penetrating the foods we love best. The big bad brands hide the realities of their quality systems to dupe us out of our money and health. Isn’t it awesome to find someone to blame for all our health failings in this age of cynicism, lifestyle disorders and absence of exercise?

Don’t get me wrong. I am neither defending nor bashing Nestle. The devil is in the noodles – um, the details, and let’s give them a chance to clarify. Maggi has been everyone’s favourite snack for a long time. (Not yours, I know. You are either a Top Ramen loyalist or a higher mortal who eats only salads.) I remember kids in school, hassled with their rotis and sabjis, fascinated with the kid who brought Maggi for lunch. For the Mom wanting to whip up a quick meal, Maggi was indeed a gift. Granny used to make us Maggi on cold Sunday mornings. She ignored the taste-maker and added a delicious combination of masalas and vegetables to the boiled noodles. I am lazier; I use the taste-maker generously. With time, I will admit, I have weaned off Maggi and switched to – no, not salads, but pasta. (Err)

I wonder if our years of Maggi are germinating into a physical disorder inside our bodies. What is the likelihood of lead poisoning from spoonfuls of Maggi as opposed to lead in the environment? (Oh, there are ample sources of exposure.) What about all those shops that sell variations of Maggi at a premium – egg Maggi, chilly chicken Maggi, et al? I am not overly attached to my noodles (or “Indian Chinese” in general), but removing them from the face of the country seems unsettling.

Anyway, while we are at it, we should also remove the flies from the sweet shop, the grime from the panipuri wallah, the roaches from our kitchens, the maida from processed foods and the lack of exercise from our routines. I doubt if we can do this in 2 minutes.

Spicing up an Evening

There are moody evenings, when nothing, right from the hazelnut coffee at Starbucks to the chicken at Thai Palace, seems to set things right. And then there are breezy evenings when all you need to make life beautiful is a plate of spicy panipuri from a roadside vendor. 

The panipuri has several names: golgappas in Delhi, fuchkas in Kolkata and gupchups in Bihar. Be that as it may, the perfect panipuri must have potatoes, onions, chickpea and chillies, and be flavoured with salt, pepper, tamarind and lemon. You absolutely must ask for some additional jaljeera to wash it down.

“Did the vendor have clean hands?” says my health conscious family, fed on 99.9% germ-free advertising on television. “Oh, he wore sterilised gloves.”

I will tell you a secret though – please avoid the places that serve you “mineral water” panipuri. An over-hygienically made panipuri is against the natural scheme of things, and like rainbow-coloured roses, just doesn’t feel right.

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Magic in the Household

Who says magic exists only in Harry Potter books, dreams and imagination? It exists inside our homes, right under our noses. What else can explain the transformation of raw rice into fluffy strands of bhaat, lanky okra into delicious bhujiya and beaten eggs into spicy egg bhurji?

I grant you science has a role to play, but it is only magic that has made me the solemniser of these transformations – yes, me, standing with a stirrer in one hand, the fingers of the other crossed in nervous anticipation. Ten days into my new life in Pune, I have managed to whip up a few meals without raising up a storm, or a fire for that matter.

The fruit and vegetable vendors in Pune, I have found, are highly sensitive about their products. “Will those grapes be fresh?” R ventured to ask one the other evening. The weighing scales also looked biased – or call it our North Indian apprehension.

“Of course they are fresh! I only sell the best.” The vendor replied defensively. “If I had been in government service, I would be earning a hefty pension by now – so long have I been in this business.”

We were regaled with tales of his experiences as a street vendor all the while we hunted for onions, tomatoes and potatoes.

While moving into a new home has its downsides, it is terrific to live in a decluttered house. You know exactly where everything is. This lack of clutter is conducive to the kind of good habits the family advocates: waking up on time, eating a heavy breakfast, drinking milk at night.

Getting the milk the first time proved to be entertaining. “Would you want cow’s or buffalo’s milk? Full cream or half cream?” Where were my close-to-heart red-packet and blue-packet varieties? “Errm, I find cow’s milk suits our systems the best, thank you.” Some customers looked at me in awe – ah, the experienced homemaker.

It is only when we return from one of our evening walks, and find unwashed dishes in the kitchen, that we wish magic pulled up its socks tighter and lent us a hand.

In defence of coffee

I daresay coffee has it only a trifle better than guinea pigs when it comes to scientific study. I have read about coffee being good for your liver, bad for your skin and bad for your liver the next time I checked. The stores boast of rich product portfolios of trillions of types of coffee – decaffeinated, hazel, expresso, everything but the kitchen sink – and I have seen health freaks twist their nose in distaste when offered a brew.

On winter mornings, I downright cherish – what’s a stronger word, treasure – my cup of steaming coffee which I partake of from a seat by the window. These are usually mornings when I do not need to be out in the maddening crowd or spend a divine day trapped in some godforsaken bit of work, but can stare into nothingness, think about the rest of the beautiful day, and watch the cows come home.

When the health freaks make me their object of distaste, and I feel benevolent enough to let them feel good about themselves, I casually replace my coffee with the bitterest concoction of green-tea in my possession.

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The Sharmas in Karol Bagh

Roshan Di Kulfi

It was a white, wintry day. Mr Sharma and his wife stood outside Roshan Di Kulfi – the old, Karol Bagh restaurant – waiting for a table. They looked enviously at a group of college children, busy eating with plates in their hands. There was a time when Mr Sharma too could eat while standing. He would come along to the restaurant with his wife, then girlfriend, and order two plates of papdi chaat. It had come as a pleasant surprise the first time they visited, the fact that the place also served food other than kulfi. Now, however, his hands shook too much. Worse still in Delhi’s biting winter.

Karol Bagh hustled and bustled as always, with shops selling everything from designer sarees and sherwanis, to dry fruits, bags and pickles. Winter had clearly not dampened trade. In recent years, more contemporary eating joints had sprung up in the market. Nonetheless, thought Mrs Sharma, nothing could match Roshan Di Kulfi’s golgappe, dahi bhalla and of course, kulfi falooda.

Sometimes, Delhi’s chill seemed tailor-made for eating. Wasn’t it bliss to gorge on gajar ka halwa, jalebi and hot coffee when the winds raged outside? Roshan Di Kulfi had on display a vast selection of sweets right in the storefront. It made the Karol Bagh air fragrant, festive and too tempting to resist. If anything held back Mr Sharma from sampling a plateful of everything, it was his old age. It was a pity, he thought, that he had to go and get old. He would love a plateful of steaming chana bhatura. Why couldn’t time reverse itself, if only for a while?

Even at 4 in the evening, odd hours for heavy eating, the place was jam-packed. Mrs Sharma settled on the chair and looked around first at the crowd, then at her husband. They had been married thirty-five years, the first ten of which her husband had spent introducing her to new cuisines. She often regretted how she now had to be watchful of his diet, and stop him from eating much of his favourite food.

“What shall I get you, Ma’am?” the waiter enquired.

“How about two plates of chana bhatura?” Mrs Sharma smiled at her husband, who in turn was delighted enough to give her a wide, toothy grin.

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Dilwaalon Ki Dilli

For all the badmouthing that Delhi receives, there lies herein undying charm. Every Wednesday, find on Saddi Delhi a fresh story from life in the capital. Right from delicious food in Delhi’s alleyways to dreamy winters that paint the skies white.

For a tour through Delhi, from then and now, click here.