Thatha is fast asleep and his Bhagawadgita rests on his chest slowly rocking to his breath while the afternoon sun filters through the glass window next to him. Amma, my grandmother, calls out his name from the kitchen and he wakes up. Minutes later, he’s at the dining table scouring for a quick snack as tea simmers in the background. The air is filled with the smell of tea leaves and nostalgia. His stock of Haldirams had run out, so Amma is serving murukkus today. I pick up the tiny glass I used to drink milk from as a child, one that is now filled to the brim with the household adults’ drink— chai. I lean back in a chair between my grandparents and thus starts my internal quest to decipher this age-old yet modern tradition we fondly call 'tea-time'.
Post siesta hunger pangs are real and larger is the array of diverse foods that we prefer to indulge in before the sun sets for the day. The ubiquitous chai has become so synonymous with Indian afternoons that we forget the roots of this habit lie some four thousand miles away from India, in England. While we often fixate on all that we lost as a nation during the British colonisation, we hardly ever delve into the curiosity of some of our highly cherished Indian routines which had not existed before the British arrived on our shores. The British and Middle-Eastern influences are undeniable in Indian food culture, and therefore they naturally made way to that beautiful time between our signature big lunches and humble dinner rotis.
So I decided to question a few people from different spheres of life in order to gain deeper insight into the matter. “Teatime is for samosas and pakoras galore”, says Vasu, the cook who has been making food for our family for over two decades. She likes her tea hot and with bits of ginger, she adds.
From Kerala’s Pazham Pori (banana fritters) to Gujarat’s warm dhoklas (steamed rice cakes), the list of native Indian snacks is endless and mouth-watering, and I’m really trying to keep this a healthy, diet-friendly read because God knows the number of cookies I have devoured after chancing upon a food blog.
Moving farther away from home, Prnay, a neuroscientist and a Bharatnatyam dancer, who is currently living in Boston, says he misses the chaat from the streets and podi idli more than anything else from his time in India.
The home bell rings at Kendriya Vidyalaya, Airforce Station, and the kids are scrambling out of the gate, looking tired and hungry in the sweltering heat. “I’m allowed to get ice cream on my way home from school twice a week and that’s my favourite part of the day”, says Sanju, a fourth-grader. My toddler niece is no different as she squealed “French fries!” the moment I mentioned the word snack to her.
I’m also reminded of weekends at grandma’s when the cousins and I would huddle up on the balcony to have Parle-G biscuits dipped in tea. I also recall the bhel wrapped up in newspaper cones and the familiar man who sold them outside school, the sliced raw mango sprinkled with salt and chilli powder, the orange popsicle that left us with tangerine tongues and most of all the feeling of appreciation for small joys.
Now slowly steering away from sugary and deep-fried foods, although admittedly you now cross over into relatively healthy or the rather meh part of this little ode to evening snacks: lemon tea with honey and cut fruit with a good view of the sunset could be just as good. Personally, I love a flavoured greek yoghurt in warmer months and I did not realise that this was a perfect healthy snack until recently.
Meanwhile, those of us who are higher up on the ladder of self-control make healthier choices no matter what time of the day it is. Ashwin Diwakar, a young entrepreneur, likes to get a protein shake in before he hits the gym and sweats it out for a couple of hours in the evening.
The more people I ask about their evening indulgences, the more I realise how much we all enjoy this time. A lone guitarist has a sundowner at a beachside bar. Many miles away, oil-stained newspapers are being emptied of Mirchi bajjis by a bunch of auto-drivers.
Refreshing, refuelling and invigorating are some of the words that come to the mind.
It could be a quick bite between errands or a pick-me-up on a slow day, evening snacks mean different things to us at different times. So thank god for this little tradition, thank god for the mixing of cultures and thank god for food. Especially the sugary and deep-fried kind because all our bad choices are forgiven, all our tiredness is forgotten and all that remains is this tradition, at five o’clock.
- The article is written by Keerthi Jampana, a final year Engineering student. She finds joy in creating content and claims to never miss a sunset, unless she's busy writing about it. You can find her on Instagram @keerthi.jampana
- Illustrated and Edited by Yashila Nara. You can find her on Instagram @yashilaaa