The most important meal of the day is said to be breakfast—named after the habit of breaking a fast post a long night’s rest. Current wisdom, which says breakfast is the most important meal of the day, is a more recent phenomenon. Breakfast—as a meal, including a little tipple—can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where it was seen as a worker’s meal, something he fortified himself with before setting off for a long day’s labour.
In 13th-century Europe, under the influence of the Catholic church, it was considered a ‘sin’, associated with gluttony. Then, there were the social pretensions of the time, when nobility ate only two times a day: a mid-morning meal and dinner. It was the poor and the ‘uncouth’, unmindful of the social graces of the time, that partook in breakfast. Snobbery aside, breakfast, aided by coffee, started becoming more commonplace during the 15th century and, since then, its importance has only grown.
Last month, I stayed at The Ashok hotel, the grand dame of government-run hospitality, and breakfasted at its coffee shop. The shop, whose name I can’t recall for no particular reason, teleported me back to the 1990s. Let me clarify here: this isn’t one of those pieces written to take the mickey out of good ol’ ITDC. The Ashok hotel, especially with its new rooms, has much to recommend it. The coffee shop, however, with its cane chairs, faux palm trees/flowers and heavy curtains, is a throwback to the pre/post-liberalisation era. And I daresay, it’s a little comforting.
You might also want to see this:
It all goes back to the time when the merit of a buffet was determined by the number of chaffing dishes on the counter. The coffee shop delivered on that count. The rock-hard and often dry idlis were heaped on to the chaffing dish, with the paraffin-lit burners—one assumes this, as the food often ran cold—trying valiantly to keep things cheerful. Sliced bread in cane baskets was cushioned by napkins in a style reminiscent of hospitality school display techniques—traditional, old-fashioned and removed from the earthy wholeness of today. An inbuilt understanding of the restaurant’s provenance (government-run) seems to blunt the expectations of guests. There were no discreet tent cards announcing calorific content; there was also no health section—they had everything, from masaledar vermicelli to puri bhaji and macaroni.
If it hits the spot, it makes it to the buffet. There was no such thing as ‘breakfast’ food. Even though modest, there was a juice section— flavoured soya milk, however, found pride of place next to cold coffee, the tags often swapped, as were the jugs, so one wasn’t quite sure how the lactose-intolerant fared.
But despite these few complaints, a steady cheerful hum guided the restaurant. The guests were diverse: the African delegation on a state visit in colourful attire, the bureaucrat in a drab button-down shirt and the Lutyens politician at a corner table. There were also some tourists on a group tour, their guide regaling them with promises their day held. The most important meal of the day in this restaurant was synchronised fare—the lady at the hostess desk, ticking off names on a list, as she asked your room number, a bowl of mishri and saunf nearby, not quite a post-breakfast refreshment, but nonetheless prompting people to sample.
It was all here in this restaurant—during the most important meal of the day—a chronicle of all that is to be criticised and praised. Plus, the throwback to a bygone era. This coffee shop, whose name I can’t recall, provides a nostalgic detour (entirely unintentionally) from the regular hotel breakfast experience.
The author is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad.