How Indians adapted the British tea time to their tastes, and to matchmaking.
My Life: Indian matchmaking takes a tiffin or two
My husband, Ram, and I met over tiffin and tea one rainy afternoon in November 1991. We had an Indian arranged marriage, and as was the custom our horoscopes were matched, our families met and deemed each other compatible, and finally my parents invited him (and his parents) home to have tiffin and tea, and oh, by the way, to meet me.
Tiffin, in this case, consisted of sojji and bajji, which are to Indians what scones and finger sandwiches are to the English. Sojji is a warm, sweet pudding made of milk, semolina, ghee, cashews and saffron. Bajjis are vegetable fritters - thinly sliced potatoes, onions, aubergines or plantains, dipped into a savoury batter and fried until golden brown, almost like tempura. Sojji and bajji are the twin pillars of Indian tiffin and are usually reserved for formal occasions, especially when boy meets girl. In fact, eating sojji-bajji has become a euphemism among Indians for meeting girls in an arranged setting, as in, "Now that you are 30, you'll probably be eating a lot of sojji-bajji."
When my future husband came to meet me, I decided there would be no sojji or bajji. Six years at graduate art school in America had made me a rebel with a cause: to overhaul the outdated Indian arranged marriage system. I was against horoscopes, matchmaking and most of all the formal boy-meets-girl event involving sojji-bajji.
Why did the boy have to come to the girl's home to meet her? I raged. Why couldn't we go to his home and eat sojji-bajji? Why serve sojji-bajji at all?
My parents were used to my tirades. As usual, we negotiated. They argued that this was a formal occasion. I threatened to appear in torn jeans and a cut-off T-shirt. And so it came to be that my mother reluctantly served store-bought snacks to her future son-in-law and his parents when we met, and I wore a sari.
In retrospect, I wish I had let my mother make her sojji-bajji, for she cooks them exceptionally well. One of my favourite memories of childhood is wading home from school through puddles of water during the monsoon season to the aroma of sizzling hot bajjis.
The concept of tea and tiffin originated from the British. Siesta followed by strong, invigorating tea made sense in tropical India, where the heat lulled office workers into a somnolent stupor. While Indians appropriated the custom of tea, they spiced up the tarts, biscuits and sandwiches into what has now become tiffin.
The word "tiffin", however, connotes more than just accompaniments to afternoon tea. It also means light food that can be eaten at any time of day. Tiffin is India's culinary equivalent of an American sandwich. While growing up, my brother and I often had "morning tiffin" of dosas or idlis before heading to school. After a heavy wedding luncheon, my father often requested "light tiffin" for dinner, instead of the usual rice and curries. And when we had guests over for tea, one or two tiffin dishes were de rigueur. In the last 50 years, as more Indian women work full time, western-style cornflakes, toast, scrambled eggs and pizzas have invaded India. But tiffin dishes remain unapologetically and mouth-wateringly authentic.
Recently, my husband and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. For old times' sake, I served him the sojji and bajji he had missed at our first meeting. And then, just to remind him that I was still a rabble-rouser, I took him out: for an afternoon of skydiving.
Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.