How I Learned to Love Indian Breakfast
Growing up in Los Angeles, breakfast was a religion in our household, so much so that it often superseded actual religion, given the number of times my parents let my sister and I blow off going to Sunday school for brunch. Weekend mornings were an experience unto themselves. Earmarked for sleeping in till at least ten, we’d wake up to assemble a smorgasbord of morning meals. We’d pile boxes of donuts from the place around the corner, stacks of Bisquick pancakes drowned in artery-clogging amounts of maple syrup, freshly scrambled eggs rolled into burrito after burrito, plus anything else vaguely breakfast-adjacent we could lay out on the counter while fighting over which pan was used for eggs, and seriously, could you please not do the crossword puzzle in pen if you don’t actually know the answers.
Though my Indian-born parents performed their American morning rites with uncharacteristic aplomb, there was no outrunning the fact that—copious Farmer John’s hot links notwithstanding—we were still Indian. Although knowing a guy who knew a guy who could get fresh samosas and tandoori chicken delivered to my high school by lunchtime was its own form of social currency, the Indian breakfasts served in my house—an amalgam of western, eastern, and southern Indian regional cuisine—barely held a candle to other Indian food, much less the all-American spread of excess my family usually gorged on.
Part of my issue with Indian breakfast is that it just never seemed to stand out from its other Indian counterparts. Where Western breakfasts traffic in sugar, dairy, and questionable-grade meat, Indian breakfasts are usually the same savory, starchy meals you would eat for lunch or dinner. Despite my mother’s insistence that “It’ll be ready in five minutes, you’ll see,” Indian brunch always took at least an hour to get on the table, necessitating a snacky second breakfast to be eaten well before the first. And then there was the fact that, despite hailing from Gujarat, a state on India’s western coast, both my parents grew up in far-flung regions: my mom in Chennai in the south, and my dad in Kolkata in the east, which is a very lengthy way of saying that my Americanized breakfasts were punctuated with three times the amount of Indian breakfasts that even my other brown friends were forced to endure.
Gujarati breakfasts, often called nasta, meaning snacks, were exactly that: heavily oiled, often fried snacks. Wafer-thin khakra, plate-sized discs of wheat flour crackers, were slathered with oil and splintered into cold yogurt. Bins of spicy, knotted ganthiya—fried, spicy chips—thrown back by the mouthful didn’t help the meal feel any more substantial. Intended for breakfast, but snacked on throughout the day, it’s the type of meal you feed yourself when health isn’t your number-one priority. While Gujaratis do offer a few more slightly filling options for breakfast—small, puffy roti-like puri and potato curry; freshly grilled parathas served with yogurt; both commonly seen in north India as well—the latter are also seen just as frequently, if not more so, as dinner dishes. My mother, ever the multicultural optimist, was constantly foisting nasta on my non-Indian friends who happened to stop by the house, claiming they tasted “just like chips!” Despite my friends’ polite acceptance, even I knew nothing that had ever come out of a Gujarati kitchen tasted like chips.
Luckily for our family, my mother comes from south India. (My dad swears this is the reason he married her.) Breakfast food in parts of the south, like the state of Tamil Nadu where my mother was raised, are so ubiquitous that they’ve become popular far past the scorching southern coasts of the country. Simple porridges like pongal and upma, made from rice and semolina flour, are daily breakfasts in the south, but take a backseat to the significantly more popular steamed idli, small round cakes made from de-husked lentils and rice, alongside fried vada, donut shaped cakes made out of chickpeas or mung bean flour. Both are classic breakfasts, whether made at home by hand or picked up in a small to-go restaurant on the way to work, intended to be eaten standing up with a cup of strong coffee.
Yet neither dish holds up to the star of the south Indian oeuvre: the dosa. A thin, crispy pancake, often larger than most human heads and stuffed with potatoes, spices, and masala, is a classic dish, and one most Indians will tell you is their favorite meal. Though originally a dinner item, dosas have become a breakfast staple in Indian households across the country. The variations of stuffing are endless—cheese, vegetables, shredded coconut.
Unfortunately, I hated south Indian food. No amount of home-cooked dosas—dosas so good friends and family would come over and insist my mother make them—could change my mind. Even when they became trendy amongst Western hipsters looking for a way to differentiate themselves from the naan and rogan josh hordes during the mid-aughts, I was unyielding; compared to other rich Indian dishes, idli and dosa were blandly doughy at best (and had nothing on naan, or rogan josh, as far as I was concerned).
Some of the Indian influences weren’t so bad. If there was one benefit to colonialism besides the Hamilton musical, it’s that the British brought beans on toast to India—a dish that became very popular in Kolkata, the capital of the British Raj. Unlike the baked beans of American grocery aisles, Heinz baked beans in tomato sauce, in their trademark blue can, is a staple in most any Indian household and every Indian grocery store. Served with sliced bread, toasted and slathered with clarified butter, beans on toast and a side of tea has remained a popular breakfast staple long since the end of colonial rule.
Somewhere in the last decade, I began to relax my strict anti-Indian breakfast stance and enjoy the occasional dosa (even in Indian cuisine, if you put enough cheese on something, it eventually becomes tolerable), but it wasn’t until a recent trip to India that I realized what I’d really been missing. Squeezed into a tiny kitchen and storefront of a South Indian eatery in the middle of Mumbai, a chef flipped out hot, fresh idlis and vadas to sleepy, hungry Mumbaikars, almost all of whom were men. As we squeezed onto a bench aside two diners wordlessly slurping their food, my uncle pointed out something I hadn’t realized. “All the men who come here are rickshaw drivers in the city. This place makes the best idli in Mumbai and this is where they come to grab a quick bite and socialize with their friends before heading back out for the day.”
Whether it was the freshly made, impossibly buttery idli that had just landed on my plate, or the nostalgia that comes from visiting a land that could have been your land, peering in on a life that could have easily been your life, something clicked in that moment: Indian breakfast wasn’t about having gluttonously delicious food at a socially acceptable time. It, like every other meal, was meant to be savored and meant to be shared. The kitchen is a central part of Indian culture—especially in India, where extended families often share the same cook and thus dine together—and breakfast, like every other Indian meal, is more than just the sum of its ingredients.
My American breakfasts may not necessarily have been Pop-Tarts on my way out the door, but from a culinary standpoint, their importance to me began and ended with how much decadence I could fit on one plate before getting a cavity. The rest of those family morning brunches that did matter—the fighting over the crossword puzzle, the spilling of more powdered sugar than ever made it onto the French toast—weren’t just American customs we’d assimilated into; for our family, they were an Indian tradition enhanced only by the advent of flash pasteurization.
These days, dosa bars and idli trays don’t send me running in the opposite direction; the oily scent of fried ganthiya doesn’t elicit angry complaints and dramatic Febrezeing directly into the hood vent. While I’ve yet to meet a dosa that can make me forget about a pancake, my tastebuds are slowly expanding. Now, biting into an idli that transports me back to that tiny storefront in Mumbai, I know I’m sharing not just a breakfast, but a lifestyle.