COMMENTARY, Nov 2 — A freshly made thosai (or dosa, as it’s also called) is a beautiful thing.

I learned this from my friend M. who has also taught me the difference between a benne dosa and a podi dosa. (A generous amount of butter, accompanied by a coconut chutney, for the former; a vibrant dusting of chutney powder and moreish spiced potatoes for the latter.)

She’d go through the assortment of dips that arrive with the plates of thosai, telling me which goes with what. To be honest, I oftentimes still struggle to remember which goes with the lentil sambar and which with the mint chutney, but only so I can listen to her melodious voice repeating her lesson yet again.

It has been some time since we last shared one of these delicate crêpe-like thosai. The pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns; the same old story we have been telling though we can see the light at the end of the tunnel now.

Chicken biryani, with fluffy basmati rice grains and lots of flavour.
Chicken biryani, with fluffy basmati rice grains and lots of flavour.

Soon, we will reunite and bicker about whether to order a rava thosai first or simply a plain one (almost always the right decision, if only to begin with the basics). And when we do, how our hearts would light up!

Till then, the memories. And memories matter.

I am reminded of an earlier memory, this time from my childhood. Weekends were always a time to look forward to. My father would bring me out to buy some chicken biryani for our family brunch.

The shop would be bustling, the tables having already turned over half a dozen times by the time we arrived, though most of the customers who had come and gone were there for the crispy roti canai and spicy curries.

Pakoras frying in hot oil.
Pakoras frying in hot oil.

Those were lovely, and we had those on some mornings too, but you had to come later in the morning for the chicken biryani, full of fluffy basmati rice grains and lots of flavour. The meat itself, often cuts of chicken thighs as these were less tough and more tender, is almost an afterthought, having transferred most of its savour to the long grain rice.

Meat, spices and rice. All melded together in perfect harmony. And as we waited, I remember observing the faces of the other patrons. Folks from every race. A muhibbah gathering of neighbours waiting for their turn to order, to pay and to pick up their precious haul. No one minded the wait for the adults passed the time chatting and gossiping, the children running and laughing.

Then there are the parties and open houses we got invited to. First attending as part of the family, welcomed by neighbours who are throwing a Deepavali celebration in their home; then later when I was at university, making road trips to different towns to visit college friends who promise the best fish head curry or mutton varuval I ever had.

Oh, what sumptuous spreads those were!

'Channa chat', a salad made from chickpeas, onions and tomatoes.
'Channa chat', a salad made from chickpeas, onions and tomatoes.

Bowls of tangy rasam, redolent of cumin and coriander. The enticing aroma of pakoras frying in hot oil, wafting from the kitchen. Pale balls of nei urundai, rich with ghee, and sweet, saffron-hued ladoo.

We freshen our palates with some channa chat, a salad made from boiled chickpeas, onions, tomatoes and a generous squeeze of lime. Vinegary and fiery pork vindaloo. Nutty, fudge-like halwa. And who could resist binge-snacking on curly ribbons of murukku, full of mild spices and terribly, wonderfully addictive.

Oh, how our hearts would light up!

As we got older, our Deepavali invitations came from close friends and colleagues. The faces changed or grew more wrinkly. The recipes remained the same or experienced a tweak or two as the families expanded. A new daughter-in-law, a nephew who’s watched too many episodes of Top Chef.

What a sumptuous spread!
What a sumptuous spread!

It doesn’t matter. Only the reunions and the relationships, only family and friends, only the ties that bind – those are what survive the passing of the years. These are what light up your hearts and ours.

I can’t wait for my next makan session with M., now that she and I are both fully vaccinated. Perhaps after she’s back from her Deepavali celebrations with her family.

Yes, there will be more rules to follow – the SOPs that we are now familiar with, that keep us (and our loved ones) safe – but the food will be as delicious as ever.

M. will order us a couple of freshly made thosai; I can always count on her to know exactly what to order depending on our mood. Perhaps a masala thosai, stuffed with spiced potatoes, when we are famished and fatigued, or a palak dosa, filled with Popeye’s favourite greens.

Why have one or two, when you can have three?
Why have one or two, when you can have three?

We needn’t choose, really. Why have one or two, when you can have three? We’ll eat our thosai slowly and catch up on our lives. The triumphs and the tribulations. How through all our trials, we follow the wisdom of Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise.

As we bite and chew our thosai, as we smile and savour, how our hearts will light up! Good food and better company, and a blessed time for everyone.

Happy Deepavali in advance to all my friends who celebrate and may everyone stay safe and healthy and happy always.

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