The Sunday Special: What's on the menu?
Denise D’Silva on a cultural phenomenon and its many ‘brand extensions’ for this week's edition of EAT. WANDER. REPEAT
What does a day have to do with lunch?
In western India, you’d imagine everything. Each day of the week has its own boundaries for mealtime, yielding equal amounts of rigidity and anticipation at the dining table.
My Maharashtrian colleagues won’t dream of eating chicken on a Tuesday—the day dedicated to Lord Ganesha and hence vegetarian. My Catholic neighbours will stay away from chicken on a Friday—it’s always fish!
If it’s the Tuesday after a full moon, even vegetables drop off the menu and ‘fasting food’ (yes, there is such a thing) comes into play.
Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays are widely observed as vegetarian days in Maharashtra (to propitiate different deities), which leaves Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays free for all sorts of indulgences.
But even though that is three whole days of eating ‘off-grid’, so to speak, Sunday holds a special place.
In Mumbai, Sundays are self-evident, with different aromas wafting through the windows and stairwells, and the sight and sound of delivery boys ringing the bells of bachelor homes
As a child, Sundays were about waking up a little late, to the smell of bacon and eggs.
Sometimes it meant waking up early to attend Sunday mass, then walking to the local Irani café, which had the best, lard-laden kheema, followed by a stop at the local Mallu restaurant for appams, and devouring that divine combination with freshly brewed tea at home. Sundays were always special—they still are.
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It’s a day that invariably starts with a heavy breakfast, with not a care in the world about calories and diets, moving on to an even heavier lunch, followed by food coma, followed by tea with delicious treats followed by—you guessed it—a heavy dinner.
If Sundays weren’t marked by special food, I don’t think we’d have the enthusiasm to last through the work week that follows.
For my Parsi friends, it’s dhansak or pulav dar on Sunday, followed by custard and sleep.
In a Catholic home, it’s usually a delicious, appropriately fatty pork dish spiked with vinegar and accompanied by a salad—chiefly potatoes, draped in mayonnaise.
In a Hindu home, it’s usually a sharp chicken curry or mutton rasa had with rice and wades (deep-fried puris made of rice flour, gram flour and urad dal) and absolutely no vegetables in sight (not even the token one), because that’s all the rest of the week will see on their tables.
In a vegetarian Hindu home, it’s usually paneer that takes centrestage or a rich chhole–puri.
And in Muslim homes, it’s a biryani or qorma, slow-cooked over many hours and eaten with much affection.
In Mumbai, Sundays are self-evident, with different aromas wafting through the windows and stairwells, and the sight and sound of delivery boys ringing the bells of bachelor homes.
This day of rest and indulgence has resulted in two words creeping into our lexicon quite effortlessly: Sunday Special.
What is a Sunday Special? A dish that symbolises the day of waking up late, eating good food and lazing about with no particular agenda
I remember a friend visiting from the UK who was foxed when his hosts told him it’s the 'Sunday Special' for lunch, which turned out to be an elaborate meal of chicken curry, fried mutton chops, pulao and kheer.
He enjoyed it greatly, and the next time he saw the words ‘Sunday Special’ in the menu at a local restaurant, he was quick to order it, only to be served a heavy dal and paneer pulao.
That’s when I realised that each of us has a different meal idea for our own ‘Sunday Special’. It’s as if both words were made for each other. No ‘the’, and no mention of which part of this phrase is the adjective. It’s all rather fluid and always said with a smile.
In fact, even in homes that speak a regional language, the English words ‘Sunday Special’ find their way into the conversation when the topic of food emerges. And everyone smiles and seems to know what it means.
So, what is a Sunday Special?
It’s that special dish reserved for the day everyone is off from work and studies. A break from routine that the whole family looks forward to. A dish that symbolises the day of waking up late, eating good food and lazing about with no particular agenda.
The dish in question is usually a family or personal favourite, generally rich and made with a lot of love and attention.
It is such a cultural phenomenon in India that an entire brand extension has been created out of it: the Sunday masala.
I happened to be introduced to the 'Sunday masala' by one of the ladies who worked in my home as a domestic help. She made the most delicious food and was always happy to share a little bit with me, knowing how much I love to eat.
There was this particular chicken she made, which I adored, and after eating it over many Mondays (Sunday’s leftovers), I was hooked. I didn’t have the heart to tell her to get me more, but that taste was so hard to forget that I asked her for the recipe.
As she rattled off a slew of spices and directions, she leaned in and whispered that she added a special ingredient that her sister wouldn’t dare to find out, namely, her ‘Sunday masala’.
I had no idea then what Sunday masala was, and I think when I asked her to repeat those words, she took pity on my naivety and said she’d get me some.
I soon learnt that Sunday masalas are the secret ingredient of many delicious dishes made on the said day. Take a walk to your local market, or even to the grocery store and you’ll find at least five brands vying for your attention with their version of 'Sunday masala'.
And of course, just as no two Sundays are the same, the masalas named after them aren’t either. Each brand has a strong base of loyalists and each lady of the house will swear by hers and rubbish another’s.
Over time I have learnt that this not-so-secret arsenal that housewives swear by was born to address the needs of Konkani households that migrated to cities.
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It’s a special mixture of spices that adds robustness and aroma to the dish and takes inspiration from the communities of the Konkan, where every home has its own unique spice blend or ‘laal masala’ that is made in the summer months to last the entire year.
By and large, the community eats a special non-vegetarian meal on Sundays and the prized laal masala takes the dish to the next level of deliciousness. The precise blends and how they’re added to the dish makes all the difference.
Imagine not having a ‘Sunday Special’ to look forward to after you’ve finished reading the Sunday papers!
DENISE D'SILVA is the author of the Beyond Curry Indian Cookbook, and co-founder and creative head of Hyphen Brands. She also photoblogs on Instagram. The last edition of her Eat. Wander. Repeat column can be read here.