Have you eaten your fourth meal today?

Our snack time is serious business — better than brunch and hotter than high tea, writes Denise D’Silva

Samosas, fried onion, potato bhajias and plump vadas make for excellent snacks
Samosas, fried onion, potato bhajias and plump vadas make for excellent snacks

Denise D'Silva

On a recent trip to Europe, I was hungry between meals. While that’s hardly surprising, what was on offer certainly was. I got to the closest bakery and the choice was a pastry, a sandwich, or a bag of chips from a vending machine. These would be the exact choices at lunch, so would I have to eat the same food again? That sounded wrong. I missed home, and realised that the fourth meal of the day is something we have managed to attain a great range with.

A stop-gap meal to tide one over, a sort of hunger-saver in between two meals is a fascinating part of the day in most countries. For instance, ‘elevenses’. A word that I particularly like, used more in Britain and the Netherlands, it simply means a snack one has around 11.00 am after brekkie is done and dusted, and before lunch. Or fika — a ritualistic break to catch up socially over coffee and cake.

There are legit fika breaks integrated into the work day in Sweden. And these never happen at or around the desk. They’re designed to make people step away from work and refresh themselves with social contact. Fika isn’t solitary at all. Then there’s the aperitivo hour, an invention of the Italians. Pre-dinner nibbles, served alongside a bitter aperitif, to whet the appetite.

While the global norm of the day is three meals, this system largely stems from an industrial-era work day, and isn’t necessarily biological instinct. Is the fourth meal just an indulgence in today’s day and age? Or is it something that is as necessary as dinner or breakfast? I’m all for countries that ritualise a fourth meal or even a sixth. But when and what is this meal all about? And is there enough of a distinction in its offering to make it stand out from a second breakfast or late-night snack?

Interestingly, a brand like Taco Bell tried to grab this space in the consumer’s mind with their Fourthmeal campaign way back in 2007. It spoke to that moment at night, after dinner and well into hanging out in front of the telly, when you just needed to dig into a delicious meal that they branded Fourthmeal. It didn’t have too many takers, though. Perhaps because the offering was limited to a taco!

I found myself in a debate with a friend who insisted that brunch is that elusive fourth meal I was looking for. Except it’s not. Brunch to me is a cheat. It’s merely combining two meals into one and robbing me of either breakfast or lunch. Why should I give them up for some new-fangled brunch party where people don’t eat as much as they drink and are more intent on empty conversations than empty plates?

British high-tea does come close to the fourth meal ideal. That charming, mid-afternoon break filled with cucumber sandwiches, dainty pastries and piping cups of tea was once a daily tradition. Sadly, now it is just the preserve of well-heeled guests in colonial-era five-star hotels, or hen parties.

South India seems to have cracked it with their ‘tiffin’, which refers to both the meal and its carrier. You will find restaurants and street stalls dedicated solely to this fourth meal of the day. Even recipes for sambhar are categorised as ‘tiffin’ sambhar and are not to be mistaken for ‘meal’ sambhar, which is more robust and has more vegetables in it.

A variety of dishes vie to satisfy those hunger pangs at tiffin time — from sweet sheeras to crisp dosas, meduwadas and everything in between. Sometime post-lunch and before the end of the work day, people stop what they’re doing to grab tiffin and a kaapi, chat with friends and co-workers, and keep themselves fuelled for the last spurt at work and the tiring commute home.

In the western part of India, the same thing is called chai nashta, a kind of high tea, one might think. Except instead of scones, there are hearty vada-pavs spiked with red-hot chutney; spinach, potato and onion bathed in chickpea batter and fried to just the right crispiness, to be downed with hot sips of cutting chai spiked with ginger and cardamom. Each community will have its own snack preferences in the evening.

The Sindhis are among the top contenders in this battle for the fourth meal, with their shallow-fried koki, delicious alu tuk and sweet lolo. Only to be outdone by the mindboggling spread of the Gujaratis — cheelas, khandvi, fafda, khakra, sev… the list is endless. Add to this seasonal snacks like the winter favourite ponkh (tender sorghum mixed with crunchy bits), and the spread would easily outdo the Swedish smorgasbord several times over.

The breadth of our dishes for this lovely snack interlude is vast. Forget the ones that sizzle into being before your eyes — if you consider only the dry, portable snacks we have created, it’s safe to say that our fourth meal comes with courses. Think chakli, gathiya, banana chips, and the multitude of shapes and forms that besan (chickpea flour) takes.

Entire establishments are created around these crunchy, savoury and sometimes sweet delights, and the making of these snacks is a huge business that particular families carry forward. It is a profession that enjoys patronage the way jewellers in India do. Generations of customers will trust their snack time to generations of a family that has fed them for years.

So while our fourth meal may not have a specific time of day, it certainly has a prominent place in our day. To be seen as the very real social phenomenon that it is, perhaps it needs a fancy name, like fika and aperitivo? We certainly have an armoury of dishes that qualify. I mean, how can a bag of peri-peri chips ever match up to 300 types of chivda?

Denise D’Silva is the author of the Beyond Curry Indian Cookbook, and co-founder of Hyphen Brands

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