Home in a Red Tiffin Lunchbox
An essay, and recipes for gochujang egg fried rice with corn and peas, crispy spiced tofu, and cardamom-scented Paanakam. Words and photographs by Archana Pidathala.
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Welcome to Vittles Recipes! In this new weekly slot, our roster of six rotating columnists will share their recipes and wisdom with you. This week’s columnist is Archana Pidathala. You can read our archive of cookery writing here.
Home in a Red Tiffin Lunchbox
An essay and recipes for gochujang egg fried rice with corn and peas, crispy spiced tofu, and cardamom-scented Paanakam. Words and photographs by Archana Pidathala (with contributions from her son, Arjun).
It is just after 1pm on a cold, wet January afternoon in our flat in Barcelona. The umami funk in my first spoonful of gochujang fried rice jolts me awake in one bite.
It reminds me of my mother making fried rice for my brother and me on hot summer afternoons in Kurnool, of squirreling away jars of gochujang from the Seoul Store, which sprang up unexpectedly by the KIA factory near my hometown in a remote part of southern India. It takes me back to the first lonely months in a Bangalore apartment I rented when I was twenty-one, living on my own for the first time, subsisting on egg fried rice, day after day.
I eat my lunch alone at the kitchen window overlooking the verdant Barcelona hills. I imagine my twelve-year-old son eating the same fried rice on the school patio, three miles from here. This daily ritual of having lunch alone yet together binds us in our new home.
When we moved from Bangalore to Barcelona several months ago, my son had to leave the home he was born in, his best friend, his beloved football coach, and his collection of origami planes. When we arrived, the only thing he asked of me is if I could cook and pack school lunch for him every morning. He didn’t want to eat the lunch served in the school cafeteria, he said. I am not, by default, an early riser, but I agreed, in an effort to bridge his experience of uprootedness, thinking of meals made and packed in our home kitchen as a way of softening his geographical and cultural dislocation. And so, like millions of mothers around the world, I wake to the grey hours of the morning to perform this act of care. Day by day, making my son’s lunch as the morning light bathes my kitchen has become one of the simplest pleasures of my new life.
Requests for the next day’s lunch promptly arrive from my son each evening: Andhra egg curry, tamarind rice, beetroot chapatis, chana masala, palak paneer, ammama’s fried rice. Recipes that sound like they’re from a book we’re plotting to write together someday in the future – Finding Home in a Red Tiffin Lunchbox, by Archana and Arjun.
Of all the meals we’ve put on rotation for school lunch, I find myself returning to my mother’s fried rice the most. It comes together in around thirty minutes and is packed with flavour and texture and veggies. Because it is low-work and high-payoff (a kitchen philosophy my mother lives by), I’ve taken this recipe with me wherever I’ve gone throughout my life. Over time, my mother’s basic fried rice recipe – built on a foundation of just butter and garlic – has morphed, as I go to Asian supermarkets in search of flavour. New iterations, from fiercely tart to richly savoury, continue to be born in my new kitchen, versions that incorporate both the new and long-beloved condiments that jostle for space in my pantry: umeboshi, miso, rice vinegar, Shaoxing wine, hoisin sauce, sriracha.
When I seek out new ways to make one simple recipe many things, my WhatsApp floods with suggestions from friends and family. ‘Use sambal oelek,’ my brother-in-law texts, ‘but be careful not to overcook it.’ My Spanish teacher instructs me, ‘Add a splash of white wine if you are making mushroom fried rice, and don’t forget to stir in chopped tarragon at the end.’ I realise that nearly every culture has its own take on fried rice, incorporating local seasonings, creating something flavourful from scraps.
Miles away from home, these repetitions, variations, and reinventions of the dish my son and I love mark our existence here. These are our anchors now.
A short note on the recipes
Along with a recipe for fried rice with gochujang, corn, peas, and crispy shallots, I have included recipes for our favourite accompaniments: crispy tofu and paanakam – a handy sweet drink with a hint of spice, made with jaggery, lime, cardamom, black pepper, and ginger. Paanakam is traditionally made during festivals in several South-Indian homes. Its cooling properties mean that it is particularly great in the summer, but I make it all year long.