Convalescent’s spread

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on January 12, 2018
Get-well-soon broth: Chicken soup is a sickroom staple.

Get-well-soon broth: Chicken soup is a sickroom staple.   -  Shutterstock

Shabnam Minwalla

Shabnam Minwalla   -  BusinessLine

The invalid’s diet may not necessarily mean an array of bland, gooey food. In fact, it largely depends on who the invalid is

There are many reasons to be grateful that we live in the modern age. Efficient plumbing, antibiotics and cupcakes, to name just a few.

There are, however, those who continue to bleat about the good old days. And for these, I have the perfect cure. Just put them on an old-fashioned convalescent diet of the sort that was dished out in sickrooms some 100 years ago. And I suspect they’ll be cured of their nostalgia double-quick.

I’m talking about the days when — depending on where you were born — you were force-fed thin gruels or heaped servings of liver; barley water or glasses of tepid milk. While all around you, everybody was muttering, “starve a fever, feed a cold.”

After all, the last thing you want on those days when you’re achy and droopy, is to be confronted with a cup of unidentifiable mush and the empty assurance that this gloopy, yellowish thing will make you feel much better. Especially if what you’re craving is a steaming bowl of American chop suey.

At least I certainly wouldn’t want a serving of manda, even though it’s highly recommended by Ayurveda. Manda is made when one cup of rice is cooked with 14 cups of water for a long, long time till the rice completely disintegrates and becomes a starchy soup. It was apparently a sickroom staple a long time ago.

Unexciting though it sounds, manda seems to have been one of the kindlier dishes around. Most Victorian cookbooks had a separate section on Invalid Cookery and these came up with some fairly unpalatable concoctions. For example, water toast and toast water. According to Fannie Farmer — culinary queen and author of Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent — water toast is made by dropping dry toast in boiling, salted water, quickly pulling it out, and then serving the soggy creation with butter. This is apparently, just the thing for a dilated tummy.

If, however, you are a victim of nausea, you will have to stick to toast water, which is the water that remains after you fish out the toast. Really tempting, huh?

To be fair, not all recipes for the sick and convalescent were equally bland. As the patients started to recover — moving from a liquid diet, to a light diet, and finally to a convalescent diet — they were served tempting trays featuring mushes, mulled wines and savoury jellies. Some of the dishes are admittedly peculiar. The Victorians had startling faith in the curative powers of oysters, pale puddings and beef teas. But they also came up with some unusual fare — toast, spread with chestnut purée, topped with slices of pheasant and garnished with gravy and warmed plums.

This unusual recipe makes one thing clear. The invalid diet depends heavily on who happens to be the invalid. When we were little, sick children were cosseted with buttery mashed potatoes and plenty of rest. The adults turned to khichdi or curd-rice or chicken soups.

Not my dad, however. He had grown up in a seriously non-vegetarian family, the sort that served bheja and kaleji for breakfast. So when he was sick he would reluctantly forego his three tablespoons of pickle and mutton curry, and settle sadly for a frilly fried egg, a few slabs of cheese and a small mountain of butter, all the while sighing that he was feeling very weak. “In my childhood,” he would remind us, “we only ate eggs and vegetables if we were very sick.”

Little wonder, then, that the Parsi vegetarian meal (sometimes served at weddings and navjotes) is called Parsi pareji ( pareji means convalescent food).

Like my dad, I’m not a curd-rice patient. When I get a bad cold I crave bhelpuri. So much so that as a student in LA I would change two buses to get to the Indian shop in Culver City, ensuring that by the time I had gotten back home after criss-crossing gang neighbourhoods and navigating the LAPD system, my cold had become a raging flu. But still I got my spice fix.

For all other ailments I turn to vanilla ice cream and custard. Because, quibble though you might, there’s something peculiarly soothing about foods which are pale and cool and slip down effortlessly. A throwback to those days when, after a tonsil operation, I spent a happy week eating ice cream and jelly with unabated delight.

Meanwhile, my daughters have their own ‘when I am sick’ menu. Chicken soup, of course. Pasta sautéed in butter. Monaco biscuits. Sugary tea. And fizzy lemonade.

Which, as I often remind them, beats water toast by a mile.

Here are a couple of comforting recipes taken from Fannie Farmer’s book for convalescents. I’m planning to try them the next time a nasty bug invades my home.

Coddled Egg

1 egg

1/3 cup milk

1 teaspoon butter


Few grains pepper


1 Scald milk, and add egg slightly beaten.

2 Cook over hot water, stirring constantly until of a soft, creamy consistency, then add seasonings. Serve with toast.

Ivory Jelly

3/4 teaspoon granulated gelatin

1 tablespoon cold milk

1/3 cup scalded milk

2 teaspoons sugar

Few grains salt

8 drops vanilla


1 Soak gelatin in cold milk, then dissolve in scalded milk; add sugar, salt, and vanilla.

2 Strain into mould and chill.

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and the author of The Strange Haunting of Model High School

Published on January 13, 2017

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