Are you in hospital? Eat well soon

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on April 05, 2019

Make a meal: An American hospital chain recently conducted a cook-off between its chefs and dieticians to conjure up fresh, fun menus   -  ISTOCK.COM

Don’t want mushy rice, thick green sludge, boiled lentils or sickly custard? Then be sure to avoid hospitals

I’ve started this column in a mood of great exasperation. After all, a hospital bed offers limited inspiration for a piece of prose that should rightfully be studded with plump cranberries and drizzled with golden toffee sauce.

Here, the lights are too fluorescent, the needles too poky and the tubes, intimidating. But what’s making me most irritable is that I’ve landed on my back in a vegetarian hospital. And while I enjoy vegetarian fare on normal days, whenever I’m unwell I return to my Parsi-Bohra roots and expect to be plied with chicken broth and soft scrambled eggs.

Still, when the lunch tray finally arrives on my first day in this swish, gleaming hospital, I sit up with curiosity. Then slump back in a sulk. Like hospital trays everywhere, this too is a study in pale yellows, almost-whites and pasty greens — with a daub of muted orange to pretend that all is right with the world. The dishes match perfectly with the décor of my 17th-floor room.

A closer inspection reveals stodgy daal, mushy rice and a mixed vegetable in a gluey, green sauce. And, of course, a bowl of sweet custard.

It’s that bowl of pale yellow custard that triggers memories of other hospital meals over the decades. Every hospital I’ve ever stayed in — four, I think — has adhered to a series of food rituals, so closely that I wonder if they are listed out in some grand Manual of Hospital Meals.

It all begins with a flask of hot tea and three plain digestive biscuits that clank their way in at the groggy hour of 6 am. (Which is okay, I guess, because the lab technician already bellowed “Good morning” when she came in for the blood test at 4.40 am and the attendant switched on the brighter-than-noon lights when she came in for the sponge at 5.25 am.)

Next, is a bowl of hearty porridge at breakfast.

Then tomato soup in a flask at 11 am.

Not to forget the glass of warm milk at 9 pm.

And, of course, safe, soothing custard to round up every meal.

These rituals are beloved of both the pure veg and the pure non-veg hospitals in Mumbai. Otherwise, though, their approach to food is as different as mung daal paani is to Scotch broth.

The strictly vegetarian hospital I’m in at the moment has famously good facilities and doctors. So I hope dinner is different from lunch.

It is, sort of. Because this time they’ve whizzed the same rice and the same daal and same vegetable in a mixer. Then laid it out on the same tray alongside the same custard and brought it in with a succinct explanation. “Doctor has said semi-solid diet.”

I’m not a mixed-vegetable-in-thick-green sludge person. But I’m even less a mixed-vegetable-in-thick-green-sludge-whizzed-through-the-mixer-to-make-an-even-thicker-greenish-sludge person. By Day 2, I’m so sludged out that I even accept the nose tube with equanimity.

By this point, I’m getting seriously nostalgic for my food-friendly stints in hospitals. I remember how — after I delivered my first baby at Masina Hospital in Byculla — I dispatched my husband for a huge plate of zardalu (apricot) ka meetha from a neighbouring Hyderabadi restaurant. Two years later, after I delivered my twins, I persuaded him to visit the three Irani restaurants in the area and return with sweet buns from each.

I recall how, at Breach Candy Hospital, the arrival of lunch was the event of the day. The menu was announced with fanfare. Tempting trays arrived with roast chicken, mashed potatoes and trifle puddings. Boiled peas and white-sauce-laced casseroles. Stewed apples and soft cutlets.

The bland, comforting fare transported me to Enid Blyton land. And while I didn’t want to live there forever, it was a nice place to visit. (In fact — and this is the ultimate accolade for a hospital food tray — whenever I was too dopey or mopey to eat, there were always takers for my meal. Only the boiled carrots were ever wasted.)

Similarly, when my father was at Parsi General Hospital, food was a big part of every visit. Sitting in a corner of the ferny, grassy compound, scattered with busts and benches, is an idyllic outlet of the famous RTI chain. Relatives of the patients sit at the little tables, tucking into pulao and dhansak. Visitors stop by to stock up on rum balls, tiny lemon tarts, frilly cutlets and long, white sarias (sago wafers).

Years ago, the dean of Nair Hospital in Mumbai had asked the bestselling cookbook writer Tarla Dalal to come up with an appetising menu for the patients. Recently, an American hospital chain conducted a cook-off between its chefs and dieticians to conjure up fresh, fun menus. Celebrity chefs around the world have also pitched in with creative recipes.

Till these experiments bear fruit, however, the best way to escape hospital food is to avoid hospitals.

On my last day, the dietician hands me a meal plan. It features vegetable upma. Then daal and rice and mixed vegetable. Then a bowl of papaya. Then khichdi and more mixed vegetables. Then custard.

Behind my polite smile, I’m sorry to say, I’m thinking the rudest thoughts possible.


Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author. Her latest book is What Maya Saw

Cosy mac-and-cheese
  • (I found this recipe on a website that lists ‘Hospital recipes worth stealing’. So steal it, I did, with a few modifications.)
  • Ingredients
  • 1 pounds cooked macaroni
  • 2 cups gorgonzola cheese sauce (recipe below)
  • 1/4 cup medium-dice roasted red peppers
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, cut into thin ribbons
  • 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup shredded cheese
  • Cheese sauce
  • Yield: 2 cups
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 1/2 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups milk, hot
  • 2/3 cups crumbled flavourful cheese
  • Salt
  • Pinch of grated nutmeg
  • Method
  • Cheese sauce
  • 1 In a saucepan, heat butter on medium heat until melted. Stir flour into butter and mix well for 6 to 7 minutes, until it turns golden brown in colour.
  • 2 Add hot milk. Mix well so there are no lumps. Bring to a boil, and simmer for about 15 minutes.
  • 3 Mix in cheese, grated nutmeg and salt, and simmer until cheese has melted.
  • Mac-and-cheese
  • 1 Toss pasta with cheese sauce and mix well.
  • 2 Mix in peppers and fresh basil.
  • 3 Toss breadcrumbs with cheese and top pasta mixture evenly. Bake at 375°F for 10 minutes, until golden brown color is achieved.
  • (Recipe: Rex UNC Healthcare — Raleigh, NC)

Published on April 05, 2019

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