A hospital may not sound like the ideal place to contemplate food but for some strange reason I always do. Perhaps I develop a yearning to consume something that counters the cloying atmosphere of antiseptic and sickness. Perhaps I want to be surprised by a good meal in an unlikely place. Perhaps I simply have a streak of perversity.
I suspect it may be all of the above.
I was reminded of my thoughts about food when I was admitted to hospital earlier this month. I will spare you the gory details of the surgery but a couple of hours after emerging from general anaesthesia, I was wondering what I might eat.
I have made many trips to this hospital over the past few years and each time I have taken a break from hard days and nights by finding culinary distraction at their rooftop terrace canteen or in the food trays they send to the room.
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It was not easy but I always found something palatable, whether a plain, spicy but quite delicious southern vegetable curry, an idli-sambar, an omelette on toast or—only at lunchtime—a chicken curry with soft chapati.
Alas, when I was in hospital, the chicken curry was off the menu, possibly due to a management change. The canteen assured me, after I protested at being subjected to a vegetarian menu, that the non-vegetarian offering changed frequently. All they could offer that day was an egg curry.
The most notable thing about the hospital menu was how spicy things were—decidedly strange for a place where the dietitian usually recommends mildly spiced food.
In the event, after eating everything that came my way, I contemplated—and hastily abandoned—the idea of a column on hospital food. It was such a dead end that even my twisted mind could not find a way out.
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Why not, I mused as I lay on my hospital bed, return home and produce some un-hospital-like convalescent food for myself and those in need? Recuperation, I discovered, is a good time for culinary inspiration. As it happened, a friend who had come in from the US promptly got covid-19, and since she was living alone in temporary accommodation, I had just the idea for her convalescence.
My inspiration came from Greek food, more precisely from a book I have on meze cooking—light, snacky cuisine which is a titbit, a small portion. Greek food is, overall, mildly spiced, and small portions are ideal for the sick and convalescent.
Unfortunately, the Halarnkar mind cannot wrap its head around the words “small portions”. My mother has been pressured over the years by her daughter-in-law to reduce the size of the food portions she sends over. But every now and then, 250g becomes 1kg. It runs in the family. My cousin who keeps us fed seemingly does not deal in quantities below 1kg—for two people.
So, the meatballs were born in half a kilogram of minced meat, which I realised was enough to produce a mound of meatballs, enough to feed me, my daughter and said friend, who appeared to heartily approve of the meatballs stewed in a tomato sauce. The Greeks call it giouvarlakia. I am not sure my version is entirely authentic, though it turned out very well indeed.
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A feature of the giouvarlakia that confused me initially was the addition of rice to the minced meat. I frowned. Surely that should be cooked rice? The recipe appeared ambiguous. I used uncooked rice and that turned out to be right. I watched with wonder as the rice slowly cooked within the meatballs and gradually poked out of them. What emerged was a hearty and fragrant stew, ideally soaked up with bread or poured atop pasta or, indeed, by itself. There are some benefits to falling ill.
Stewed meatballs in tomato sauce
For the meatballs
500g minced meat
2 slices of bread, without edges
Half cup milk
Half cup Basmati rice
1 tbsp fresh mint, chopped
2 tbsp parsley, chopped
1-2 tsp fresh ground pepper
1 tsp sweet paprika
1 egg, beaten
One-fourth cup white wine
1 tomato, deseeded and chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 tsp olive oil
1 tbsp chopped coriander or additional parsley for garnish
Salt to taste
For the tomato sauce
6-7 pods of garlic, chopped
1 small Tetra Pak/can tomato paste
2 tsp olive oil
3-5 cups water
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Soak the bread slices in milk till it is absorbed. Tear and add to a large bowl with the minced meat. Mix well.
Heat olive oil in a pan and sauté onions until translucent. Add tomatoes and sauté for two minutes. Add this to the bowl containing minced meat and milk. Add in the other ingredients, mix thoroughly and place in the fridge for half an hour so it all solidifies a bit. Using damp hands, shape the mixture into meatballs the size of golf balls.
For the tomato sauce
In a non-stick pan, gently heat olive oil and sauté garlic. Add tomato paste and mix for a minute. Add water and bring to a boil.
Reduce to a simmer, then gently add the meatballs, cover and cook on medium heat for 10 minutes, shake gently so the sauce laps over the meatballs. If required, roll over the meatballs so they cook evenly. Reduce heat to a rolling simmer and cook for another 10-15 minutes until you see the rice grains emerge. Garnish with fresh coriander or parsley.
Serve hot with pasta or bread.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.