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Opinion | Steroids, antibiotics and a dose of spare ribs

Hospitals are not supposed to be about food, but a stint in one makes you appreciate what you eat

Pork spare ribs with tequila and paprika. Photo: Samar Halarnkar
Pork spare ribs with tequila and paprika. Photo: Samar Halarnkar

It’s very spicy. And can’t they give any non-vegetarian?"

After three days in an intensive care unit, my father had been moved to a hospital ward. He could not yet lift his hands, shunts and drips snaked in and out of his neck and arms, it was hard to understand what he was saying—the viral pneumonia had attacked his voice box as well—and he was being pumped with steroids and antibiotics. At times he was disoriented—speaking to my wife in Marathi, which is not her language—and at times he was lucid.

Halarnkars are at their lucid best at meal times, whatever the circumstances. And so it was with my father. His eyes were rheumy, his body and spirit were weakened, but he cared about what he was eating.

The spice levels in the hospital food were higher than our home cooking. It was confounding, especially given the fact that the hospital receives Arabs and others from lands with mildly spiced food. Sure, we live in the south, but could a hospital not serve food more appropriate to sickness? The question, clearly, was not one anyone had bothered to address or cared deeply about.

In the event, there was not much to be done about the spice, but surely my father did not have to suffer the messy palyas (vegetables) they dished out? This was indeed the south, and the rooftop canteen, which also supplied food to patients, did offer chicken and egg curries and kebabs. Oh yes, said the canteen representative, we can supply chicken curry to the rooms.

So, the next meal had chicken—four tiny, bony pieces. After the meat was pulled off the bone, there were perhaps three teaspoons of it. Since my 86-year-old father’s appetite was not back to normal, that was acceptable and better than plugging away at the dodgy vegetables.

When I tasted the chicken curry, I was struck. This was quite delicious. So, after feeding my father dinner, I raced up six floors, rubbed my hands with glee and prepared for some relaxation time with chicken curry and rice. To my horror, when I asked for chicken and chapati, the canteen offered me palya, dal, rice and chapati. Dinner was vegetarian.

This may not sound like a big deal, but with a sleepless night ahead—do a night shift at a hospital with hourly visits by nursing staff and you will know what I mean—I wanted to at least begin on a note of satisfaction.

I have eaten at many hospitals over the past few years, looking after friends and family and once incarcerated myself. The experience is, to put it mildly, unpleasant. You have little control over what’s happening to you in a hospital, so why not squeeze out some basic pleasures? People say food is the last thing they think about in hospital, but as I said, we’re Halarnkars. When I was in a cardiac-care unit five years ago, hooked up to numerous beeping machines, watching my irregular heartbeat, I kept thinking of a roast duck I had once made, and how wonderful it would be to have that for the next meal.

After nearly a week in the hospital, my father returned home to a selection of three meats. The first thing my mother gave him was chicken soup, her magic remedy for weakness. Within a day, he was on his walker and prowling around the house, just two days after requiring assistance to even sit up in bed. Some have said he might be healthier if turned vegetarian. My argument is he is 86 and particular about what he eats, so why give up what you like. He’s no ascetic and has no reason to be.

A hospitalization wears down the whole family. As far as I was concerned, it was the food that wore me down more than anything else. Even the lunch-time chicken curry could only keep me going for so long. When we finally came home, I yearned for comfort food. So last Sunday morning, I got on to my motorcycle and motored down to the Karnataka Ham Shop. Duck was on my mind, but the bird they had was about 3kg, a bit excessive for this Halarnkar.

I settled instead for some spare ribs, baking them with simple spices and alcohol, always a winning combination. As the fat in the ribs bubbled and dripped, I reheated some leftover spinach dal and smoked eggplant and toasted a sourdough made by a neighbour. It was the best meal I had had since the early morning dash to hospital 10 days ago. I sent a rib over to my parents, to accompany their fish curry. What better way to appreciate rebirth and freedom.


Serves 2


1/2kg spare ribs

2 tsp smoked paprika powder (or paprika)

4 tsp tequila

2 tsp toasted sesame oil (or equivalent)

1 twig rosemary

Salt to taste


Mix the oil, tequila, salt and paprika to form a marinade. Rub it in to the pork chops and let stand for 2 hours. Grease a foil, lay out the ribs. Place the rosemary twig on top. Seal in the ribs with another piece of foil. Bake in oven for 50 minutes at 170 degrees Celsius. Open the foil for last 20 minutes, and turn over the ribs every 5 minutes, basting with marinade if needed.

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