Many of our classmates take time off their busy schedule to attend the Alumni meeting at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar, held during the last weekend of June. Many undertake this pilgrimage to their Alma-Mater purely to relive their childhood and partake of for the tea and food the school mess served. The menu was based on a weekly ‘Bill of Fare’ which hung on the notice board of the mess. The only variation during our entire stay at the school (1971-1979) was the date on the top and the name of the vegetable served, mostly based on seasonal availability.
The senior cadets (Grade 8 to 12) were divided into four houses – Chera, Chola, Pandya and Pallava- named after the ancient Tamil Kingdoms. We along with the teaching staff dined on tables which were also placed house-wise. The waiters were permanent and they served us with love and affection. They formed an integral part of each house. They would be the cheer-leaders for most of the inter-house sports competitions and would slip an extra piece of meat or an egg in case we won a competition.
The Cheras were served by Natarajan who was better known as the local banker. He also reared cows and sold the milk to enhance his income and his banking operations. The Cholas were served by Vasu who was more of a neatness freak. He realised the need for education and got his daughters through graduation who are well settled now. The Pandyas had Venkatachalam, the most vociferous of all and also the most active. The Pallavas had Madhavan, who despite his bout with asthma, never allowed his sickness to interfere with his job.
We were served ground pork curry with bread for dinner on the first Friday of every month. The meat came from the Yorkshire Pigs the school farm reared. Many cadets on joining the school were reluctant to eat pork due to religious reasons and also because they had never tasted it before. As the school years went by, many shed their herbivorous status (other than the real hardcore ones) in favour of an omnivorous one. The very same pork curry, with all its flavours intact, is served to the members of the Alumni and their families during the Alumni meet. Everyone, including little children of the Alumni look forward to this dinner.
We were served with tea at 5:30 in the morning, before Physical Training. During the long recess at 11′ o clock it was again tea with biscuits and in the evening before games it was tea and snacks. The taste of this tea is beyond words, and could never be replicated. We tried hard to analyse the secret of this addictive tea – it could be the tea leaves, could be the Amaravathi waters, could be the vessel in which it was brewed, could be the cloth used to filter it – the possibilities were endless. It remains a mystery to all of us to date, but it attracts most alumni to the school every year and they gleefully indulge in consuming cups of this divine tea.
Breakfast for us was mostly continental with bread, butter, jam and eggs on all weekdays. On Saturdays it was Idli-Sambar-Chutney and on Sundays it was Dosa.
The Bill of Fare began with Monday and it was the day we were served fish curry and rice for lunch and mutton curry with roti for dinner. The dessert for dinner used to be fruit custard.
Mysore-Pak which owes its origin to the Royal Palace at Mysore, was served on Tuesdays. It was rock-hard indeed, but it melted in the mouth sweetly. It was a concoction of ghee, sugar and gram flour. The sweet added colour to the drab vegetarian dinner we had on Tuesdays.
We all awaited the fried Tilapia fish served for lunch on Wednesdays. The fish came from the catch of the day at the Amaravathi Dam, co-located with the school campus. What made it very special? Was it the way it was marinated or crispiness of the fried fish or its unique freshness? Indeed it was the very best of all fried fish – it could any day compete with my mother’s fish fry at home.
When I got married, we established our first home at Devlali, Maharashtra. During our settling down days, Marina said she intended to make Dosa on the coming Sunday and she inquired as to what I wanted with it. My most relished combination with Dosa was chicken masala which was served for Thursdays’ dinner at the school mess. “What an unpalatable combination?” was Marina’s reply. I told her that the Dosa (3 to 5 mm thick) made on a granite griddle, served with chicken masala was the best combination for Dosa that I had ever had. She did not believe me until we relished it that Sunday evening.
Dosa, a thin pancake, is made from a batter of ground lentils and rice. Its origin can be traced back to the Tamil Brahmins, who are strict vegetarians. The batter is fermented overnight and is poured over an oil-coated hot granite griddle like a crepe and turned over to cook both sides. The modern version of the crispy, paper-thin variety is rather a deviation from its original. Some restaurants in South India still serve the original thick Dosa and is called Kallu (Stone) Dosa.
Fish cutlet was the specialty for Friday Lunch. The main ingredient again was the fresh Tilapia from the Amaravathi Dam. The secret recipe for this cutlet still remains unsolved – even our classmate Vijaya Bhaskaran, Executive Chef at Le Meridian, Bangalore, has failed to replicate it. Jalebi was the dessert for the dinner, which owes its origin to Arabia and was brought to India by Persian traders.
Saturday was the movie day and hence we were served dinner early. It was Biryani – either chicken or mutton – but what every cadet looked forward to was the sweet dish. It was Khaja – a delicious flaky pastry, shaped out of a layered dough and dipped in sugar syrup.
One can very well imagine the effort taken by the mess staff for ensuring that quality and taste of food served to the cadets is of a high standard and they need to be commended for their care and culinary skills. The fact that one of the key attractions for most Alumni to get back to the Alma Mater is the food being served, says it all.
Post Script : I dedicate this post to Mr Venkatachalam, our waiter of Pandya House, who passed away on 11 August 2016. He will remain in the hearts of all those who were served by him, with all his love, affection and dedication, in Pandya House. Our friends from Pandya House will remember him for ever.