Roll Play

Roll Play

Sandwiches have edges. Ice cream melts. So the moment you have civilisation,someone invents the roll.

Sandwiches have edges. Ice cream melts. So the moment you have civilisation,someone invents the roll.

Sometimes shock therapy is the only thing that works for certain. Many of those returning to India after a spell abroad try to gently acclimatise their stomachs to the transition. Eating gently. Avoiding anything too rich to start off with. I learnt otherwise: go the first day to a rickety wooden stall,with the timbers turned an elegantly glossy grey-brown from a decade of hot oil splatters,and get yourself something steaming,greasy and spicy. Trust me: it’s medicinal. And,for me,the tonic of choice was always an egg roll. One sniff,one bite,and you know you’re in India.

The roll is the finest product of true city life,the one thing that a roadside stranger can make for you while you watch,that cools only in the right stages,that you can hold and eat easily,that you can walk with down a pavement. Sandwiches have edges. Ice cream melts. Chaat is too saucy,and aloo tikkis need both hands. So the moment you have civilisation,someone invents the roll. (Naturally,the Chinese maintain they did,in the mists of antiquity. I seem to remember they structured a section of the mass gymnastics bit in that Olympic opening ceremony of theirs around the claim,along with paper,gunpowder and the civil service competitive exam.)

The world’s streets are thus crowded with millions of men equipped with superlative skill and dubious ingredients hawking various rolls,wraps,popiahs,doners,burritos,shawarmas,gyros and lumpiahs. Some have melted cheese. Some are fried to a crisp,while others are soggy. Some are rolled in bread made of maida; others in atta. In some you pick extra sauces; others stay bland whatever you do.


But it is completely without patriotic bias that I can assure you that the best variations are available on what passes for sidewalks in our towns. The Bombay frankie. And the Calcutta kathi roll. Don’t take my word for it; Tom Colicchio,the presiding genius of Top Chef,agrees. 

And that is probably because of the egg in the egg roll. You need the egg. Wrapping the same filling in a plain roti just isn’t the same. There are reasons beyond the college-mess mantra that Everything Is Better With An Egg. First,the practical: the layer of egg is just gluey enough that the fillings —ideally pieces of kebab— don’t slide out; and it keeps the shape nicely cylindrical too. But also,the aesthetic: you don’t want any low points in your egg roll experience. You don’t want to be stuck between two pieces of succulent kebab to discover that all you have to tide you over for the next mouthful is plain roti with a bit of stringy chopped lettuce. That sort of displeasing contrast can put a roll-eating pedestrian off his stride.

And so,you take an egg,and swirl it around on a large,oiled-up pan. You take a half-cooked parantha,and place it on top. You cook both sides,just long enough for bits of it to get crisp and brown,but not all over. Then you take kebabs—and if you’re at Hazi Sehab in Behala,in Kolkata,or at Nizam’s behind New Market,where first they came up with the idea,the kebabs,moist and tender,will be on a wooden stick or “kathi” — and put them in the middle,with a dash of onion. Or you put a roti on the pan first,and swipe it with egg batter,and later put in minced,stir-fried chicken or veg bhujia,if it’s a frankie you’re after.

But,ideally,stand on the street and watch and smell a master of the art do it. Go to Aga Brothers in Colaba,or a Tibbs stand across the country —for it was a Northerner named Amarjit Singh Tibb who bequeathed to Bombay the frankie,so the legend goes,after tasting shawarma in Beirut a half-century ago,and he named it after the beloved West Indian cricketer,Frank Worrell,dying then in Jamaica of leukaemia that had been diagnosed in India a few short months earlier.

And bite into your egg roll,through the crisp but not crusty exterior,the mild yet flavourful egg layer,and the juicy interior. It’s OK if you get a bit of the paper wrapping,it’s expected,and biodegradable.

And then walk contentedly around as you eat this marvellous invention,as so many lucky people did at Durga Puja pandals last week,and know that you’re munching on the best-evolved food for a town-dweller on this planet.