A (Not So) Short Note on Short Eats
Earlier this week, in the muggy heat of the afternoon, I was idling in my grandma’s kitchen as she readied the day’s sundown spread. Mouth open, I watched her mould about a thousand petties by hand. Her fingers were dexterous, pinching the edges of dough in swift, meticulous movements. After attaining form, each crescent-shaped pocket was laid on the floured glass, a tedious process to be repeated ad nauseam. She must’ve been at it for forty minutes by then.
“Maama, varubayyeh nuveytha?” I asked her.
“Varubali ves vey,” she laughed. “Ekamu roadhamahey mee, kan’bulo.”
How very right she was. And so, as Ramadan comes to a close this year (what, already?), I thought it apt to shine the final spotlight on everyone’s favourite roadhavillun companion – hedhikaa, also referred to fondly as short eats.
Short eats – be it gulha, bajiya, masroshi or boakiba – are classic staples of the Maldivian diet. Much has been said about the origins of short eats, but little has been resolved. To pinpoint an exact juncture in history remains difficult; like a lingering post-colonial hangover, settlers from all over the globe have come and gone, leaving behind a breadcrumb trail of their respective cuisines. The medley of local hedhikaa we savour today run the gamut of cultural influences, though obviously adapted to suit our fish-forward palates.
Consider the humble bajiya, a clear imitation of Indian samosas. Meanwhile, cutlets may very well be a long-lost cousin of the Portuguese bolinho, a cod and potato croquette. Petties, also prevalent in the neighbouring country of Sri Lanka, bear an uncanny resemblance to empanadas consumed in many parts of Western Europe and South America. Let’s not forget the sweet stuff, either. Zileybi? Jalebi. Roas paan? French toast. Caramel pudding? British flan, baby.
For culinary entities derived entirely from borrowed concepts, short eats have become a quintessential part of our day-to-day lives. Just as they have been modified from their colonial origins, they continue to be reinvented from atoll to atoll, island to island. In the south for instance, tuna fillings used in the preparation of bajiya and gulha are typically sun-baked and sapped of moisture; other variants exhibit a darker, hardened outer shell.
While their endless versatility may have helped tighten their grip over us, what really makes them stick is the nostalgia they so easily stir. Food tends to be a powerful sensory stimulant, and the likely truth is this: every one of us has a latent childhood memory associated with short eats. Whether it’s gorging on platefuls at a birthday party, or sneaking a couple during interval from the school canteen, attached is an intrinsic sense of comfort, of home, that is often hard to ignore.
Regardless of how or where they came from, short eats have stood the test of time and are here to stay. They have evolved over the years to something that is distinctly ours, inherited from our forefathers along with the forgotten ties they represent. So next time you casually bite into some, whether hotaa-bought or replicated at home, take a moment to reflect on all that has made it possible.