The inside story of Sunday Lunch

And how a day dedicated to the Sun lord transformed into a special day for social feasting – and treats

By Madhulika Dash; Illustration: Seema Misra

For most Sundays of my life, this was how my Sunday began: We woke up early, dad and I, and after a quick bite and refresh, we head straight for the market, usually a traditional hatt where farmers would get their harvest and sell directly. The rule book, the more you buy the better you could bargain. The market trip would often end with a mandatory visit to the halwai with a fixed list comprised of paneer, savoury snack, a box of assorted mithai and curd, the whole pot of it. Back home, the “foraged treasure” would be laid to be washed and put aside depending on what needs to be cooked first, the next day, and thereof.  

But before all that would be one ritual where dad would take out his set of ingredients. Sunday was his day of cooking, cooking one dish for lunch that is. And that would be an elaborate affair that would transform the kitchen and the backyard into one helluva commercial kitchen with us serving as commis. From chopping, peeling, washing and even setting the makeshift chulah, it would be the one family activity that we would look forward to. Of course, the “giving mom a holiday” pretext of it was always flouted as the work post that one dish -usually chicken or mutton or fish – would fall on her shoulder, as would the huge cleaning task.  

Yet, for most of us, that “single dish” that would get the family together would lay the foundation to the idea of the celebratory Sunday Lunch, a kind of treat worth waiting an entire week for.

But ever wondered as to how the concept of Sunday lunch originated, and what made it so festive? To know this, one needs to know how Sunday came to into being. While popular lore tells of how the Lord rested on the seventh day after creating the world and thus making Sunday, a day dedicated to prayers and relaxation; history suggests otherwise. Sunday, which is a derivative of the Latin word diēs sōlis or “sun's day”, began its journey as a day dedicated to the Sun back in the time thanks to the early Indus civilisation and the ancient Babylonian times. Back then, days were either dedicated to God and Goddesses – both in Indian and western civilisation – or to zodiac signs. Incidentally, the day Sunday fell on was dedicated to Sun across cultures – a day which wasn’t a holiday per se, but soon evolved into a day that was spent paying respect to the Sun god.

In fact, the concept of communal meal, a ritual introduced by tribal heads to build the sense of community through the idea of ‘one kitchen, one table’, says culinary folklorist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai of Fabrica By Saby, has been an ancient tradition of building not just a community but also brotherhood, and easily dates to the time of the early settlers.”  

One of the many reasons that legendary warrior kings like Chengis Khan to Babar and even Ashoka before he became Samrat were known to encourage communal dining or social eating, which, adds history explorer Saket Gupta, VP Marketing Black Sheep Hotels, “which not only strengthen their bond with their tribe, bred loyalty but also was a ‘key’ to knowing if the tribe was indeed well and happy as it allowed even the most secluded person to interact.”  

It was that holistic building of being a part of something that, says Gupta, “made communal meals such an integral part of rituals, festivals, and occasions. The fact that such tables allowed for less formal settings to interact, zest and even indulge in playful banter – both at the royal level and that of home – was an added bonus.”  

But the benefit of these communal dining, remnants of which are still found in villages where once a month a feast is hosted by the chief, in whose home the food is prepared, as eras folded outgrew the initial basics of building a sense of belonging and happiness. In due course of history, communal meals became fragmented into intimate meals that usually were had with families, extended families, close friends and in case of kings and later emperors with their advisors.  

The thing, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “about communal meals that began their journey as family meals and then laid the foundation to the concept of family feast eventually is that it works as much on the social personality of a person as it is on the stomach. In fact, it is around the comfort of the informal scenario that nudges a person to open up most, sharing their happy moments, thoughts and even building trust.”

The result, over the change of eras, while the basic premises of these meals remained the same, the motives behind changed. By medieval times, a communal style-laid meal was used as a pretext to achieve not just social acceptance, and friendships, but as political gazing as well.  

So valued were the insights and the connection built on these meals that, says Chef Gorai, “even the great Kautilya considered it as an important tool for an ideal Samrat. It is said that while Kautilya encouraged Chandragupt to have his meals alone or with his wife, he insisted on some form of communal meals on different occasion that helped the king assess his courtiers and even, for a moment, come down the hierarchy and follow the tribal practice of being part of a brotherhood.”

The effectiveness of such brief feast was in fact extended to the harem as well in later years when Maharajas and Emperors would dine with a bevy of their favourites and the extended family that included the sons and daughters as well, just to have a sense of belongingness and to ascertain, says Gupta, “that all was well in their own kutumb.”

The well-studied effects of these communal meals were in fact one of the reasons temple festivals were made so grand. Take the instance of the Trissur Pooram. What used to be a one-day affair was eventually extended to seven days by the King of Cochin, Raja Ravi Verma so that people could travel well and attend this 3000 year old festival, and also indulge in communal feast – which, says historians, back in the day were a way that people could be social.  

Little is known as to when and how did the communal meal, a tribal custom to feed a tribe during bad hunt days, turn into a Sunday Lunch special, although, say the experts, “one can presume it to be a curation of modern times, colonialisation and  

You see, says Chef Gorai, “back in the day there was no concept of a Sunday as we know today. People often took breaks during harvesting festival, or rituals that made them travel to their close relatives. Such special meals were reserved for the occasions when the hosting house would be involved in creating one.”

The idea of a Sunday holiday began with the advent of Christianity first, and the Sunday mass, which initially would be accompanied with a meal afterwards. This eventually took ground when the colonial powers took charge. While India was introduced to the idea of a work week most likely under The Crown, sadly, says Gupta, “it was a seven-day working week for Indians to the six or even five-day of those in the power. That was until 1890 when thanks to the efforts of Narayan Meghaji Lokhande, a leader of mill workers, the idea of a Sunday leave became the privy of the masses. It took Lokhande seven long years.  

That victory, old mill lores state, were celebrated with the entire community cooking a special meal. The festive feeling didn’t stop there as it continued every Sunday when the mill workers would celebrate with one special meal dedicated to that share of freedom. Lokhande’s victory in fact inspired other places where the same freedom was given to the Indian workers. And it was celebrated likewise. The exception to this rule for many years remained the railways, the armed forces and of course the hoteliers, who, says Gupta, “eventually began using it as a ruse for hosting a set menu that eventually turned into the Sunday buffet and later the Sunday brunch.”

In fact, adds Chef Gorai, “the origin of a Sunday haat or bazaar that came across different ports and around Sadar Bazar, a marketplace exclusively designed for the cantonment residents, was the outcome of the popularising of the Sunday holiday – and the advent of what today we call the Sunday Lunch.”

What popularised the idea of this afternoon special was also the fact that it allowed not just extended families to meet, but also families to spent time and do something together. Thus, add the experts, “creating something of a custom which is a fruition of both nostalgia and legacy.”