We’ll miss sushi

One food item that my daughter and I will really miss when we move back to India is sushi. It is not that it is not available in Bangalore – restaurants such as Matsuri and Harima make excellent quality sushi, just that the transaction cost of procuring it will be far higher.

I grew up vegetarian, and didn’t eat meat until I was twenty eight. The decision to try meat was ad hoc – at a restaurant in Monastiraki square in Athens, the meat looked fantastic and the vegetables looked sad. And I decided that if I were losing my religion, I would lose it all the way and started my meat-eating career by eating beef souvlaki.

It wasn’t until a year later that I tasted fish, though – from childhood the smell of fish had put me off. As it happened, I first ate fish at a restaurant in Karwar, en route to Goa. Then, a consulting project in Mumbai happened, with a fish-loving client who took me to the best fish restaurants in that city (sometime during this time, I discovered I’m allergic to prawns).

It would take another year or two before I would have raw fish, though, in the form of sushi and sashimi. The first time was a trip to Matsuri, where my wife was treating me. I quickly grew fond of it, and would have a Japanese meal (at either Harima or Matsuri) at least once in six months (these are easily the best and most authentic Japanese restaurants in Bangalore. Edo is good but overpriced).

My love for sushi really took off during the three months I spent in Barcelona in 2016. That city has loads of sushi shops (it helped we were living in a dense district), mostly run by Korean immigrants. it is not too expensive either, which meant I would have it once a week at least (I might have eaten more often, but the wife was pregnant then, and hence off raw fish).

London doesn’t have the same density of sushi shops as Barcelona, but there are some chains that make pretty good sushi (Wasabi and Itsu, though I prefer the latter). Like other things London, it is not cheap, but we end up eating it reasonably often (it helps that the daughter loves sushi as well, though she only eats salmon nigiri – which also happens to be my favourite kind of sushi).

While craving sushi and planning a sushi run for dinner earlier this evening (finally we ended up eating at a Korean restaurant), it hit me that I won’t be able to have sushi so regularly in Bangalore. I started wondering what it would take for the likes of Freshmenu to be offering sushi on their menu. And I remembered a chapter in my book on specialty food.

The problem with low demand products is that the volatility of demand is high relative to the average demand. This means that for a retailer to stock items with low demand, either the margin needs to be high, or the inventory levels will be so low that customers might be disappointed rather often – neither of which is sustainable.

Making matters worse is the fact that fresh fish is an integral part of sushi, and it has an incredibly short shelf life. So unless demand can be aggregated to a high level (which Harima and Matsuri do, by being located in the middle of town and especially catering to the Japanese population in the city. In fact, I’m told the Chancery (where Matsuri is located) is the hotel of choice for Japanese visitors to Bangalore), it is not feasible to run a sushi restaurant in Bangalore.

Oh, and in the same chapter in the book, I discuss why people like to live with other people like themselves – others demanding the same thing you demand is the only way you can ensure that there is supply to meet your demand.

Linearity of loyalty rewards

So I’ve taken to working a lot in cafes nowadays. This is driven by both demand and supply. On the one hand I’ve gotten so used to working for my current primary client from home that I’m unable to think about other work when I’m at home – so stepping away helps.

Also on the demand side is the fact that this summer has been incredibly hot in London – houses here are built to trap in the heat, and any temperature greater than 25 degrees can become intolerable indoors. And given that cafes are largely air-conditioned, that’s an additional reason to step away from home to work.

On the supply side, there are three excellent hipster cafes within 200 meters of my house. Yes, I live in a suburb, though my house is very close to the suburb’s “town centre”. And all all these cafes make brilliant coffee, and provide a really nice ambience to work.

So far I’ve discovered that two of these cafes offer loyalty cards, and given my usage, neither makes a compelling reason to be loyal enough. The “problem” (in terms of retaining my loyalty) is that the loyalty card at both these places offer “linear rewards”.

Harris+Hoole has an app, which offers me a free drink for every six drinks purchased. Electric Coffee has a physical card, which offers me a free drink for every ten drinks I purchase. Now, the rate of reward here (I’m writing this sitting in Electric) is lower, which suggests that I’m better off patronising Harris+Hoole, but some variety doesn’t hurt – also I’m queasy about ending up and parking in the same cafe more than once in a day.

Even when I was writing my book in Barcelona two years ago, I would never go to the same cafe more than once a day, alternating between Sandwichez, Desitjos and this bar whose name I could never figure out.

Ordinarily, if I were a low intensity user, one drink for every N drinks ($math 6 \le N \le 10 $) would have been a sufficient reason to be loyal. Given my rate of consumption, though, and the fact that I go to both these cafes rather often, the incremental benefit in staying loyal to one of these cafes is fairly low. I can peacefully alternate knowing that sooner or later the accumulated ticks on my card or app are going to provide their reward.

It wasn’t like this last year, when I was briefly working for a company in London. Being extremely strapped for time then, I hardly patronised the cafes near home, and so the fact that I had an Electric card meant that I stayed loyal to it for an extended period of time. At my higher level of usage, though, the card simply is not enough!

In other words, rewards to a loyalty program need to be super-linear in order to retain a customer beyond a point. The current linear design can help drive loyalty among irregular customers, but regulars get indifferent. Making the regulars really loyal will require a higher degree (no pun intended ) of rewards.

PS: Given the amount of real estate hours I occupy for every coffee I buy, I’m not sure these cafes have that much of an incentive in keeping me loyal. That said, I occasionally reward them by buying lunch/snacks or even a second coffee on some visits.

PS2: As a consumer, loyalty card versus app doesn’t make that much of a difference – one clutters the wallet while the other clutters the phone (I don’t like to have that many apps). A business, though, should prefer the app, since that will allow them to know customers better. But there’s a higher fixed cost involved in that!

 

Beer Gardens

A lot of “local” pubs in London advertise that they have a “beer garden”, which is usually a grassy backyard that has a few outdoor tables. Having been to Munich, though, I would claim that these guys (in London) don’t know what they are doing, or at least that they can’t do it at scale.

On Friday evening we met a friend from IIT who has recently moved to Munich. Considering that there would be “a lot of kids” (three of his, along with Berry), he suggested that we meet at this particular “beer garden“, which was on the outskirts of town, a small distance away from the Isar river.

We got there following a ride in the metro followed by a tram ride and then a ten minute walk. And what a place it was. It was a massive ground in what appeared to be the middle of a forest, with one massive screen set up in one corner to show the Football World Cup. The entire ground was filled with long tables (eight of us (four adults and four kids) could easily fit in on one of the smaller tables), and on the edges there were play area for the kids.

The highlight of the place for us was that on a rare occasion of dining out, we didn’t need to worry that much about the kids. There were no high chairs for them to sit on, but we didn’t need to bother keeping them in one place, given the play areas and the gravel-lined ground that made it conducive for them to run around.

There was no table service for food and drink – there were a number of stalls at one end of the garden, where you could buy food and drink and get them to your table. After eating, it was your responsibility to clear your table and deposit used dishes at a central area (this was similar to other “self-service” restaurants in Munich). Food was mostly typical Bavarian fare, and it was pretty good. Once again, I overate.

In one sense, the upside of the lack of table service is that it eliminates the problem of how to split bills. Each person/ family can go get what they want, and eat and drink comfortably without the fear or under or over-ordering, and what others would think of them. And freed from both keeping kids in check and wondering about dynamics, and fueled by beer, you can focus on the conversation!

After dinner, we went down to the Isar river. It was already getting dark on our way down the wooded path to the river, but when we reached the river, it was suddenly bright again! Unfortunately it was getting dark, so we couldn’t spend too much time there, but it was a fantastic experience being there. It was already dark by the time we were walking back to the beer garden, and our path was lit up by fireflies!

We were wondering why this concept hasn’t travelled, not even till Britain. I mean, we have beer gardens here, but none at this scale. And most restaurants here rely on keeping kids tied in to their high chairs, colouring into the restaurant’s advertising material, rather than giving them a run about (which can potentially make them more hungry and make them eat more!).

One reason why beer gardens don’t travel is that they work well at scale, and that kind of real estate is hard to come by in most cities. Another is cultural – in India, for example, a lot of people don’t like drinking with their families, so places that combine drinking with kids’ play areas may be taboo. I can’t think of any more! Can you?

That said, when you visit Munich, don’t forget to go to one of the beer gardens (there are two massive ones in the middle of the city itself, in the middle of the English Gardens). It’s quite an experience!

The skill in making coffee

Perhaps for the first time ever in life, I’m working in an office without a coffee machine. I don’t mind that so much for two reasons – firstly, having to go down 27 floors and then pay explicitly for a coffee means that my coffee consumption has come down drastically. Secondly, there is a rather liquid market of coffee shops around my office.

As you might expected, there is one particular coffee shop close to my office that has become my favourite. And while walking back with my flat white on Wednesday afternoon, I noticed that the coffee tasted different to the flat white I’d had at the same place the same morning.

Assuming that even artisanal coffee shops like that one are unlikely to change beans midway through the day, I’m guessing that the difference in taste came down to the way the coffee was prepared. Flat white involves some effort on behalf of the barista – milk needs to be steamed and frothed and poured in a particular manner. And this can vary by barista.

So this got me thinking about whether making coffee is a skilled task. And this might explain the quality of coffee at various establishments in Bangalore.

When the coffee bar is equipped with an espresso machine, the job of making an espresso involves less of a skill since all that the barista needs to do is to weigh out the appropriate quantity of beans, press it down to the right extent and then pop it into the espresso maker (I know these tasks themselves involve some skill, but it’s less compared to using a South Indian style filter, for example).

When you want milk coffee, though, there is a dramatic increase in skill requirement. Even in South Indian coffee, the way you boil and froth the milk makes a huge difference in the taste of the coffee. In Brahmin’s Coffee Bar in Shankarpuram, Bangalore, for example, the barista explicitly adds a measure of milk foam to the top of the coffee lending it a special taste.

And when it comes to “European” coffee, with its multiple variants involving milk, the skill required to make good milk coffee is massive. How much milk do you add.. How hot do you steam it.. Whether you add foam or not.. These are all important decisions that the barista needs to make, and there is a lot of value a good barista can add to a cup of coffee.

One of my biggest cribs about chain coffee shops in India is that the taste of the coffee isn’t particularly good, with hot milk coffees being especially bad. Based on my analysis so far, I think this could be largely a result of unskilled (or semi-skilled) and inexperienced baristas – something these chains have had to employ in order to scale rapidly.

The cold coffees in these places are relatively much better since the process of making them can be “fighterised” – for each unit, add X shots of espresso to Y ml of milk, Z ice cubes and W spoons of sugar and blend. The only skill involved there is in getting the proportions right, and that can be easily taught, or looked up from a table.

The problem with hot coffees is that this process cannot be fighterised – the precise way in which you pour the milk so that there is a heart shape on top of the cappuccino foam, for example, is a skill that comes only with significant practice. Even the way in which the milk is to be foamed is not an easily teachable task.

And that is the problem with chain coffee shops in India – lack of skilled labour combined with the need to scale rapidly has meant that people have tried to use processes to compensate for skills, and in most parts of coffee making, that’s not necessarily a good way to go.

Poor food

Until about 1970, when the so-called Green Revolution happened, India as a country collectively didn’t have enough food (remember PL-480 and “ship to mouth existence”?). Until liberalisation in the 1990s, even people who could possibly afford it couldn’t get the food they wanted (remember lining up at ration shops?).

In other words, Indians (as a country – there are still lots of people who don’t get to decide on what to eat since they’re way too poor) have had a proper choice in terms of what to eat for just about one generation now. More than half the Indians who are currently alive spent at least some part of their lives at a time when it just wasn’t possible at all to eat what one wanted.

What this implies is that what we consider to be “traditional food” is largely “poor food” – we and our ancestors ate that not because it was what was the most nutritious, but because that is what was available, and what we could afford.

And so you have most of our traditional food being extremely heavy in carbs and light on almost everything else. I have friends who comment that most Indian vegetarian food hardly has vegetables – consider the sambar, for instance, which just has a few pieces of vegetables floating around. It is a correct comment, but that is because most of what we know as traditional Indian food evolved through times of shortages and poverty.

There are times when I attempt to give people nutrition advice, and while people listen to me politely, they end up saying something to the effect that if they start eating “traditional food”, all will be fine with their health again.

We’ve evolved to fundamentally trust the familiar, and distrust the new. And so it is with our food choices. Without really understanding why we and our ancestors ate the food that we ate, we consider “traditional food” to be good.

Now that I can afford it, I try to make sure I have balanced meals, and a lot of “traditional indian foods” that I grew up eating hardly get consumed in my house now. Consider the uppit – which is mostly carbs (semolina) with a small handful of vegetables and some fats thrown in – incredibly unbalanced stuff. Or beaten rice (avlakki/poha) – which is so light that you start feeling hungry within a couple of hours of eating. And so on – once you start looking at at the nutritional value of what you are eating, you will find yourself thoroughly dissatisfied with a lot of “traditional stuff”.

So my advice to you is this – if you can afford it, give what you are eating a thought, and make sure you get the right kind of nutrition without giving too much concern to your “priors”. And if you’re on a tight budget, optimise that to make sure it goes as far as possible in providing you a balanced diet.

How children change your lives

Over the years I’ve developed this fairly elaborate process of eating curd rice. First I serve myself the rice, and then allow it to cool. Then I pour over curds, and then mix it with the rice. I then serve myself pickles, which should be served on TOP of the curd-rice mixture, and then mix it in. Then I serve myself a fried snack (such as spiced groundnuts or bhujia or a mixture) on the side, and vary the quantity of it I take with each spoon.

So I’m at home with Berry today and decided to have curd rice for lunch. I’d just served myself the rice and curd and mixed it when she decided to wake up from her late-morning nap. Realising she was hungry I decided to feed her first, and first fed her rice mixed with a dal I’d made for her. The normal course of action would have been to then feed her curd rice, and then get on with my meal.

But then I was hungry and feeding her curd rice before I ate it would have made me impatient. In any case, I figured that since we were both going to eat the same thing, I might as well feed her off my plate (I’m quite used to sharing utensils with her, though I haven’t been able to ask her what she thinks of it – she doesn’t speak yet). The only problem was that I could mix in the pickle, since that would have made the mixture too spicy for Berry.

So for the first time in I don’t know how long, I mixed my curd and rice and moved it to one side of the plate. At the other end (our rice plates are elliptical), I served myself a little pickle on one side and mixture on the other. As soon as I started eating, Berry made her way to my knees, and we started eating alternate spoons – I’d add pickle and mixture separately to each spoon of mine, and feed her the curd-rice mixture alone when it was her turn.

She ate well enough for me to get myself a second helping! The only downside of this process (feeding her off my plate) was that I couldn’t measure how much she ate, but I’m not too obsessed with that.

When they tell you that you never know the ways in which kids can change you, I’m not sure people were talking about the way they eat curd-rice!

5/13: Cookers

I still remember this huLi Pinky had made sometime in the early days of marriage. Having never lived by herself until then, she hadn’t bothered to learn to cook, and all that she knew about cooking came from watching her mother.

When we got married, given that her job demanded she leave home early, and mine demanded that I stay late into the evening, we formed an arrangement where I’d make breakfast and she made dinner.

I occasionally missed my part of the deal – waking up so late that food wouldn’t be ready by the time she had to leave. Sometimes, I’d make breakfast just in time for me to run to her bus stop and hand over her box, but there were times when I let her go to work hungry.

She never let me down, though. Even though she hadn’t had much experience cooking (though she had a medal for winning a university-wide cooking competition), she would make sure every evening that there was food by the time I came home. And on most days I would be extremely well fed, though occasionally, like that day when she made huLi with Mangalore Cucumber, I don’t have particularly great memories of 😛

She learnt quickly, though, and over time, has turned out to be a great cook (I like to argue that the time she spent living alone helped!). Now her repertoire is far more diverse (in the initial days she’d exclusively make South Indian food), and she continues to delight me with her cooking.

I especially remember this period in time when I had just started off as an independent consultant, and was mostly working from home. We had recently fired our cook, and she was so concerned that I was eating “random things” for lunch that she took it upon herself to make my lunch before she left for work.

She had to be at the bus stop at 7:15 in the morning, which meant waking up at 5:30 or so, just so that she could make lunch for me. And since I wasn’t eating much rice in those days (for health reasons), she had to make chapatis which would take extra time. I frequently told her that I’d whip up something for myself but she was insistent on feeding me. It was a “wifely duly”, she’d sometimes tell me.

Thinking about it, I should have never doubted that she’d always keep me well fed. Right from the early days, whenever we spoke or texted immediately after what might be considered as a “normal meal time”, her first question was if I’d eaten, and what I’d eaten. And after we got married, she’s taken it upon herself to make the best effort possible to ensure that I eat well.

And that continues to this day, even though it sometimes means cooking while simultaneously taking care of Berry. Like last evening I was meeting someone and got home fairly late. And despite Berry having been a bit cranky, Pinky had managed to make a wonderful, and innovative huLi! She later told me that she had to make the huLi with one hand, while holding Berry in the other!

I look forward to many more years of being fed thus!

1/13: Leaving home

2/13: Motherhood statements

3/13: Stockings

4/13: HM