Urban living and restaurants and liquidity

Last night I had dinner at Alfanoose, a small Mediterranean joint off Broadway. I had hummus and salad with pita bread, and had also brought along a falafel sandwich which is now sitting in my fridge and is likely to get consumed today for breakfast. Excellent stuff. Absolutely brilliant. And not expensive at all – ten bucks for the hummus and salad, and six for the sandwich. Considering that USD = 10 INR according to the Idli index, this is extremely reasonable, insane value for money.

I have been intending to write this post for ages, about how one of the best positive externalities of urban living is restaurants. When you are living in a desolate area, with not too many people around, there is no option but to cook your own food. Even if you live in a village ora small town, the number of people who are willing to eat out will be small, which means it makes little business sense for someone to open a restaurant there. You are likely to find a handful of them, but the lack of competition will mean that you can’t really trust quality.

There is a network effect in restaurants. Some people don’t eat anywhere but at home, and some don’t cook at home at all. However, there is the large middle ground of people whose consumption of restaurant food varies directly with quality and liquidity. And these two concepts are inter-related – the bigger the town is, the greater the required supply of restaurants which means more competition and thus higher quality. And higher quality leads to higher demand (more fence-sitters converted) and the virtuous cycle goes on (of course, population and the fact that some people don’t like to eat out limits the boundaries of the cycle).

Another thing is that the larger a town gets, the greater the liquidity of the food market in there, there is more variety. If you remember Bangalore in the 1980s, when I was growing up, there was one standard type of restaurant. Where you would get cheap idli and dosa and a few other standard snacks, and a few “north indian” items at meal times, and every time you wanted to eat out you had to go with one of these. And you would have noticed how with the growth in the restaurant market in the 90s you got more variety.

What makes cities such as London and New York such foodie havens is their size, and also that culturally people here are more inclined towards eating out than in other places such as India. This leads to insane liquidity in the market, and as I explained above that leads to more variety, and so you get more niche food. And when you have cities as large as New York or London, what you get is full-fledged liquid markets in cuisines that are everywhere else considered niche!

So because of liquidity in otherwise niche markets, in each cuisine you will find various kinds of restaurants. Like yesterday I had awesome hummus at this self-service place! While in a place like Bangalore to get any kind of hummus you’ll have to go to a fine dining place and spend a bomb.

Another thing I realized is that when liquidity is thin it usually occupies the top end – like how in Bangalore you get non-Indian stuff only in high end fine dining places. But I suppose I’ll write about that in detail some other day

Pashchimavaahini – Part Deux

I’ve twice written here about Pashchimavaahini – that part of the river Kaveri near Seringapatnam where it flows west. I had once written about it immediately following my first visit there. And I had written about it once again last year when I had disccussed the economics of the place. So over the weekeend I had to go there again, for the second time in two and a half years. In order to do the ritual that is associated with the place – which is to immerse ashes of the dead.

A few pertinent observations from the trip:

  • The place has lost the economics of the food. They probably didn’t want “casual travelers” to come and eat there, or maybe they overestimated their own monopoly power, but the lunch is priced at Rs 70 now. Quality has also dropped – sambar was watery and vada not fried properly. (I’d recommend you to read the death markets post I’ve linked to above before reading on).
  • To put this pricing in perspective, I must mention Kamat Upachar, a restaurant between Channapatna and Maddur. They have a breakfast buffet for the same price! And the buffet includes a choice of juices, bread, idli, vada and dosa, and you can eat as much as you want.
  • This time the shastri we engaged was peaceful. We included an “all-inclusive” price and told him we’ll give only small change as daana
  • I told the shastri to do the minimum possible rituals and told him that I’m doing these things becasue they “need to be done” and not due to some special religious intent. He agreed and kept his word, as he quickly took me through the most basic rituals.
  • When I was away and in the river taking bath, the shastri told one of my uncles that I’m the types that would’ve dunked ashes online if that were an option.
  • I had made it clear to my relatives that I find most of the post-death rituals extremely depressing and so I didn’t wnat to engage in anything beyond the most basic stuff. This meant that at the end of yesterday’s rituals I’d to discard my procedural “tools”. The “paatrams” were given as a gift to the shaastri. The sacred stone was thrown backward in the river. And when I was bathing after the rituals, I let the river wash away the highly starched procedural dhoti

    Once that was done, I uttered a silent apology to the river for polluting it

  • Having been through all this once before, I knew what to expect and so was completely in control of the situation. This helped me manage my relatives better and have my way.
  • Having my way meant occupying the relatively comfortable front seat in the sumo while my senior citizen uncles struggled in the back due to lack of leg space. “This is even worse than an aircraft”, a former-HAL-employed granduncle told the driver
  • To help ease the situation for myself and distract myself, I live-tweeted the journey. And to further distract myself, I tried to tweet like Tharoor.
  • There was a fair bit of pollution involved in the ceremonies. A fair bit of plastic was used, and all got dunked into the river. Extremely sad stuff but I couldn’t really do anything.
  • I wonder why the urn of ashes is thrown backwards into the river. You stand on some rocks facing away and then chuck the thing backwards. I wonder what the significance of this is.
  • Looking at the general crowd there, I was wondering if death is a profitable business.

Mysore trip – Table of contents post

I returned last night from a two day driving trip to mysore and surrounding areas. There are several things to blog about, but I felt too lazy to make notes in my mobile. Also, I was driving most of the time, so didn’t really have the time to make notes. I made a lot of mental notes, though, but I’m prone to losing those easily – I don’t have a very good short term memory.

I made two major stops on the way to Mysore – first at Kamat Lokaruchi near Ramanagara for breakfast, and then at Seringapatnam. At the latter place, I saw a couple of temples and a jail and a palace-cum-museum. The last named turned out to be pretty strong. Also, my car started making funny noises when I kept it parked in front of one of the temples. Turned out to be a problem with the A/C. This problem was going to become significant later on in the trip.

At Mysore, I stayed at the Ginger (subsidiary of Indian Hotels which runs the Taj chain) and was amazed at the kind of cost-cutting that they have put in compared to the extravagant 5*s. Then I went in search of the supposedly world-famous Mylari restaurants, found not one but two of them, both of which claimed to be the original, got put off by the amount of oil on the dosa and came out after having had just a coffee.

I walked around the palace area in the evening and was amazed by the respect pedestrians get in Mysore, at least in that area. Nice pavements, strictly enforced pedestrian crossings, etc. And there were millions of people walking around the area. And everywhere I saw boards that called Mysore a “JNNURM city”.

I also discovered that wearing shorts is a surefire way of announcing that you are a tourist. Hundreds of people started speaking to me in Hindi and seemed slightly startled when I replied in Kannada. I didn’t see a single other soul in shorts through my 2-day stay in the city.

Lunch and dinner on Tuesday was at the Dasaprakash, and yesterday’s breakfast and lunch at Siddharta. Got me thinking about pricing and delivery systems in sit-down restaurants (had done a series on pricing systems at darshinis in Bnagalore a few years back). Most intriguing is that “meals” are pre-paid while everything else is post-paid.

Then I went to the Chamundi hills, Nanjangud (beautiful temple), Somnathpur (again extremely strong ruined temples, but lousy roads) and the Jaganmohan Palace. Time constraints meant that we skipped going to the main Mysore palace.

On the way back, we stopped at a Sathya Sai Baba ashram in Seringapatnam after which the rain came with us. We would see dry roads ahead, and would hope that there would be no more rain. And soon, there would be rain. Heavy rain. Cupped a/c meant that the windshield kept fogging, and I could hardly see the road as I drove.

I think the rain got confused when we stopped for an hour for dinner at Kamat Lokaruchi, and decided not to accompany us all the way to Bangalore.

I took lots of pics using my phone camera. While at Somnathpur I was thinking about Aadisht’s 50mm low-light lens. I need to find my data cable now and then I’ll post pics. In the course of the next one week, I’ll also write half a dozen more detailed posts.

Fighterization of food

One of the topics that I’d introduced on my blog not so long ago was “fighterization“. The funda was basically about how professions that are inherently stud are “fighterzied” so that a larger number of people can participate in it, and a larger number of people can be served. In the original post, I had written about how strategy consulting has completely changed based on fighterization.

After that, I pointed out about how processes are set – my hypothesis being that the “process” is something that some stud would have followed, and which some people liked because of which it became a process. And more recently, I wrote about the fighterization of Carnatic music, which is an exception to the general rule. Classical music has not been fighterized so as to enable more people to participate, or to serve a larger market. It has naturally evolved this way.

And even more recently, I had talked about how “stud instructions” (which are looser, and more ‘principles based’) are inherently different from “fighter instructions” (which are basically a set of rules). Ravi, in a comment on Mohit‘s google reader shared items, said it’s like rule-based versus principles-based regulation.

Today I was reading this Vir Sanghvi piece on Lucknowi cuisine, which among other things talks about the fact that it is pulao that is made in Lucknow, and now biryani; and about the general declining standards at the Taj Lucknow. However, the part that caught my eye, which has resulted in this post with an ultra-long introduction was this statement:

The secret of good Lucknowi cooking, he said, is not the recipe. It is the hand. A chef has to know when to add what and depending on the water, the quality of the meat etc, it’s never exactly the same process. A great chef will have the confidence to improvise and to extract the maximum flavour from the ingredients.

This basically states that high-end cooking is basically a stud process. That the top chefs are studs, and can adapt their cooking and methods and styles to the ingredients and the atmosphere in order to churn out the best possible product.You might notice that most good cooks are this way. There is some bit of randomness or flexibility in the process that allows them to give out a superior product. And a possible reason why they may not be willing to give out their recipes even if they are not worried about their copyright is that the process of cooking is a stud process, and is hence not easily explained.

Publishing recipes is the attempt at fighterization of cooking. Each step is laid down in stone. Each ingredient needs to be exactly measured (apart from salt which is usually “to taste”). Each part of the process needs to be followed properly in the correct order. And if you do everything perfectly,  you will get the perfect standardized product.

Confession time. I’ve been in Gurgaon for 8 months and have yet to go to Old Delhi to eat (maybe I should make amends this saturday. if you want to join me, or in fact lead me, leave a comment). The only choley-bhature that I’ve had has been at Haldiram’s. And however well they attempt to make it, all they can churn out is the standardized “perfect” product. The “magic” that is supposed to be there in the food of Old Delhi is nowhere to be seen.

Taking an example close to home, my mother’s cooking can be broadly classified into two. One is the stuff that she has learnt from watching her mother and sisters cook. And she is great at making all of these – Bisibelebhath and masala dosa being her trademark dishes (most guests usually ask her to make one of these whenever we invite them home for a meal). She has learnt to make these things by watching. By trying and erring. And putting her personal touch to it. And she makes them really well.

On the other hand, there are these things that she makes by looking at recipes published in Women’s Era. Usually she messes them up. When she doesn’t, it’s standardized fare. She has learnt to cook them by a fighter process. Though I must mention that the closer the “special dish” is to traditional Kannadiga cooking (which she specializes in), the better it turns out.

Another example close to home. My own cooking. Certain things I’ve learnt to make by watching my mother cook. Certain other things I’ve learnt from this cookbook that my parents wrote for me before I went to England four years ago. And the quality of the stuff that I make, the taste in either case, etc. is markedly different.

So much about food. Coming to work, my day job involves fighterization too. Stock trading is supposed to be a stud process. And by trying to implement algorithmic trading, my company is trying to fighterize it. The company is not willing to take any half-measures in fighterization, so it is recruiting the ultimate fighter of ’em all – the computer – and teaching it to trade.

Preliminary reading on studs and fighters theory:

Studs and Fighters

Extending the studs and fighters theory

Bangalore Trip

So I went to Bangalore on Thursday. And returned yesterday afternoon. It was a fairly eventful trip – just that most of the events that took place during the trip were planned. There weren’t too many surprises – either positive or negative, and this lack of volatility meant that it was a good trip overall.

I had ended my last post hoping that my bike would start. And start it did, dutifully. Unfortunately, it was to tell Jai later during the day, when it abruptly stopped somewhere in Gandhibazaar market. It was quite hot and I had to push it around a fair distance to find a garage that was open in order to get it repaired.

The thing with automobile repair shops is that most of them are owned by Muslims, and thus have their weekly holiday on Friday. While it might be convenient in normal times since you can leave your bike for service on a Sunday, it can be death when your bike breaks down on Friday afternoon. I had to go past two or three closed auto repair shops that day before I found a “Sowmya bike point” where my spark plug got replaced.

Two of my three breakfasts were consumed at Darshinis. Actually, on Friday, I had my breakfast in three installments. Saturday was the usual Masala Dosa at the Adigas in Jayanagar 4th block. Dinner on Saturday was at Shiok, the first time I was visiting it at the new location. The food, as usual, was excellent. One extremely under-rated starter at Shiok is Choo Chee Potatoes. I strongly recommend you to try it out the next time. I left the choice of my drink to Madhu Menon, and he recommended some pink stuff for me.

I met Baada, Harithekid and PGK at Shiok. I was meeting PGK for the first time. I was already a bit disoriented when I had arrived at Shiok (my head had gone blank a couple of times earlier that day, leading me to take an auto to Shiok rather than putting bike), and combine that with the pink drink and I think I’ve forgotten what PGK looks like. All I remember is that he too had a pink drink – which was different from mine.

I managed to submit address change requests at most of the places I had intended to. I went to SBI and Karnataka Bank, and extended my fixed deposits – taking advantage of the insanely high prevailing rates. I visited one aunt for dinner on Friday, and another for lunch on Saturday.

The only time during the entire trip that I was consumed by NED was when I went to inspect my house in Bangalore. It was after a gap of almost ten years that I was seeing the house empty. It was at that moment I think – three months after I moved to Gurgaon – that it hit me that I don’t live in Bangalore any more. And that I don’t intend to return for a while. It took a maddening auto drive to Shiok to cure me of this bout of NED.

Friday evening was spent in the cantonment area, though I regret to inform you that I visited neither of MG Road and Brigade road. I met Udupa and Woreshtmax Vishnu for tea at Koshy’s, and on either side of tea, raided the Premier Bookshop. Unfortunately, I forgot to take pics as I had planned. The only picture of Premier that I now have is the one taken with Neha Jain’s wrist that appeared in the ToI on 26th July 2004 (I don’t have a scanned copy; a few hard copies of the clipping are there somewhere in my house in Jayanagar in Bangalore).

I spent all my coupons, and Shamanth’s coupons also. I still have Lakshana’s coupon with me, and I intend to mail it to her. Here is what I bought:

  • The Human Zoo  – Desmond Morris
  • The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins
  • An artist and a mathematician (a book about the fictional mathematician Nicholas Bourbaki; forgot the author)
  • India: A History – John Keay
  • Longitude
  • The Stuff of Thought – Steven Pinker

Once again, thanks to all those who recommended books to me. Unfortunately, a large number of those were not available at Premier. i’ll probably order them from Rediff Books once I’ve whittled down my have-and-unread list.