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.

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

Letters to my Berry #5

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Your biggest milestone in your fifth month is that you started to eat. Beyond the milk that Amma directly provided you, and the formula milk that we had started you on after the doctor’s advice, the fifth month was when we started giving you what I called as “real food”.

You started with this thing called “ragi cherry” which I personally didn’t like too much – it was made out of a flour made by mixing ragi and other cereals with some nuts, etc. We would make a porridge out of this with some sweet element, and the first time I ate it, I said it tasted like soapnut powder.

Initially you made a fuss eating the ragi cherry, but to my utmost happiness, you seem to be yet another banana lover. After only two or three times of my feeding you bananas, all I had to do was to take your silver bowl and spoon and make mashing noises – and you’d immediately start salivating.

This was also the month where you started implementing Amma’s old company’s slogan “moving forward”. Given the size of your head you had trouble holding it up, but you invented your own way of moving forward while still keeping your head to the ground. I tried without success to draw an animal analogy – sometimes it seemed like you were like an ostrich with its head buried in the sand. Ranga said you were like an Aardvark, moving forward with your head on the ground.

One night I’d left you on the carpet with my house slippers at the other end of the carpet. I hadn’t been gone for a couple of minutes when I saw that you’d somehow traversed the length of the carpet and was about to eat my slippers! Yet another day, we had left you in your bouncer and gone somewhere, and you were trying to slide down. Amma stopped you, but the next time you attempted it, we let you slide. And we were amazed with the poise with which you got down to the carpet, never once worrying us that you would hurt yourself!

This was also the month when you attended your first wedding – your aunt Barbie’s. You were such a centre of attraction during some of the pre-wedding festivities that you were tired and slept through most of the wedding. Halfway through both the wedding ceremony and the reception, we sent you home so you didn’t tire further. So apart from the photos taken at the beginning of each session, you unfortunately don’t appear in any photos!

And of course, the biggest event in your fifth month was that you got named. While you had been named even before you were born, and your official name had been submitted to the municipality when you were a day old, we did a small naming ceremony for you. There, the family priest Nagabhushana Sharma made us give you several names.

So there was the maasa naama (month name) which the priest himself decided. You were “Shachi”. Then there was the nakshatra naama (star name), which we had to come up with on the spot with the given starting letter. The starting letter for you was “Go” and Amma quickly came up with “Goda”, which she later elongated to “Godavari”.

And there was the vyavahara naama (trade name) which was supposed to represent one of your ancestors. The day I first met Amma in 2009, she had told me that she wanted to name her daughter Rukmini, after her grandmother. So there was no doubt about this one.

And then there was the nija naama (real name), which of course had to be Abheri. I had to shout it loud three times, and I did that with my mouth close to your ear. Thankfully you didn’t get startled – suggesting you like your name, and you won’t hate us later in life for it!

This is a monthly series that ordinarily runs on my wife’s blog, but since I wrote it this time (for the first time), I’m putting it here. 

Earlier editions:

Letters to my Berry – Month#1

Letters to my Berry – Month#2

Letters to my Berry – Prelogue

Letters to my Berry#4


Pizza from dominos – good and bad

Last night we decided we wanted pizza from dominos for dinner. Having been used to Swiggy, I instinctively googled for dominos and tried to place the order online.

There is one major fuckup with the dominos website – it asks you to pick the retail outlet closest to you, rather than taking your location and picking it yourself. And so it happened that we picked an outlet not closest to us.

I quickly got a call from the guy at the outlet where my order had gone, expressing his inability to deliver it, and saying he’ll cancel my order. I gave him a mouthful – it’s 2016, and why couldn’t he have simply transferred the order to the outlet that is supposed to service me?

I was considering cancelling the order and not ordering again (a self-injurious move, since we wanted Dominos pizza, not just pizza), when the guy from the outlet in whose coverage area I fell called. He explained the situation once again, saying my original order was to be cancelled, and he would have to take a new order.

Again – it wasn’t just a fuckup in the payment in the Dominos system, in which case they could’ve simply transferred my order to this new guy. So I had to repeat my entire order once again to this guy (not so much of a problem since I was only getting one pizza) and my address as well (it’s a long address which I prefer filling online).

Then there was the small matter of payment – one reason I’d ordered online was that I could pay electronically (I used PayTM). When I asked him if I could pay online for the new order he said I had to repeat the entire process of online ordering – there was no order ID against which I could simply logon and pay.

I played my trump card at this time – asked him to make sure the delivery guy had change for Rs. 2000 (I’d lined up at a bank 2 weeks back and withdrawn a month’s worth of cash, only that it was all in Rs. 2000 notes). He instantly agreed. Half an hour later, the pizza, along with change for Rs. 2000 was at my door.

The good thing about the experience was that the delivery process was smooth, and more importantly, the outlet where my order reached had taken initiative in communicating it to the outlet under whose coverage my house fell – the salespersons weren’t willing to take a chance to miss a sale that had fallen at their door.

The bad thing is that Jubilant Foodworks’ technology sucks, big time. Thanks to the heavily funded and highly unprofitable startups we usually order from, we’re used to a high level of technology from the food delivery kind of businesses. Given that Jubilant is a highly profitable company it shouldn’t be too hard for them to license the software of one of these new so-called “foodtech” companies to further enhance the experience.

No clue why they haven’t done it yet!

PS: I realise I’ve written this blogpost in the style I used to write in over a decade ago. Some habits die hard.

Flight food and choice

The topic of outrage for the day on Twitter seems to be Air India’s decision to serve only vegetarian food on flights that last less than 90 minutes. Predictably, given the current government’s policies and track record so far, people are decrying this as some sort of a “brahminical conspiracy”. This was even quoted as  a reason to privatise Air India (while I don’t agree with this reason, I fully agree that there are several other reasons to privatise Air India).

While outragers will outrage (and they might have a pathological need to outrage), this decision of Air India actually has sound basis. I had touched upon this in an earlier  blog post about why I get irritated with Indigo’s in-flight service.

The problem is that the more the choice you give customers, the slower the overall service will be. While this may not affect people seated in rows where service begins, it can be an immense cause of frustration for passengers who are seated in rows that will be served last.

In longer duration flights, this matters less since people who are served last will have sufficient amount of time to finish their meals before the trays have to be cleared in time for the flight to land. On shorter flights, however, the time available for meal service is so short that it is possible that trays might have to be cleared barely after a section of the passengers have started eating.

Eliminating choice significantly speeds up the meal delivery process (refer to my post on Indigo’s food for more on this), and ensures that people who have been served last have sufficient time to finish their meals before trays have to be cleared. While it may not take much time for the steward to ask the customer her choice, considering the total cycle time (along with passengers asking details of the menu, etc.) and the number of passengers to be served, cutting choice is a sound decision indeed.

As for the vegetarian option, when there is no choice offered, it is natural to go with the option that satisfies the maximum number of people. Considering that Indians don’t eat much meat (while only a small proportion of Indians are vegetarian, overall meat consumption is very low), it is a rather obvious choice that only vegetarian food will be served.

This is a commendable decision by Air India and I hope they stick to it. I hope other airlines will also learn from this and cut choice in their inflight menus (Indigo, I’m looking at you) so that passengers can be served with the minimum uncertainty and minimum fuss.

Tailpiece The above linked NDTV Profit piece has a bizarre comment from an expert. Quoting:

However, according to travel industry expert Rajji Rai, the state-owned airline should have first carried out a passenger survey, which is an industry practice, before affecting any change in the menu.

“Airlines world over carry out customer surveys before taking such decisions. Unfortunately, Air India is very poor in such practices. This decision to discontinue non-vegetarian food on these non-metro flights is just one-sided,” he said.

Surveys are overrated in my opinion, and there is no reason Air India should have conducted a survey before making this decision – for they have access to significant amounts of actual customer preferences over a large number of schedules. The value of a survey in this case is at best marginal

Hyperlocal and inventory intelligence

The number of potential learnings from today’s story in Mint (disclosure: I write regularly for that paper) on Foodpanda are immense. I’ll focus on only one of them in this blog post. This is a quote from the beginning of the piece:

 But just as he placed the order, one of the men realized the restaurant had shut down sometime back. In fact, he knew for sure that it had wound up. Then, how come it was still live on Foodpanda? The order had gone through. Foodpanda had accepted it. He wondered and waited.

After about 10 minutes, he received a call. From the Foodpanda call centre. The guy at the other end was apologetic:

“I am sorry, sir, but your order cannot be processed because of a technical issue.”

“What do you mean technical issue?” the man said. “Let me tell you something, the restaurant has shut down. Okay.”

I had a similar issue three Sundays back with Swiggy, which is a competitor of Foodpanda. Relatives had come home and we decided to order in. Someone was craving Bisibelebath, and I logged on to Swiggy. Sure enough, the nearby Vasudev Adigas was listed, it said they had Bisibelebath. And so I ordered.

Only to get a call from my “concierge” ten minutes later saying he was at the restaurant and they hadn’t made Bisibelebath that day. I ended up cancelling the order (to their credit, Swiggy refunded my money the same day), and we had to make do with pulao from a nearby restaurant, and some disappointment on having not got the Bisibelebath.

The cancelled order not only caused inconvenience to us, but also to Swiggy because they had needlessly sent a concierge to deliver an impossible order. All because they didn’t have intelligence on the inventory situation.

All this buildup is to make a simple point – that inventory intelligence is important for on-demand hyperlocal startups. Inventory intelligence is a core feature of startups such as Uber or Ola, where availability of nearby cabs is communicated before a booking is accepted. It is the key feature for something like AirBnb, too.

If you don’t know whether what you promise can be delivered or not, you are not only spending for a futile delivery, but also losing the customer’s trust, and this can mean lost future sales.

Keeping track of inventory is not an easy business. It is one thing for an Uber or AirBnB where each service provider has only one product which is mostly sold through you. It is the reason why someone like Practo is selling appointment booking systems to software – it also helps them keep track of appointment inventory, and raise barriers to entry for someone else who wants the same doctor’s inventory.

The challenge is for companies such as Grofers or Swiggy, where each of their sellers have several products. Currently it appears that they are proceeding with “shallow integration”, where they simply have a partnership, but don’t keep track of inventory – and it leads to fiascos like mentioned above.

This is one reason so many people are trying to build billing systems for traditional retailers – currently most of them do their books manually and without technology. While it might still be okay for their business to continue doing that (considering they’ve operated that way for a while now), it makes it impossible for them to share information on inventory. I’m told there is intense competition in this sector, and my money is on a third-party provider of infrastructure who might expose the inventory API to Grofers, PepperTap and any other competitor – for it simply makes no sense for a retailer to get locked in to one delivery company’s infrastructure.

Yet, the problem is easier for the grocery store than it is for the restaurant. For the grocery store, incoming inventory is not hard to track. For a restaurant, it is a problem. Most traditional restaurants are not used to keeping precise track of food that they prepare, and the portion sizes also have some variation in them. And while this might seem like a small problem, the difference between one plate of kesari bhath and zero plates of kesari bhaths is real.

Chew on it!

Tasting Gods’ food

The norm during festivals and other “happy occasions” when food is “offered to the Gods” is that the food is not tasted during preparation. For tasting thus would contaminate it, and make it impure for the God. Thus, the first time a human will taste such food is when it is offered as “God’s offering” after the rituals are over.

While there might be good reason for doing so (food thus prepared is distributed to a lot of people and you don’t want to contaminate it and so on), the problem is that if the food is not accurately prepared, it cannot be corrected. By the time someone figures out something is not right, “the God would have tasted it”, and if the food hasn’t been accurately prepared, you would have ended up serving the Gods bad food! Which can only bring ruin upon you.

Let me draw an analogy. Instead of food, let’s assume that you’re offering God a computer program that you’ve prepared. You’ve got the best team of programmers in the world and written a kickass algorithm and got these programmers to code it, and you offer the program to God. And what happens when he tries to “consume” it by running it? Most likely, a stack overflow or some such error.

Would you let that happen? Even when you’ve got a kickass algorithm and a kickass team of coders to code it in, it’s not guaranteed that the code will perform as it should on its first running. Irrespective of how good the code is, it needs to be tested, to make sure it is doing what it’s doing before the user sees it. Especially if it’s an “all-important” user such as a God.

If you were to do that for code, why should food be different? Why would you want to “cook blindfold” by not ta(/e)sting it adequately, and making sure that it’s as perfect as you want it to be? After all, you’re offering it to a God!

Bah, these silly rituals!