Children’s birthday parties and alcohol

A long time ago, well before I had even planned to have children, I had decided that children’s birthday parties were decidedly boring affairs, especially for adults. Activities are all kid-centric. Food is kid centric (not often that you get chocolate cake at children’s birthday parties). Adults (at least those without kids) won’t be able to relate to most of the songs. It’s especially hard if you as an adult is incapable of getting silly.

One of my friends had once told me that his trick to dealing with kids’ birthday parties (he has lots of kids himself) is to carry along a hip flask, and get buzzed to the appropriate amount (remember you primary task, especially if you have kids of your own, is to chaperone). Since then, I’ve come to believe that alcohol is the best way for an adult to deal with a children’s birthday party.

However, so far I haven’t come across too many children’s birthday parties (maybe not even one) where alcohol is served. In a lot of cases the reason is regulatory – people like to do their children’s birthday parties outside of home, in a sort of party venue. And onerous liquor regulations in Bangalore mean that it is next to impossible to serve liquor there (unless the venue already has a liquor license).

And I must sheepishly raise my hand as a guilty party here, but I’ve found that so far house parties celebrating children’s birthdays also don’t serve liquor. And thinking about it, one big reason comes to mind.

As mentioned earlier, the role of most adults at children’s birthday parties is chaperoning. Which means that they need to be in a state that they can effectively take care of kids. And so some hosts might (maybe legitimately) feel paternalistic about not letting these guest chaperones take full care of the true guests (the other kids at the party).

Added to that is that in Bangalore at least, a part of the job of chaperoning involves driving the child to the party and back, and there alcohol can be a really legitimate barrier. And so that further reduces the demand for alcohol at the party, perhaps below a point where the host feels compelled to serve it.

Finally, there is the sexist reason – at a party I had chaperoned the daughter to yesterday, I was the only dad (among the section of the crowd I knew, at least). All the other kids had been accompanied by their mothers. Maybe the fact that most adults at most children’s birthday parties are women makes the hosts go full on paternalist and refuse to serve liquor?

Changing game

Yesterday we reconnected Netflix after having gone off the platform for a month – we had thought we were wasting too much time on the platform, and so pulled the plug, until the paucity of quality non-sport content on our other streaming platforms forced us to return.

The first thing I did upon reconnecting Netflix was watching Gamechangers, a documentary about the benefits of vegan food, which had been recommended to me by a couple of business associates a few weeks back.

The documentary basically picks a bunch of research that talks about the benefits of plant-based food and staying away from animal-based food. The key idea is that animals are “just middlemen of protein”, and by eating plants we might be going straight to source.

And it is filled with examples of elite athletes and strong-persons who have turned vegan, and how going vegan is helping them build more stamina and have better health indicators, including the length and hardness of erections.

The documentary did end up making me feel uncomfortable – I grew up vegetarian, but for the last 7-8 years I’ve been eating pretty much everything. And I’ve come to a point of life where I’m not sure if I’ll get my required nutrient mix from plant-based foods only.

And there comes this documentary presenting evidence upon evidence that plant based foods are good, and you should avoid animal based food if you want your arteries to not be clogged, to keep your stamina high, and so on. There were points during the documentary where I seriously considered turning vegetarian once again.

Having given it a day, I think the basic point of the documentary as I see it is that, ceteris paribus, a plant based diet is likely to keep you healthier and fitter than an animal-based diet. But then, ceteris is not paribus.

The nutrient mix that you get from the sort of vegetarian diet that I grew up on is very different from the nutrient mix you get from a meat-based diet. Some of the examples of vegan diets shown in the documentary, for example, rely heavily on mock meats (made with soybean), which have a similar nutritional profile to meats they are meant to mock. And that is very different from the carb-fests that south indian vegetarian food have turned into.

So for me to get influenced by the documentary and turn back vegetarian (or even vegan, which I’d imagine will be very hard for me to do), I need to supplement my diet with seemingly unnatural foods such as “mock meat” if I need to get the same nutritional balance that I’ve gotten used to of late. Simply eliminating all meat or animal based products from my diet is not going to make me any more healthier, notwithstanding what the documentary states, or what Virat Kohli does.

In other words, it seems to me that getting the right balance of nutrients is a tradeoff between eating animal-based food, and eating highly processed unnatural food (mock meat). And I’m not willing to switch on that yet.

Yet another “big data whisky”

A long time back I had used a primitive version of my Single Malt recommendation app to determine that I’d like Ardbeg. Presently, the wife was travelling to India from abroad, and she got me a bottle. We loved it.

And so I had screenshots from my app stored on my phone all the time, to be used while at duty frees, so I would know what whiskies to buy.

And then about a year back, we started planning a visit to Scotland. If you remember, we were living in London then, and my wife’s cousin and her family were going to visit us over Christmas. And the plan was to go to the Scottish Highlands for a few days. And that had to include a distillery tour.

Out came my app again, to determine which distillery to visit. I had made a scatter plot (which I have unfortunately lost since) with the distance from Inverness (where we were going to be based) on one axis, and the likelihood of my wife and I liking a whisky (based on my app) on the other (by this time, Ardbeg was firmly in the “calibration set”).

The clear winner was Clynelish – it was barely 100 kilometers away from Inverness, promised a nice drive there, and had a very high similarity score to the stuff that we liked. I presently called them to make a booking for a distillery tour. The only problem was that it’s a Diageo distillery, and Diageo distillery doesn’t allow kids inside (we were travelling with three of them).

I was proud of having planned my vacation “using data science”. I had made up a blog post in my head that I was going to write after the vacation. I was basically picturing “turning around to the umpire and shouting ‘howzzat'”. And then my hopes were dashed.

A week after I had made the booking, I got a call back from the distillery informing me that it was unfortunately going to be closed during our vacation, and so we couldn’t visit. My heart sank. We finally had to make do with two distilleries that were pretty close to Inverness, but which didn’t rate highly according to my app.

My cousin-in-law-in-law and I first visited Glen Ord, another Diageo distillery, leaving our wives and kids back in the hotel. The tour was nice, but the whisky at the distillery was rather underwhelming. The high point was the fact that Glen Ord also supplies highly peated malt to other Diageo distilleries such as Clynelish (which we couldn’t visit) and Talisker (one of my early favourites).

A day later, we went to the more family friendly Tomatin distillery, to the south of Inverness (so we could carry my daughter along for the tour. She seemed to enjoy it. The other kids were asleep in the car with their dad). The tour seemed better there, but their flagship whisky seemed flat. And then came Cu Bocan, a highly peated whisky that they produce in very limited quantities and distribute in a limited fashion.

Initially we didn’t feel anything, but then the “smoke hit from the back”. Basically the initial taste of the whisky was smooth, but as you swallowed it, the peat would hit you. It was incredibly surreal stuff. We sat at the distillery’s bar for a while downing glasses full of Cu Bocan.

The cousin-in-law-in-law quickly bought a bottle to take back to Singapore. We dithered, reasoning we could “use Amazon to deliver it to our home in London”. The muhurta for the latter never arrived, and a few months later we were on our way to India. Travelling with six suitcases and six handbags and a kid meant that we were never going to buy duty free stuff on our way home (not that Cu Bocan was available in duty free).

In any case, Clynelish is also not widely available in duty free shops, so we couldn’t have that as well for a long time. And then we found an incredibly well stocked duty free shop in Maldives, on our way back from our vacation there in August. A bottle was duly bought.

And today the auspicious event arrived for the bottle to be opened. And it’s spectacular. A very different kind of peat than Lagavulin (a bottle of which we just finished yesterday). This one hits the mouth from both the front and the back.

And I would like to call Clynelish the “new big data whisky”, having discovered it through my app, almost going there for a distillery tour, and finally tasting it a year later.

Highly recommended! And I’d highly recommend my app as well!

Cheers!

Menu Design

Yet another family function yesterday, and we skipped lunch entirely. While it was at a temple and it was well known that lunch would be served rather late (two red flags already), it was more of scheduling issues that we decided to go there for breakfast instead.

Breakfast was pretty good (the wife was pleasantly surprised – she has completely given up on function meals), though I started feeling hungry earlier than I would have wanted to.

In any case, coming back to my original rant on quality of function meals going down, I have a new hypothesis related to an old one. Basically, it’s the increasing bargaining power of the caterers.

Until just about ten years ago, my family eschewed “caterers” and instead employed cooks whose job was to cook with the ingredients provided. The cook, upon being given a menu, would give a list of ingredients and we would procure them. Based on the list, they would bring the appropriate number of cooks, who would be paid on a person hour basis.

It was in the 1990s, I think, along with liberalisation (when you could easily buy groceries in the open market), that cooks moved up the value chain to become caterers. They spared the hosts of the problem of procuring raw materials, and started providing meals, and charging on a per-plate basis. It was just that our family was late to adopt to this practice.

Soon, caterers started providing all-in-one service. The guy who catered for our wedding, for example, also provided the photography services, pooja materials, decoration of the wedding hall and all other sundries. In fact, he would have also been willing to provide for the priests, had we so demanded. “I have set up my business such that the parties getting married don’t need to do anything. They can just turn up and get married”, he had once told us.

And as caterers moved further up the value chain, they became superstars. Moreover, their operations became more process driven which meant that there needed to be standardisation. And standardisation meant less customisation, and they started pushing back.

You would say, “one sweet is enough”, and they would push back with “no, you need two. Our experience suggests that’s the best”. You might ask for some “exotic” item, but they would provide a valid-sounding reason as to why that was not possible.

And so it would go – nowadays if you engage any of these superstar caterers, you have very little control over the menu. You get your choice of sweets and stuff, but in terms of the overall menu, the caterer makes most of the decisions. So even if you are particularly inclined to provide nutritious food to your guests, there is a good chance your caterer will overrule.

Now I make a leap of faith – by hypothesising that this standardisation of the menu is responsible for the declining quality of food and menu choice in most functions and weddings. In other words, now that we are at the Nash equilibrium of caterer control and a certain menu that isn’t nutritious, there isn’t much we can do to improve the quality of food served at functions.

I guess I’ll just stick to eating at home before going to functions, especially when it’s going to be food served on a banana leaf.

Festive lunches

There was a point in time (maybe early childhood) when I used to look forward to going to weddings just for the food. Maybe my parents’ network was such that most weddings we went to served good food, or I was too young to be discerning, but I would love the food at most functions and absolutely belt it.

Of late things haven’t been so kind. Maybe the general standard of wedding lunches has fallen (the last “function” where I remember the food being spectacularly good was my sister-in-law’s wedding, and that was in early 2017), or I’ve become more discerning in terms of the kind of food I like, but it’s not the case any more.

Recently I had written about how several functions serve lunch and dinner really late, and that we should make it a habit to eat at home before we go for such functions. The other problem is that even when food is served promptly, it frequently leaves me rather underwhelmed.

It doesn’t have to always do the quality of cooking, though. For example, most of the food at the wedding I attended today was cooked really well, and was tasty, but it was perhaps the choice of menu that has left me rather underwhelmed and hungry even after eating a lunch with 3 different sweets!

The problem with Indian wedding food is that they are massive carb fests. The main dish, if one were to call it, is rice (people like my daughter don’t mind at all – she belted a whole load of plain rice today). And then there are accompaniments, most of which seem watered down (and really, what is it about functions just not serving huLi (sambar) nowadays? At least that’s usually reasonably think and has lentils in it). ¬†And then there are sweets.

There are some fried items but they are served in such small quantities that you can’t really get “fat nutrition” from it. There is a token amount of ghee served at the beginning of the meal, but that’s about it! There’s not much protein and vegetables in the meal either.

So you “belt” the meal and fill yourself, only to find yourself hungry an hour later. And this has happened on the last four or five occasions when I’ve eaten “function food”.

Maybe it has to do with my regular diet which has of late become more “high density“, that I find these low density meals rather underwhelming. Maybe all the wedding meals I enjoyed came at a time when my regular diet was low density as well. Maybe people were more liberal with ghee and vegetables back then (this is unlikely since people in India are, on average, far more prosperous now than they were in my childhood).

Oh, and did I mention that my daughter belted copious amounts of plain rice at today’s lunch? An hour later she too was complaining of hunger. I guess I’ll let her figure out about density of food her own way!

The Indian Second Wave

Most obituaries will describe the just-deceased VG Siddhartha as a businessman, a “coffee tycoon” and as the son-in-law of a prominent politician. However, the way I see it, he was no less than a cultural icon, and with one business, dramatically changed Indian culture in two ways.

In 1996, Siddhartha started India’s first cyber cafe, which was one of the few cyber cafes that was actually a cafe. A coffee wholesale exporter, he got into the retail business with the first outlet of Cafe Coffee Day (CCD) on Bangalore’s busy Brigade Road. For fees, you could sit there to browse the internet while sipping on espresso and cappuccino, drinks hitherto unknown to Bangalore’s (already established) coffee culture.

Soon enough he was to exit the cyber side of the business, as his retail chain’s expansion focussed on coffee, and dedicated “cyber cafes” (they were still called that) that enabled people to browse the internet for a fee mushroomed across the country. Nevertheless, we should give him credit for giving birth to an idea that enabled the first generation of Indians to truly access the internet before broadband became a thing.

The first time I interacted with his business was in 1998, when I visited the aforementioned Brigade Road CCD. For a conservative 15-year-old from South Bangalore, it was a bit of a sticker shock, with espresso priced at Rs. 10 and cappuccino at Rs. 20. There were iced drinks on the menu as well, but they were more expensive.

I don’t think I quite liked the espresso (we all ordered that that day, given the prices), but it was a new experience of consuming coffee. As I grew up and came into more money I would patronise CCD much more often.

There was an outlet on the IIMB campus, and that became the default location for any campus “treats”. I clearly remember the cold drinks – tropical iceberg and cold sparkle – being priced at Rs. 32 back in 2004. Prices went up over time but these drinks remain my favourite cold drinks at CCD to this day.

Over the last 10 years, CCD has mostly served as a meeting room for me. When I moved into my current house 5 years ago, I used a CCD that was 300 metres away to entertain any visitors (this outlet closed recently, but a flyer in today’s newspaper informs me that an “experience centre” is coming up closer by).

Whenever I have had to meet someone and we’ve had to find a place to meet, by default we have looked for CCD outlets. And we continue to do so – while Starbucks and the artisanal “Aussie-style” coffee shops (such as Third Wave or Blue Tokai) might be preferable, CCD’s sheer density has meant that it is India’s default meeting room.

Sometimes we under-appreciate the impact that CCD has had in Indian culture. It was perhaps the first large chain of “neutral venues”, where people could meet and hang out for a long time without being pestered by the waiters. I mentioned that I have been using the chain as a meeting room for a few years now. While that might be its primary use, you also find college kids who have saved up a bit on their pocket money hanging out there. My first date with my wife also took place partly at a CCD.

And then there are the loos. CCD has also completely altered the face of highways in India by offering clean loos at its outlets, making it far easier for women to travel.

The chain may not be doing that well – it seems like its financial troubles led to Siddhartha killing himself. However, given that it is a publicly traded company, we can trust the market to resolve its issues so that it continues.

And even if it fails and has to shut shop in due course, what CCD has done is to show that there is a viable market in India for a coffee shop that sells decent (but not great) coffee, where people can sit around and linger and do their business, whatever that may be.

In that way, Siddhartha’s legacy will endure.

 

Coordinated and uncoordinated potlucks

Some potluck meals are coordinated. One or more coordinators assume leadership and instruct each attending member what precisely to bring. It’s somewhat like central planning in that sense – the coordinators make assumptions on what each person wants and how much they will eat and what goes well with what, and make plans accordingly.

Uncoordinated potlucks can be more interesting. Here, people don’t talk about what to bring, and simply bring what they think the group might be interested. This can result in widely varying outcomes – some great meals, occasionally a lot of wasted food, and some weird mixes of starters, main courses and desserts.

We had one such uncoordinated potluck at my daughter’s school picnic last week. All children were accompanied by their parents and were asked to bring “snacks”. Nothing was specified apart from the fact that we should bring it in steel containers, and that we should get homemade stuff.

Now, for a bit of background. For slightly older kids (my daughter doesn’t qualify yet) the school has a rotating roster for lunch, where each kid brings in lunch for the entire class on each day. So parents are used to sending lunch for all the children, and children are used to eating a variety of foods. A friend who sent his daughter to the same school tells me that it can become a bit too competitive sometimes, with families seeking to outdo one another with the fanciness of the foods they send.

In that sense, I guess the families of these older kids had some information on what normally came for lunch and what got eaten and so on – a piece of information we didn’t have. The big difference between this picnic potluck and school lunch (though I’m not sure if other parents knew of this distinction) was that this was “anonymous”.

All of us kept our steel boxes and vessels on a large table set up for the purpose, so when people served themselves there was little clue of which food had come from whose house. In that sense there was no point showing off (though we tried, taking hummus with carrot and cucumber sticks). And it resulted in what I thought was a fascinating set of food, though I guess some of it couldn’t really be classified as “snack”.

The fastest to disappear was a boxful of chitranna (lemon rice). I thought it went rather well with roasted and salted peanuts that someone else had bought. There were some takers for our hummus as well, though our cut apples didn’t “do that well”. I saw a boxful of un-taken idlis towards the end of the snack session. Someone had brought boiled sweet corn on the cob. And there were many varieties of cakes that families had (presumably baked and) brought.

What I found interesting was that despite their being zero coordination between the families, they had together served up what was a pretty fascinating snack, with lots of variety. “Starters”, “Mains”, “Desserts” and “Sides” were all well represented, even if the balance wasn’t precisely right.

The number of families involved here (upwards of 30) meant that perfect coordination would’ve been nigh impossible, and I’m not sure if a command-and-control style coordinated potluck would have worked in any case (that would have also run the risk of a family bunking the picnic last moment, and an important piece of the puzzle missing).

The uncoordinated potluck meant that there were no such imbalances, and families, left to themselves and without any feedback, had managed to serve themselves a pretty good “snack”!

More power to decentralised systems!

Why coffee in Portugal is so bad

The title of this blog post is the text I entered into my google search bar at Lisbon airport, on my way back to London last weekend. What Google showed me on top was a blog post titled “why coffee in Portugal is so good“. The contents of the post, though, had given me the answer.

In terms of coffee cultures, Spain and Portugal are rather similar. Coffee shops usually double up as bars, unlike in England for example. This means that the baristas aren’t particularly skilled, and so you don’t get fancy latte art. The coffees you get are thus espresso, espresso with some milk and espresso with lots of milk. The milk being foamed gives the coffee a good taste, in Spain that is.

The reason coffee in Portugal tastes bad is the same reason that coffee in France tastes bad – it is a result of colonialism.

During the years of the Salazar dictatorship, Portugal was economically isolated. This meant that it could only turn to its colonies for coffee. And the Portuguese colonies (not sure if Brazil is included in this since it became independent way back in the 1800s) exclusively produced Robusta coffee. And Robusta coffee, being inferior to Arabica, is roasted slowly, and produces a bitter brew. Which is what we uniformly got in our trip to Lisbon.

France had a similar story. Though there was no economic isolation, imports from its colonies were subsidised, and this was again largely Robusta coffee. And so, as the roads and kingdoms post linked above explains, coffee in France is bad.

I’m not sure if Spain got/gets most of its colonies from its erstwhile colonies. If it does, it goes a long way in explaining the quality of coffee in Spanish cafes, despite them doubling up as bars and not necessarily having skilled Baristas. For the likes of Colombia and Ecuador and Honduras produce absolutely brilliant Arabica coffee.

 

Single Malt Recommendation App

Life is too short to drink whisky you don’t like.

How often have you found yourself in a duty free shop in an airport, wondering which whisky to take back home? Unless you are a pro at this already, you might want something you haven’t tried before, but don’t want to end up buying something you may not like. The names are all grand, as Scottish names usually are. The region might offer some clue, but not so much.

So I started on this work a few years back, when I first discovered this whisky database. I had come up with a set of tables to recommend what whisky is similar to what, and which single malts are the “most unique”. Based on this, I discovered that I might like Ardbeg. And I ended up absolutely loving it.

And ever since, I’ve carried a couple of tables in my Evernote to make sure I have some recommendations handy when I’m at a whisky shop and need to make a decision. But then the tables are not user friendly, and don’t typically tell you what you should buy, and what your next choice should be and so on .

To make things more user-friendly, I have built this app where all you need to enter is your favourite set of single malts, and it gives you a list of other single malts that you might like.

The data set is the same. I once again use cosine similarity to find the similarity of different whiskies. Except that this time I take the average of your favourite whiskies, and then look for the whiskies that are closest to that.

In terms of technologies, I’ve used this R package called Shiny to build the app. It took not more than half an hour of programming effort to build, and most of that was in actually building the logic, not the UI stuff.

So take it for a spin, and let me know what you think.

 

Caffeine kick

Until June or July this year, I firmly believed that well-made South Indian filter coffee was the best form of coffee ever. This belief possibly had to do with my conditioning, having been exposed this to this coffee form from an extremely early age, and the belief sustained even in the face of pretty excellent coffees from quite a few artisanal “Aussie style” cafes here in London.

Then, around then, I decided to embark on “intermittent fasting”, which meant no calorie consumption from 8 in the night to the next noon (each day). The diet permitted me to drink coffee or tea in the mornings as long as no milk or sugar was added to it, and that presented a problem.

For South Indian filter coffee can’t be drunk black. The addition of the chicory, which slows down the pace through which water/steam filters through the beans in order to maximise flavour, adds its own flavour, which when unmasked by milk can be pretty revolting. Though I must mention that chicory powder is sold as a separate “health drink” here in the UK (maybe it needs to be marketed such because its taste is most revolting).

That I couldn’t add milk to my coffee meant that I needed to explore other ways of making good black coffee. Counter top space (or the lack of it) ruled out contraptions such as an espresso machine or even a Nespresso machine. There was an old Braun “coffee maker” (which my mother-in-law reportedly procured two decades ago) at home, but that dished out pretty bad coffee (which only Americans might appreciate).

And so I started exploring, asking around coffee-geek friends (not to be confused with the cafe of a similar name in Victoria). The French Press was quickly ruled out on account of taste. I strongly considered the Aeropress and the Hario V60, and in the spirit of “try before you buy” or even “learn before you buy”, I asked baristas at my favourite local artisanal cafe to show me how to brew in these methods.

I quite liked the output of both methods, but found the aeropress apparatus a bit cumbersome and hard to clean (one reason I didn’t want to use my trusty Bialetti Moka Pot to make non-South Indian coffee as well). The V60 on the other hand offered simplicity of making process as well as extreme ease of cleaning. So quickly after I had tried, I had bought the pourover cup from Amazon, and a bag of beans from Electric (they ground it for me) and I was ready to go.

I’ve since fallen in love with this form of coffee, though when I go to a cafe I order an espresso-based drink (Cortado/Piccolo or Flat White depending on the cafe). And though I gave up on intermittent fasting a month and half after I started it, I continue to make this (I’m sipping on one such cup as I type this). And this is because of the caffeine kick.

I think I had this realisation for the first time back when I was still fasting – I drank a cup of pourover coffee just before I hit the gym (on an otherwise empty stomach), and I was astounded by my own energy levels that day. And I have since tested this in several other situations – before meetings, while doing an important piece of work or simply to stay awake. The caffeine kick from pourover coffee is simply unparalleled compared to any other kind of coffee I’ve had (though espresso-based coffees in cafes come very close).

South Indian filter coffee optimises for flavour at the cost of the caffeine. The decoction is frequently stored for a long time, even overnight. The large amount of milk added means that a given amount of beans can be used to make several more cups. And the chicory addition means that brewing is slower and more flavour gets extracted from the beans, though it’s unlikely that the amount of caffeine extracted is proportionally large.

And all this together means you get incredibly tasty coffee, but not something you can get that much of a caffeine kick out of. And that is possibly why we are conditioned to drinking so many cups of coffee a day – you need so many cups to get the level of caffeine your body “needs” to function.

And this explains why South Indian filter coffee in the evenings has never interfered with my sleep, buy any coffee bought in a good cafe after 5pm has invariably led to sleepless nights!

Do you have anything else to add to this theory?

PS: The first time I made pourover coffee, I used Indian beans from Chickmaglur (that I bought here in the UK), so it’s not to do with the beans. It’s the extraction method.