Local time zones and function food

Last year after we got back to Bangalore from London, we started inviting people home for meals. It gave us an opportunity to socialise and rebuilt our network here. However, soon we stopped doing this – we had what I call a “time zone problem”.

In the UK, people eat early, and kids go to bed early. We liked both these aspects of the British culture and (to the extent possible) adopted them wholeheartedly. Now, back in India, we continue to follow these practices, but realise that most people around us don’t follow it. And this results in “time zone issues”.

This inevitably results in crane-fox situations when we have to go to someone’s place to eat or vice versa. We have gotten foxed several times, turning up for dinner at 630 or 7, and staying hungry till 9. We’ve tried craning several times, calling people at home for dinner at 630 or 7, and having them turn up much later in the evening.

Meeting outside in neutral places has some mitigating factors. Like 8pm drinks with friends means I finish my dinner and then go for drinks, thus maintaining my schedule. When I want to avoid drinking, the easiest thing to do is to drive to the venue (I’m paranoid about driving without full control).

The worst are religious functions. I’m pretty sure I’ve cribbed about them several time here on this blog. With very few exceptions, they invariably serve lunch or dinner late. Also that a “sacred event” is going on is reason enough for most other guests to not be bothered about the disruptions in eating schedules.

And to deal with that (apart from the fact that a large number of functions after we returned to India served pretty unspectacular food), we took inspiration from a close relative who has this policy of never eating at functions (the one time he broke this policy, two years ago, also coincided with what is easily the worst wedding food I’ve ever eaten, so it’s unlikely he’s breaking his policy again). Unless we have good reason to believe that the food at a function is going to be good (most reliable indicator being the caterer), we’ve taken to this relative’s policy.

Timing of most events in Bangalore means that we can eat our food at our normal times (lunch at noon, dinner at 6:30) and then comfortably get to the function well in time. Sometimes the host might get offended when we don’t eat, so a lighter than usual meal at home ensures that there is room for at least a dessert and a tiny course of meal.

As for the original crane-fox situation (calling people home or visiting for meals), we’ve started making adjustments. A few months after we returned, the daughter got back to her usual schedule of going to bed at 7 (unlike most children her age, she doesn’t nap in the afternoon). So dinner invites (in either direction) are out of the question. Lunch invites we manage by adjusting our breakfast times and quantities.

What’s the use of living in India if you cut yourself off from all socialising?

Two ways of eating chocolate

I only very recently discovered that there are essentially two ways of eating chocolate – biting into it and letting it melt in the mouth.

Maybe it’s a result of my upbringing, but until recently I only knew of the latter. Back when i was growing up, the “standard chocolate bar” was the most popular Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bar which came with eight square pieces in the bar (competitors such as Nestle and Amul had smaller rectangular pieces, and so more pieces per bar of similar size).

My parents insisted that if I ate too much chocolate my teeth would rot. And so chocolate supply was rationed. I could only eat one square piece in a day. This meant that if I didn’t share my chocolate bar with anyone (a rare occurrence, since my parents also liked chocolate), I would eat one standard-issue Dairy Milk for eight days.

Things like eating a whole bar at a time were completely taboo. In fact, even when KitKat became a thing when I was in class 9 (1996-97), I would take one finger of it, break it into two and so eat one four-fingered bar of KitKat over eight days.

I never questioned this wisdom that I shouldn’t eat more than one small piece of chocolate a day. This also meant that whatever chocolate I ate had to last sufficiently long. That meant putting it in the mouth and letting it melt.

Around the KitKat time, it became common for kids to walk around with whole bars of chocolate in school (mostly used to attract members of the opposite sex). And I would see people eating bars together at once and wonder what was wrong with them and what their teeth would become like.

Presently I grew up. I no longer restricted myself to one piece a day. I started getting interested in different kinds of chocolate (of late it’s been mostly dark – I can’t stand milk chocolate nowadays). Many of these didn’t come with predetermined squares to tell what one piece was, so it was rather fluid.

Nevertheless old habits die hard, and so I would continue to eat chocolate by letting it melt in my mouth.

And then one day, I had one large piece and one smaller piece (of Amul Bitter Chocolate, which is my staple nowadays), and thought I’ll bite the smaller piece and eat it. The feeling was something else. I’d lived all my life eating chocolate by letting it melt in my mouth, and now suddenly I was discovering the joys of biting into it.

I think it especially works for dark chocolate. There’s something about biting into a chocolate that gives you the kind of pleasure that letting it melt in the mouth doesn’t offer.

Now, it’s been 20 years since I last had a tooth filled. I now worry if that might change soon.

Peanut Butter

You can put this down as a “typical foreign-returned crib”. The fact, however, is that since I returned to India a little over a year ago, I’ve been unable to find good quality peanut butter here.

For two years in London, I subsisted on this “whole earth” peanut butter. Available in both crunchy and creamy versions (I preferred the former, but the daughter, who was rather young then, preferred the latter), it was made only of peanuts, palm oil and salt. It was absolutely brilliant.

The thing with Indian peanut butter makers is that so far I’m yet to find a single brand that both contains salt and doesn’t contain sugar! The commercial big brands all have added sugar. Some of the smaller players don’t have salt, and in case they have salt as well, they include some other added sweet like honey or jaggery, which defeats the point of not having sugar.

I’d ranted about this on twitter a few months back:

I got a few suggestions there, tried the whole lot, and the result is still the same. Those that have salt also have sugar. The consistency in the product (especially for the smaller guys) is completely off. And a lot of the smaller “organic” players (that play up on the organic factor rather than the nutrition factor) don’t add any preservatives or stabilising agents, which mean that in Indian temperatures (30s), the oil inevitably separates from the rest of the product, leaving the rest of the thing in an intense mess.

Finally, my “sustainable solution of choice” I settled on was to buy Haldiram’s roasted and salted peanuts, and then just grind them in the mixie (making it from first principles at home just hasn’t worked out for me). Except that now during the lockdown I haven’t been able to procure Haldiram’s roasted and salted peanuts.

So during another shopping trip to a supermarket earlier this week (not that much insight to write a full blog post on that), I decided to try one of the commercial brands. It was available in a big white 1.25kg box and had a fitness (rather than “goodness”) messaging on the cover. It had added sugar, but at 10 grams per 100 grams of the product it was less than other commercial brands. On a whim, I decided to just go for it.

And so far it’s been brilliant. Yes, it’s sweeter than I would have liked, but the most important thing is thanks to the “stabilising agent”, it has a consistent texture. I don’t need to endlessly mix it in the box each time I eat it. The taste is great (apart from the sweetness), and I must say I’m having “real peanut butter” after a long time!

It’s a pity that it took a year and a period of lockdown for me to figure this out. And I’m never trying one of those “organic” peanut butters again. They’re simply not practical to use.

Then again, why can’t anyone figure out that you can add salt without necessarily adding sugar?

The Cost of Customer Acquisition

A couple of days after I abused Cred on twitter for having “mostly useless” rewards and switched to paying my credit card bills using BBPS, I decided to see if I could make use of whatever points I have on Cred.

I saw that they had some offers on the Olive group of restaurants. Paying “5000 cred coins” ( I don’t even know how many I have, and don’t care since I’m exiting the app) would entitle me to a 20% discount on some of the Olive group restaurants (Olive Bar, SodaBottleOpenerWala, Cantan, etc.).

I happened to casually mention this to the wife, and she immediately suggested that we go to Olive Bar for dinner last night. And so we did, and had an amazing dinner, funded partly by the discount coupon from Cred’s app.

This got me thinking – why has a premium restaurant brand like Olive partnered with Cred to give these discounts? For example, we had only been to Olive once before, and had become instant fans of the place. In that sense, Olive really didn’t need to entice us with discounts – the brand awareness was already in our heads.

So I initially started out thinking that at least part of the money Olive had spent in this partnership with Cred had been wasted – marketing to us who already knew (and loved) the brand.

Then again, the discount coupon had an immediate impact – without having any plans of eating out last night, the coupon immediately spurred us to go to Olive and spend some money there. So while Olive didn’t need to target us for the brand, their discount meant that they got one extra “unplanned” visit from us.

As it happened, this was on a mid-week evening, and we were the first guests in (the place opens at 7, so we had to already delay the daughter’s bedtime for this outing), so they had a low real estate cost of hosting us (the discount is applicable on all days, not just weekdays).

And by giving us excellent food once again, they have reminded us of how strong a restaurant they are, and we might increase our frequency of visits there.

OK I guess I try to over-analyse everything in life.

But then, isn’t that the whole point of this blog?

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.