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?


I’m reminded of this anecdote from class 11. A girl in my class had invited me to her birthday party. Knowing that there was a clash, I had immediately responded to her saying that I was sorry but I wouldn’t be able to make it. She immediately got offended – that I had told her directly that I wouldn’t come. She would possibly have been less offended had I told her I would come and then not showed up.

A lot of people in India don’t get the concept of how to reply to invitations. Like my old friend, these people think it’s a sort of insult to tell someone that they can’t make it for an event or a function. And so they end up giving false responses or non-responses which doesn’t leave the host any wiser. That leads to massively messed up planning, and possible wastage of food and gifts.

I must say I’ve been guilty of this in the past as well – maybe affected by that 11th standard incident, I have started giving non-committal responses to events that I know I won’t go to. And messed up my hosts’ planning. Having been on the other side multiple times in the last one month, however, I hereby undertake that I will give accurate responses to any invite I get, as far as things are under my control.

Over the last ten days, the wife had kept a massive doll display at home on the occasion of Dasara. We had made an elaborate plan of calling people from different “sides” on different days – in the interest of not mixing groups, which can have a massive negative effect on conversation.

And then some people threatened to destroy these carefully made plans by asking if they could come at a time when they were not invited! Some people were nice enough to tell us that the time when we had invited them was not convenient for them, and requested us right there to give them an alternate slot which we did. Others, however, responded in the affirmative, failed to show up and then wanted to come on a day when we weren’t prepared to receive guests (or worse, on days when were expected other guests from other “sides”).

The other side is also a bit painful here – when people give you an open invitation and tell you to “come any time”. While this gives you greater optionality than a specific slot, this also creates greater pressure on you to accept the invitation. And I’m guilty of responding vaguely to some of these invitations as well. Next time someone gives me an open invite, I will either say no, or try to tell them as soon as possible a specific date and time when I’ll be there.

PS: Of late I’ve started becoming actively (but subconsciously) rude to people who show up at my door unannounced. It throws me off massively. Sometimes my wife wonders why I bothered coming back from England at all!


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.