Home food culture

We Indians have a “home food” culture. Most people consider it immoral and “bad” to eat out, and more so to eat out on a regular basis. People who don’t cook food at home are termed as being lazy. I remember this story I’d read in Tinkle back when I was a kid. It was called “kaLLa giriyaNNa” (it was a translation of a Kannada story). In this story, the thief (kaLLa) GiriyaNNa is scolded by his wife for his “dirty habits of smoking beedis and eating in hotels”. Yes, traditional Indian homes look down upon eating out that much!

Till very recently, this was a result of caste taboos. People would refuse to eat food that was prepared by someone by another caste, and that led to a delay in the growth of the restaurant industry. When people traveled (even on business, and you need to remember that in India even today, a lot of business happens due to caste networks), they would try and stay with a relative, or a friend who belonged to the same caste, and would eat in their house. When I was a kid, outstation holidays were mostly restricted to towns and cities where we had relatives, and in case we didn’t have any, durable foodstuff such as bread (from our “usual” Iyengar’s bakery), biscuits and fruits would be carried, so that we could avoid eating out.

Thanks to this cultural preference, and the taboos associated with eating out, we have turned out to be a “home food” society. Most people cook in their homes on a daily basis, or at least attempt to do so. In my mind, this is clearly inefficient. Back when I was in Gurgaon when I lived alone and would cook for myself, I discovered the beauty that is economies of scale in cooking food. The incremental time and effort in making (say) three liters of Sambar compared to making (say) half a liter was small, and consequently, every time I made sambar, I would make it in large quantities, and keep it in the fridge and repeatedly re-heat. While this may not be particularly healthy (the wife blames some of my lifestyle diseases to prolonged exposure to this unhealthy habit of eating stale food), there was little else I could do in order to achieve said economies of scale.

There is, however, a better method of ensuring economies of scale, and on a much larger scale – restaurants, and this is the practice followed in most places elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, the taboo against eating out means that for most people, visits to restaurants are “treats”, and restaurants have adapted themselves to accommodate this. When people eat in order to treat themselves, their primary criterion is taste. When you eat something once in a while, you don’t really care about the calories or sugar or triglycerides it contains. Consequently, food in a large number of restaurants in India is tailored for this kind of an audience, and hence is not particularly healthy. The main complaint that people have against restaurant food – that it is not healthy, and that one cannot eat that every day, does have its merits, but has a background in the culture of eating out only for treats.

From a national efficiency standpoint, this needs to change. People are spending way too much time and effort in cooking their own meals. It is ok to cook once in a while, but spending an hour of your day every day in front of the stove is a colossal waste of time. The answer lies in good quality restaurants that serve food that is similar to “home-cooked” food, in terms of health factor and taste. If there is a good number of restaurants that start doing that, it will drive a number of people to stop cooking at home (the early adopters are likely to be DINK Yuppies).

In some ways, this reminds me of the Chennai auto-rickshaw problem that I’ve described here and here. Restaurants don’t want to give up on tasty food and go the “healthy way” because they’re not sure there’s enough of a demand for the latter. People are not willing to give up home food in favour of restaurants because the food is not healthy enough! Again, this needs a nudge. And you can see some efforts in this direction. Back when I was in IIMB, I remember having dinner once at this place called Bangliana, which served “traditional” Bengali food at a reasonable price (a Bong friend who accompanied me confirmed that the food was quite authentic and “homely”). In primarily immigrant-dominated localities (such as Koramangala), you see more such restaurants coming up, and that is a good thing. If only it can spread and we move to becoming a restaurant-based culture, precious man-hours (and woman-hours) are bound to be saved.

PS: If the provisions of the Food Security Bill imply that we move to a “ration” model again, it would mean a step backwards, where everyone would be forced to cook at home. Or maybe the act could be implemented differently.. Say you could partly pay at hotels using your “entitlement points”.. Anyway, that is an aside.

Going Global

Ok the second word in the title doesn’t refer to B-school slang. It means “global” in the true sense of the word, and has nothing to do with what my father used to call as “bulldology” (derived from the kannada word “bullDe” which essentially means “globe” (in the B-school sense) )

Ok so the story goes back to 2003, when I headed my way north all the way to Delhi, to intern at IBM Research. I would be staying at the IIT Delhi hostels during the course of my visit. I traveled by Rajdhani express, and had rotis and dal makhni through the journey. And in the mornings I’d get a flask of hot water along with “chai saamagri” (tea bag, sugar, milk powder, etc.)

That was when it hit me that for the next two months I’d be in chOmland, devoid of access to South Indian food, and good filter coffee. I remember getting paneer-fatigue within two weeks of my stay in Delhi. I would salivate at the very thought of going to the nearby “hotel Karnataka” and eating “meals” for a then princely sum of Rupees Fifty. The primary reason I got bugged with my internship was that I wasn’t getting my kind of food, and coffee.

Two years later, I would travel to London, for yet another internship, this time at an investment bank. The day I landed in London, I headed out for lunch with a few friends. Picked up a sandwich, and then it hit me how far away from home I’d come. Sandwich, for lunch! And I was the types who used to say stuff like “bread is for dogs”.

I remember going to this Sri Lankan store in Eastham every two weeks, carrying back “pirated” (smuggled, actually) packets of MTR Ready to Eat food, and frozen chapatis. And every evening I would microwave chapatis and some chOm dal or sabzis. The same chom food that I had so despised two years earlier was “home food” now. Of course every time I went to Eastham I’d also go to this “Madras Restaurant” and thulp madrasi masala dosa.

I don’t know where the knee-bend/point of inflexion happened but on my recent trip to New York, I didn’t have Indian food at all. The rationale being that there are certain kinds of food available in New York that are not easily available in India, so I shouldn’t miss the opportunity of eating them.

So I ate at Turkish, Greek, Ethiopian, Italian, Thai, Israeli, Korean restaurants, quite enjoyed the food, never asked a waiter “does this dish contain meat” (the reason for my vegetarianism is more because I get grossed out by meat, rather than any religious or cultural reason) (and I didn’t feel much when I set aside what looked like an octopus from my salad and continued eating the rest of the salad), never craved sambar, and generally had a good time.

My wife may not be the happiest when she reads this but frankly when I returned I didn’t exactly crave home-cooked Indian food. Of course the Rasam last night was wonderful, but it was now for me just yet another culinary item, just like coconut milk curry, or hummus or the ethiopian dals or pizza.

I seem to have truly gone global (again no pun intended)

Arranged Scissors 7: Foreign boys

This post has been in the pipeline for a long time now, but a recent article in the Wall Street Journal documenting the diffficulties faced by NRI men in finding brides has finally resulting in my writing this.

For a long time, the grooms that came highest in the pecking order in the arranged marriage market were the NRIs, as most women aspired to migrate to America. In communities where dowry is practised, these guys used to get the maximum dowry; where dowry isn’t practised, the more beautiful and smart women would be the prize for being an NRI. Actually, one can make a weak case that since most of the good-looking women migrated abroad one generation ago, a lot of their daughters who would have otherwise been prize catches in the arranged marriage market here have now grown up as ABCDs, leaving the local (indian) markets poorer.

The three-way ticket protocol for bridehunting by NRI grooms has been well documented (I would especially recommend this article by noted AI stud and ASU prof Subbarao Kambhampati). I think I might have written about this in my blog some time back, though I wouldn’t have used this name for the protocol. The protocol goes something like this:

  • Boy lands in india on a two or three week trip (this is getting shorter nowadays)
  • On the way home from the airport his father hands him a sheaf of CVs and photos. By the time they reach home, a shortlist has been made.
  • Boy rushes off into the kitchen to eat the long-awaited home food, while his father quickly calls up the parents of all shortlisted girls and arranges for “bride-seeing sessions” (i’ll put a separate post on that) with each of the shortlists in their respective houses. Boy’s father needs to make sure to allow for some slack so as to account for traffic jams
  • Bride-seeing ceremonies happen wrt all the shortlists
  • End of the day boy and parents sit down with a list of all girls, and objectively note down each of their strong and weak points. Appropriate weights are given for each point, and an objective sumproduct (nowadays this is done on excel I think) reveals the winner.
  • In the classic version of the protocol, wedding would happen a week later in the US and the couple would go to Madras the following day with marriage album in order to apply for the wife’s H4. Boy would return to the US and girl would hopefully follow him a few months later
  • In the modern version, where you have cheap tools to keep in touch across continents, the first trip for the boy ends with engagement (usually held less than a week after he landed in india). He goes back to India six months later for the wedding. In some cases, the engagement is followed by a discreet registration of marriage in court, so that the girl can have her visa ready by the time she gets married formally.

In fact, I sometimes get the feeling that the speed with which NRIs want to process their “scissors” is what has led to the common minimum programme model. Given the absolute lack of time in order to make a decision, they would look for checklists. “good looking enough”. “smart enough”. “dowry enough”. etc. Now, the girls that they would usually end up getting were “premium”, because of which what these girls did would be “aspirational” to the rest of the girls. (waves hand furiously). And thus, the entire market tilted in favour of the common minimum programme.

I know of a NRI boy who got ditched by his fiancee a week before they were supposed to get married (it was the usual protocol; he had come to india six months back; seen this girl; got engaged and flown back to return just in time for the wedding). Now all arrangements had been made and he had also spent thousands of dollars for the India trip, so it would have been suboptimal for him to have gone back emptyhanded. So what does he do? Within the course of the one week between the ditching and the original date of his wedding, he does another round of scouting, finds another girl, and gets married to her at the same time and place as he was supposed to originally get married!

In another case, I know of the cycle time being as short as four days. Basically two days between the bride-seeing ceremony, and the first wedding ritual. And some other cases have had the two parties agreeing to get married to each other by just looking at each other’s photos. Bizarre is an understatement.

So¬† I suppose I’ve spent most of this post talking around the mechanics of the NRI marriage, and making a few random pertinent observations about them. Next, I want to talk about segmentation in the arranged marriage market (which I had briefly touched upon in this post), which I think vaguely ties in to this NRI concept. I hope to write that sometime this weekend.

Arranged Scissors 1 – The Common Minimum Programme

Arranged Scissors 2

Arranged Scissors 3 – Due Diligence

Arranged Scissors 4 – Dear Cesare

Arranged Scissors 5 – Finding the Right Exchange

Arranged Scissors 6: Due Diligence Networks