Saturday, April 16, 2011

Food for thought

A couple of days before Bengali New Year (Poyela Boishakh) my mom expressed her desire to have breakfast at the newly opened Sagar Ratna near our house. For those who are unfamiliar with Sagar Ratna, here is how they introduce themselves on their website: a well known Brand of Restaurant chain in Northern India serving vegetarian cuisine with a speciality in South Indian delicacies.

For the record and from my experience, they did start off being a South Indian speciality restaurant, but in their quest of business they ended up serving all kinds of vegetarian food including Burgers and Noodles. Their start as a specialised South Indian restaurant chain was pretty impactful and it still is the first place that a Delhi-ite thinks of for having a South Indian meal. I reluctantly agreed (why reluctant? - will come to that shortly).

So on New Year’s Day, I took mom to Sagar Ratna. I ordered my last year’s favourite breakfast. My mom, as usual, couldn’t control her greed and ended up ordering much more than what she could have herself (obviously expecting me to take care of the leftovers). This was the third time I was about to have South Indian food since my return from Bangalore (excluding the occasional chomps at the roadside vada vendors), previous two occasions being at Southy (Nehru Place) and Karnataka Bhavan (Shanti Niketan). Each time my experience has been unsatisfactory and I have sworn not to have South Indian food again in Delhi. Not that the quality of South Indian food has degraded over the years in Delhi, just that over the past year and a half I have had awesome Vadas, Dosas, Idlis, Filter Coffee and other popular South Indian food right in South India. I have grown a basic understanding about how it aught to be. I keep expecting the same softness in an idly, the same crunch in a vada, the same aromas in filter coffee. They did not keep us waiting for long. The food arrived within a few minutes. And it strengthened the cause for my reluctance to have South Indian food in North India.

I have had a fantastic time having South Indian food while I was staying in Mysore/Bangalore and while I visited the nearby states. At the same time I have had an equally horrible time searching for North Indian food in South India. On one hand I feel this is good because it makes me want to visit South India. But on the other it is really bad. It induces this false notion, a false perception of the kind of food available in other region.

I believe that good food is not just about taste. I am a strong advocate/believer of relativity. Taste in spite of being important is relative. One’s favourite might be another’s nightmare. In a slightly vague manner the problem can be explained by this example: Imagine an unaware sweet lover who is given a laddo instead of barfi which he ordered at a sweet shop. Even though what he had might be tasty, in reality he did not have what he intended to have. More than taste, good food is about authenticity. It is about “not being cheated”. So when someone who knows little about your South Indian cuisine walks in to a South Indian Restaurant, it is not just about cooking food the way it is written in cook books and serving the same. Instead, it is about making the guests realise how authentic South Indian food is supposed to be. The food must speak out the qualities of food back in South India.

I am not a person who has visited plenty of countries. So I do not know first-hand whether International cuisines available in India are authentic or not. Even if they are not, it is not as big a problem as authentic Indian Cuisines not being available across India. International cuisines may not have a market for selling authentic cuisine in India profitably. There are differences in taste, culture, lack of ingredients and cooks from other countries may not opt to come to India. But these reasons make little sense when we talk about Indian cuisines in India.

Another factor that worsens the problem are the Food Awards that do their round in the market. Here is a page highlighting the awards won by Sagar Ratna. Some new doubts have raised in me. Do these companies assign the job to food-critics taking into the account the region he/she belongs to? i.e. People from South India being sent to evaluate South Indian restaurants. Even if the food-critics belong to North India, are they asked to evaluate a South Indian restaurant after they are made to try out food in South India. While these awards do help businesses woo consumers, at the same time any scope for improvements must be conveyed to the businesses. Unfortunately, as pointed by Rungta in the movie Inside Job, these awards/ratings companies have defence which is both strong and weak in itself: “It’s just our opinion and people are free to not go by it.”

I just can’t accept that South Indian cuisine cannot be authentically reproduced in North India and vice versa. So where does the problem lie?
  • Lack of availability of ingredients locally? Not possibly. Even if some of the ingredients are not available, they can be easily procured from South India. And, I am not paying less for the food. I pay nearly double the amount charged at the best places in South India and get something which is not even half as well made. Procuring authentic ingredients should not add much to the expenses.
  • Unavailability of cooks? I won’t buy that. Most certainly there are enough South Indians who can cook well in North India. Additionally in quest for jobs and better pay thousands migrate in both directions. We are not talking about speciality dishes whose recipes remain secret to generations of a family.

Sharing one of my food-related experiences I have had in Bangalore. I once went to Tunday’s Tunday Kababi outlet in Bangalore which serves the famous Tunday Kebabs (Galouti Kababs) from Lucknow. One of my Punjabi friend ordered a parantha, which turned out to be made from flour and was very different from usual Punjabi paranthas. He asked “What kind of parantha is this?” “Sir, Lucknow mein aisa hi banta hai”. By the way, the kebabs were delicious. About a month later, I took my mom to the same place. Aside from the kebabs, we order a preparation of Chicken. The moment I tasted the gravy I got the pungent smoky taste of a burnt gravy. I called the waiter to complain. “Chicken ki gravy jal gayi hai” “Sir, Lucknow mein aisa hi banta hai”. Heights of denial. I immediately snapped back “Kuch din pehle tak to aisa nahi banta tha”. He called the manager and we were served a different preparation as the entire stock of that preparation for the day was bad.

I think the problem lies in the intent. There are very few businesses in the food industry that intend to do things right, serve authentic food and sell the right experience. It’s sad.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Not my Cup

Most Indians are driven by obsession over intellect. Now don't mistake obsession for passion. Being driven by passion at times is not bad. But being driven by obsessive passion or passion beyond reasoning is harmful – both for the individual and the society at large. India recently won the Cricket World Cup. I was happy for it. To be honest, the feeling was a mixture of happiness and a sense of national pride. Now does this feeling call for a party? Yes, it does. Every reason for celebration should lead to a celebration. Now imagine a person celebrating the happiest moment of his life; dancing on the roof of his car right in front of India Gate. Is it justified? Debatable. But surely if you happened to be at India Gate watching someone do that, you would classify him as mad. And you may not be wrong. I recently heard on the radio that obsessive behaviour is a psychological problem and is often a result of extremely low self-esteem. The moment India won the world cup, thousands gathered at India Gate (and other locations all over India), and many danced on the roof of their cars in a similar manner. Apparently, somewhere down the layers of their decision making was an attempt to make themselves more noticeable to the public and compensate the low self-esteem. And then there was this extremely acute case in which a fan committed suicide because Sachin did not score a well in the final.

On similar lines many Indians have the obsession for recognition. And in this quest they go far beyond personal achievements. Any remarkable achievement by a person of Indian origin, and Indians would be more than happy to share the credit. To a great extent the Indian media is to be blamed for such a behaviour. Even the remotest of connection to India, and the media will be the first to advertise the news highlighting the fact that the achiever was a person of Indian origin. Remember Sunita Williams? Now (obviously) this world cup victory is also a victim of such an obsession. And I feel this problem is very well explained by this tweet. Reality check is important. It is not our cup. It is their cup. It is a cup won by a few individuals representing India. It is ok to say that the cup belongs to India, but saying that it is my cup or our cup is far fetched. The ONLY way I contributed to this victory was by NOT playing for India. Nothing more.

Now why are these obsessions bad for the society at large? Well for a start, the cricket-biased reactions exhibited by the crowd, pushes back the other sports. I can think of plenty of other reasons but I'll highlight the one that has provoked me to write this post. It is bad, because we are a democracy and our current generation is not being led by the right politicians. In an ideal situation, a politician would work to the best interest of the country. In reality they work to appease people and get re-elected. They align their efforts to take advantage of the sentiments of people and they decide to honour the heroes (i.e. the cricketers). Unfortunately, as I realised sometime back, Indians make the mistake of confusing money with respect (I did tweet this the very next day after the finals.). They announced cash awards without realising that they paid no respect. They paid money. Money is not respect.

One of the insane reason to give away cash award to cricketers might be that it will motivate them to do better. Another insane reason might be that young cricketers would get motivated to play better and improve the overall standard of sports. But does it work that way? I don't think so. In fact, I believe it misleads people towards wrong goals. The goal of a cricketer is to improve his skills, do well in the sport and aim to win the games. But now when you announce an award after they win, you are slowly trying to replace the real goal with money. I am not entirely against giving money. Almost all sports competition do have a prize money associated with the event. The players know that the money is an associated prize if they win that contest. But if you declare a cash award after the event, you sow a hope for the years to come. Every sportsman would start expecting a "surprise" cash award on their performance. God forbid, if ever the country is not in a financial position to give such awards to the players, it will leave them dejected. Because by then a "surprise" cash award would be as important as the cup. And look at the amount of each cash award. The cricketers in the National Team are already so wealthy that an award in lakhs doesn't seem to be a respectable amount. Most states/institutions gave 1 crore per player (Another reality check – Most Indians make lesser than that working their entire life).

Another question to be answered – It it fair to the other sports? There are so many sports persons in India who do not earn a decent living. One of the well known case is of the Indian Women's Hockey Team. I distinctly remember reading a newspaper report (most likely, TOI) couple of years back while travelling by the morning Shatabdi Express to Chandigarh. This report featured on the first page of the newspaper covered the financial situation of the players in the Indian Women's Hockey Team. Most of the players were the sole earners in their entire family. Their monthly income would not even place them in the middle class strata. Often they have considered quitting owing to extreme financial crunch. Pay such sports persons; lack of money is definitely affecting their performance. I am not too attached to hockey. Hockey is just an example as I have little information about the condition of other sports persons in India. But my guts say that the sports persons who play less popular sports are negotiating even worse financial crisis. So even if cash awards given to the cricketers were taken from sports budget, I'd say it is a bad investment.

A quick search on google yielded these links: Karnataka Government award for Cricket World Cup and Karnataka Government award for Hockey. If you are not convinced here is one of the millions of pages on the internet highlighting the plight of Indian Women's Hockey Team.

If not money then what? Honour them. Have a look at this: Gujarat Government award for Cricket World Cup. This is how you pay respect.

While there are some voices being raised against these cash awards, it is being largely ignored by the cricket obsessed Indians. I personally feel it is nothing less than a corruption scam. It is a scam against me, cause even though these actions make me unwilling to pay my taxes, I'll have to oblige.

And finally the cherry on the top (the sad way). It is really disappointing that this tweet comes from one of few journalists in India whose work I like.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

In the State of Flow

When you do many things with excitement, energy and enthusiasm, your time perception changes and you tend to loose track of how time passes by. During the past three months I have been in the state of flow. Just over 2 months since my last post, but it feels as if I had posted it recently. Even then, in spite of so many things happening over the last couple of months, I have very little to share on this blog. Primarily because I want this blog to remain my personal blog in which I would prefer not to have work-related things.

So have I been working all this while and have had no personal time? Well, it's a little complicated.

In the context of this post, work is an activity involving mental or physical effort as a means of earning income. Whereas pastime is an activity done in one's leisure time for pleasure. Now things are not as simple as experiences at work = work life (or professional life) and experiences unrelated to work = personal life (alright, now don't interpret personal life as private life). Instead, according to me, it depending on how willingly you do things. The underlying reason for personal life being separate from work life is because the former constitutes of things that you want to do (or prefer doing) over the things that constitute the latter. When you have the option to choose your work you may pick up any random activity that can generate an income. But if you (like me) want to do your best, you will pick up an activity that you love AND that can generate an income. Now here is an irony. If you really love your work why would you not be doing it in your personal time as well? I have no answer to that. So, I have come up with a statement that has applied to me over the past couple of months and I feel it will be applicable to most other cases:

When you decide to quit your job and work on your own, you are essentially trying to bring your work closer to your personal life. Or in other words you are unconsciously making an effort to overlap your personal life and work life.

Coming back the the question, have I been working all this while? It would not be incorrect to say that work nearly consumed the last three months of my life (except for a few days that I could probably count on my fingers). While an observer may say "You're working all the time. It's so bad.", but it hasn't been that bad. In fact it has been pretty good. Of course there are things that are "purely work" and have no overlap with your hobbies or pastime (e.g. getting over the government processes, running around to get your work done, dealing with legal shit etc.) but then you can't get away without them as they are the enablers to your work.

So if there is an overlap between my work and personal life, why not put some of those things here? Because now that I have unconsciously overlapped my personal and work life, I want to consciously ensure that my personal life does not become a subset of of work life. This overlap is kind of a bubble. Rosy as long as the overlap does not overpower the personal life. But the moment it does, the bubble will burst, and I would be in a state similar to mad-scientists - the likes we see and say "They've got no life".

As long as I use my personal blog to share experiences unrelated to work, I should be able to keep a check on that. And with this for the first time since I started blogging I do a small modification to my blog description that earlier read My life in my words.

Also sharing a video titled "The Secret Powers of Time" that I saw recently and it somewhat relates to this blogpost.