Food structuring – Roti Curry

Ok for starters, this has nothing to do with my previous post, though both of them relate to food and both of them relate to structuring. In that one, I tried to use food concepts to explain structuring, while here I use the concept of structuring from ibanking and use that framework to explain some food stuff.

Now that those formalities are out of the way, let me get to the point. One of the basic differences between North Indian and South Indian genres of food is the way in which it is structured. In South Indian food, you just order the “main item” and you get a host of side dishes free. For example, if you order idli, you get sambar and chutney free. If you go to Madras, you get chutney in three colors (coconut, pudina and tomato) free along with the Idli or dosa. Back home in Bangalore, you get unlimited refills of sambar and chutney. Sometimes you even have a choice of side dish. If you don’t like the sagu they give with puri you can ask them for potato palya. No cribs.

North Indian food is fundamentally different from this in a sense that there are no “set combinations” of main dish and side dish. In fact, the side dish is a side dish only by name – it usually costs much more than the main dish. And yeah, you order the main dish and the side dish separately, and make your own combinations. It is like a complete bipartite graph! And you can choose a few vertices here and a few there!

Another thing with North Indian food is “packet size” – typically one serving of a side dish serves two people (thatz teh thumb rule while ordering). This fundamental characteristic of this genre makes it much more suitable for eating out in a group, and makes it prohibitively expensive to eat alone. During my days in Bombay, I used to take two rotis and one dal fry, for 60 bucks. And about half the dal would get leftover. And there was no question of me having any vegetable – unless I decided to forgo dal that day!

OK, I guess that was too long a background for this (otherwise) extremely short post. And I think the whole point of the post has been summarized in the title (yes, I think i’m finally learning to give good titles).? Thing is fast food joints thrive on standardization. In a way, they are like Ford about a 100 years ago. They have a small number of items, which they sell in large quantities, and well at a faster rate. That way, they can reduce spoilage, inventory cost, etc. For example, have you noticed that Dosa Camp has only 3-4 basic varieties of batters, and that the N types of dosas they make are all embellishments on one of? the basic batters?

Now, if you think about this, it is tough to sell north indian food with this kind of a model. You need to have stuff to make a large number of gravies, and a large number of vegetables. Even for an “assemble to order” framework, you need a large number of ingredients, with a lot of them having extremely volatile demand – thus rendering it expensive.

There are many other reasons why North Indian food is not exactly suitable for Darshini joints. As I’ve explained above, you need to make the stuff on an assemble to order basis, which apart from rendering it expensive, also takes a lot of time. Then, eating north indian food is an elaborate exercise and consumes space – for all the main dishes and side dishes and plates – unlike south indian where you don’t have to serve stuff! Given that in a darshini, space for eating is limited, and that sometimes you may have to eat standing holding a plate in one hand, this is again not tenable.

In light of all this, the concept of the “Roti Curry” that is there in a large number of darshinis todya appears to be a masterstroke. For the uninitiated, it is north indian food structured in a south indian fashion. One in which you order the main and side dish together. For one plate of “roti curry” you get one (or sometimes two – varies from place to place) roti, one small cup of dal and one small cup of a sabji. Along with the mandatory slices of onion and cucumber and lemon. All for a very reasonable rate (<= Rs 20) For one, the “curry” is fixed for the day. And is usually one of the more popular stuff (they usually don’t give stuff like say palak which a lot of people don’t like) – like chana masala or “mixed vegetable curry” – which means that there is no loss of demand due to dissatisfied customers. The lack of choice in the curry means that it makes forecasting much easier, and hence reduces wastage and thus decreases costs for the restaurant. Another advantage of the fixed curry is that it can be made to stock, and thus the only bottleneck is the time it takes to make the roti, which at high demand times can also be made to stock! Then, the structure of the meal means that it all comes together in one single plate – which makes it extremely easy to fit into the darshini culture. It doesn’t take much space on the table, and can also be eaten holding the plate in hand. Apart from this, it is excellent value for money. For about Rs. 20, you get enough stuff to constitute a full meal (yeah, the rotis are usually huge). Of course, I don’t think they give extra curry free, but they usually give enough dal and sabji to last the full roti for most people. And the restaurants have a foothold in a genre which was hitherto untouched. Given all these advantages, it is no surprise that this concept is open in almost all darshinis which are open at dinner-time. I don’t know who started the practice, but it’s an excellent practice nevertheless. The crowds at the “north indian” counters of the restaurants will bear testimony to this. OK, it turns out that the post is longer than I initially thought it would be. So that elaborate introduction seems justified after all. And does anyone know of any place (apart from wholesellers like Nammora Hotel) which sell Idli and Chutney and Sambar separately?

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