Bakeries

One thing that I’ve fallen in love with in my last one week in Europe is the concept of the breakfast bakery. Every few hundred metres both in Barcelona and Amsterdam you have bakeries. These bakeries offer a large variety of bread products that are to be consumed as breakfast. Apart from this, the bakeries also offer coffee and tea so that one can have a complete breakfast in some of them.

And I say “breakfast” only figuratively – I’ve had lunch on three days of my trip so far in such bakeries – again it’s with bakery products such as pizza slices or sandwiches, followed by coffee (which I must say hasn’t been bad for most of the trip). If I’ve to move to Europe, the presence of such bakeries would be one very strong reason to do so!

I was wondering why we don’t have such bakeries in India. The problem is one of liquidity – a very small portion of India’s population wants to have croissants and doughnuts for breakfast – most people in Bangalore, for example, prefer idli-vada and dosa instead. And so you still have the “fast food” places in Bangalore (lots of them) that offer such foods and coffee. And you have plenty of them – all of which are very reasonably priced and offer excellent quality!

As I try to write more and more about economic concepts, I get further drawn to this whole concept of liquidity. And each time I write about it I claim that it’s an underappreciated concept in economics outside of financial economics!

Perhaps I should make a better effort in changing that!

Ramzan Walks

Seven Arabic years ago, when I was still vegetarian, and a rather squeamish one at that, a friend had regaled me with stories of going on a “meat walk” on Mumbai’s Mohammad Ali Road, savouring delicacies (I took his word) like ox’s tongue and cow’s udders. It was Ramzan, he said, and it was the time of the year when delicacies which were otherwise hardly available would make their way to the markets. He was going to make it an annual ritual to “do the meat walk”, he had said. I’m not sure about him, but I know that people who accompanied him on that walk do make it a point to repeat it annually.

I might have documented elsewhere about my transition to a carnivore back on our vacation to Greece two summers ago. At a streetside cafe there, the vegetarian stuff looked insipid while the meat looked succulent, and I converted. “If I’m to lose my religion I’ll lose it completely”, I had decided and started my meat eating career with some beef souvlaki. In the intervening two years (mostly in the last one year), I’ve tried several species, and nothing makes me queasy in terms of the source of my food – though I might change my mind after I complete the holiday I’ve been planning to the Far East.

My first “Ramzan walk” was in Bangalore two Arabic years ago. These walks (in each city) have their own ritual to it. In Bangalore, it starts at Albert Bakery on Mosque Road in Frazer Town, then proceeds across the road to Fatima House where they procure Haleem (flown in daily from Hyderabad). Then round the corner on to Madhavaswamy Mudaliar Road for some kebabs and then across that road for chaat and kulfi. I’ve done the exact ritual twice over already, and have quite enjoyed it (though the first time around I didn’t get down to eating Albert’s famed Brain Puffs). But people had so far told me that I hadn’t done “the real thing” until I did a similar Ramzan Walk on Mohammad Ali Road.

So this evening I made amends to that particular deficiency in my meat eating career. A bunch of people from my client’s office were planning their annual visit to the famed road for this evening, and I tagged along. I write this on a sugar high, after having stuffed myself with sweets through the evening.

The waiter at Tawakkal Sweets, off Mohammad Ali Road, reminded me of the priests at Mantralaya (of the Raghavendra Swami fame, in Andhra Pradesh). Priests and temple officials in Mantralaya are famed for their “maDi”, and their way of keeping themselves clean is by not touching anyone. So you have this ritual where one of the monks there gives you a stole, but in which he throws it over you from about a feet above your shoulders to prevent touching you. I don’t know if the waiter at Tawakkal had similar constraints in terms of keeping himself clean, but he kept plonking our sweets from about a few inches above the table, just enough to make sure that the Mango Malai (something like mango souffle with condensed milk) didn’t arrive on the table perfectly set. But I’m sure I ate more than my fair share of the Malai that arrived at the table, thus giving me the sugar high, which persists.

In Kannadiga Brahmin functions, I’ve never understood the concept of adding plain (unsweetened) milk to the sweet obbatt (aka hOLige). “Why add something that is not sweet to a sweet dish”, I’ve reasoned. After tonight I begin to suspect that the concept of obbatt with milk is borrowed from Malpoa with Malai. I used to think that the Malpoa is something like the “kajjaya”/”athrasa” but here at Tawakkal and elsewhere it seemed like a reconstructed French toast – where wheat flour is mixed with eggs and sugar to make a batter that is deep fried. And it is served with unsweetened thick cream – which perhaps my ancestors adopted as obbatt with plain milk. ┬áIt is possible that all my previous encounters with Malpoa have been at vegetarian sweet shops, and hence the absence of the egg.

We wouldn’t be done after the Mango Malai and the Malpoa. There was still space left for food in our stomachs and sugar in our blood streams for us to eat mango phirni (kheer made with mashed rice and mangoes). And it wasn’t even the first time in the day that we were eating sweets. The Mumbai equivalent of Albert bakery is the brightly lit Suleiman Usman Bakery, with boards everywhere claiming it has “no branches”. Except that round the corner at EM Road (perpendicular to Mohammad Ali Road) there are at least two other shops which call themselves “Suleiman Usman Bakery”, and which too prominently display that they have no branches.

We began the meaty part of our walk at EM Road (the one with the two Suleiman Usman Bakeries (with no branches). To celebrate the occasion of the holy month, the street was extremely brightly lit, and shops had put out makeshift tables and chairs under a canopy on the road to accommodate the extra crowds (normally, like at other Muslim establishments, food is cooked at the entrance but served inside the shop). Maybe to add to the effect they had strung up what looked like pieces of chicken in psychedelic colours, and for further effect, displayed cages with little chicks even!

Chicken has taken over the world. Traditionally, Muslim establishments are known for their mutton, and sometimes beef. In certain circles (again primarily Muslim) it is considered beneath establishments to offer chicken. But this particular establishment on EM Road only seemed to serve chicken, apart from the odd mutton dish. It’s not really worth writing home about. And the lack of a regular menu means that people who look like tourists are likely to be overcharged.

Soon we were back on Mohammad Ali road for the main course, which was at Noor Mohammadi. Nalli Nihari was consumed with Tandoori Roti and onions, and washed down with Thums Up. This is one of those old style establishments, and one that doesn’t get bells and whistles for Ramzan. There is this ancient Hussain painting hanging on the walls, and next to that is a large board with the menu. Service was quick and efficient and one was reminded of Bangalore’s Vidyarthi Bhavan as the waiter pronounced the bill without much thinking and with great accuracy.

I’ll probably do a formal comparison after I experience Fraser Town sometime later this month, but in terms of sheer numbers (of people) and atmosphere, Mumbai definitely trumps Bangalore. In terms of food, though, I’m not so sure. Those little paper plates of kebabs you get in that corner shop across the Mosque on Madhavaswamy Mudaliar road seem much better than anything Mumbai serves up. But then, your mileage might vary.

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.