Wednesday, February 04th, 2009 | Author:

The smells of food always enticed me. You know how you can smell spices being fried in ghee, their soft, hissing sounds in the non-stick pan. It just lets you soak up the mingling smells, letting you know that its time to tip in the onions. When you have sugar bubbling ever so gently in a pan, just watch it turn into the color of caramel and the scent of slightly burnt sugar seeps into your senses. That’s when you know its time to do something fast so that you don’t bake the pan itself in burnt sugar. Well, I thought, why not share my thoughts about food? I mean, let’s face it, we all love good food and dining.

Malayalis and Food
Like most Indians, the Malayalis (people from Kerala, not Maldives!) are known for their love for food, especially non-vegetarian food. Just the thought of fried fish and chicken fry can send Malayalis into rapture. I wouldn’t be wrong in saying that in nearly every Malayali’s home, food is the most talked about topic, next to politics and religion. The usual greeting when you step into a Malayali home begins with what food can be served to the guest right away. Even the success of marriage celebrations in Kerala is assessed on the quality of the three course traditional feast or sadhya. Of course, if the food wasn’t tasty enough, the brickbats fall on the girl’s family for years to come. You see, how marriage-life-threatening food can be in Kerala?

But these days, Malayalis are obsessed about eating mainly North Indian dishes whenever they visit any restaurant or hotel in Kerala. Paneer dishes, tandoori food  and Chinese dishes are a huge craze in every part of Kerala. Any restaurant worth its name has to have at least one Paneer dish and a Chinese dish in its menu. Pizzas, burghers and noodles are not very popular in families and tend to be dumped by the majority as ‘junk food.’

So, you see, that’s why I decided to go ahead and talk on and on about food. After all, it’s one of those essential things about life that we can talk about even with our enemies!

Skimmer’ Woes
Hey, when it comes to food, I am a skimmer which means I look at a meal and decide what is delectable and what is gross. Cantonese Chinese Fried Rice, for example, needs to really look light and fluffy or else it will taste like rubber. But culinary experts know the trick. They scramble the eggs first before cooking the rice itself. Then they go ahead with the usual stir fry.”

I know what you are thinking. What does it matter, really, if the eggs are scrambled last for fried rice? It’s just Chinese fried rice, just like chow mein, yes, I know what you are trying to say but the beauty of cooking is that you can’t simply toss in all the leftover veggies and scraps to create something truly delectable, can you?

That reminds me. I had a friend called Hiran, whose lunchbox was the envy of an entire organization. Even when she fasted, her lunchbox would be so artistically packed with cut fruits arranged in layers. She just had to open her lunch box and everyone is begging to taste the delicious food her mom makes.

Over wait
If you have visited  United Coffee House, (Connaught Place, Delhi), you would understand what waiting means. I’ve gone there with friends and waited like ages, because the table was not ready and the queues outside the restaurant make me feel like a refugee than a guest.

Seriously, I am not a hotel managing wizard but couldn’t waiting guests be provided seating arrangement in a waiting area inside the restaurant? It lets guests like me spend time by reading the menu, learning new spellings of new dishes, things like that, you know what I mean.

That reminds me of the service at The Chinese (Connaught Place, Delhi) where within moments of arrival, an elegant Chinese hostess steps in to make sure that guests who have to wait have a tiny area right near her desk to remain seated. The seating overlooks the outdoors which makes it relaxing too.

Once customers are shown inside, the hostess comes over to make sure they are comfortably seated, served with water and have the menus and cutlery ready. This probably takes about five minutes of engaging the customer and creating a wonderfully cared-for experience. That’s what a good manager does. Then, guests are treated to a miniscule teaspoon ‘ice cream dot’ treat. The thing is the dot is tinier than a mole but the visual experience and rich feel spells oomph, especially when served by a very pretty looking Chinese belle dressed in a silk kimono. What a way to wait! But you know, the Chinese and Japanese always come up with great ideas when it comes to optimizing management related processes.

Take the example of the famous Japanese restaurant Nobu which has branches in New York, Dallas and Miami Beach. No matter how many guests are waiting, the Nobu staff are famous for transforming the waiting phase into a relaxing experience. They manage the waiting period effectively by keeping guest engaged in other services. In hospitality sector, it’s even termed as the ‘Nobu experience.’

In contrast, the popular South Indian chain of restaurants, Saravana Bhavan (Connaught Place, Delhi) hurries you not only by forcing you to race through the maze of tables and grab your seat but you are forced to practice your karate skills and knock off the rival racing guest to grab your seat.

It’s the same in Andhra Bhavan’s canteen. Maybe this is with the view to improve guests’ fitness and stamina, but I find that my appetite disappears. Orders are taken in such a lightning rush that you can’t even ask a query about a dish without being given looks. You should try your karate and racing skills there, believe me, I’ve nearly done it! Once when we hated our firangi boss, we took him to Andhra Bhavan for farewell lunch and ordered the Hyderabadi chicken fry and while the rest of us were licking it off our plates, the poor Australian guy was having tears coming out of his eyes. He had never eaten anything so spicy in his life! Before you think I was mean, please remember it was ‘team work’, no pun intended.

How can you eat when you feel so rushed?

There’s a fine balance that needs to be drawn in the context of serving fine food and managing table flow dynamics because we don’t merely visit restaurants to eat. We visit these places to unwind, talk, soak in the ambience, feel pampered and relieved from external pressures. It’s so many things rolled into one, you know.

At  Saravana Bhavan, there are countless occasions when couples can’t even linger over their ‘filter coffee’ because the bill is literally slammed noisily onto their table. Again, a serious sign of bad food service.

Leftovers
There’s always a debate as to whether it’s classy to bring back leftovers from a hotel. Different people feel differently about it. What would you do if you went to a restaurant, ordered food that you thought you could finish but end up eating just half of it?

Well, let me confess that I bring it back home to eat. After all, if it is tasty and I paid for it, why shouldn’t I do that? Why should i waste the food? Of course, in places like KFC, I can finish the whole thing in minutes because as their ad says, ‘its finger-lickin’ good.’ In places like Saravana Bhavan, I have many friends who get the coconut chutney and sambar packed additionally because they find it so tasty and irresistible.

Well, every one has experienced a sweet and sour memory or feeling about food. Some food brings happy memories, others make you nostalgic. It’s not just about eating tasty food but about experience yourself, the others around you and building new bonds through food. Sometimes you find yourself able to talk peacefully with people you don’t know over food, at other times, you just feel peaceful eating by yourself and watching others do the same.

Let me finally end my thoughts on food with the wise words of La Rochefoucauld (don’t ask me who he is but his name sounds intelligent though I can assure you I don’t have a clue!), “To eat is a necessity but to eat intelligently is an art.”

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4 Responses

  1. 1
    Piyush Nigam 

    Wow that sure got me hungry again! Good to see more food crazy people around – I almost started making a mental timetable of when i will eat what out of the things that you mentioned.
    Though I agree that eating in the right ambience and being pampered while you are at it adds a lot to the experience…yet there is the kind of meal where the food makes the roughing it out worth while – Savarna Bhavan and the crazy waiting could be an example. Ever been to Old Delhi to eat street side food? Believe me the approach is awful and the ambience is crazy but the food just makes it all worth while!

  2. 2
    Ankit 

    Delicious blog…
    and, I agree with Piyush on the Dilli-6 experience…good old days they were when I was mad about street food
    From roadside matar-kulcha to the Gole hatti’s rice plate…
    Dogra’s pakoras to Giani’s desserts…Natraj’s dahi bhalle to Ashok Chaat’s gol guppas….Oh my god…I am full now….

    lets go for the bunta…he has been quenching thirst since seven generations…BURP….

  3. 3
    Palash 

    Swapna, we are aware of your culinary skills, quite evident with your sample bites which i have on/off. Wow, you are right, even if you happen to be around INA market, , prawn cutlet, beef fries and appam are some of the handpicked item I love to dig every time time i go there. There is place called chittaranjan park, you should visit that place for some other variety again. Mutton and vegetable chop, fish devils, bhapa ielish are some of the local bong favourites.

    For that typical north Indian street Piyush and Ankit have said it all, address ke saath!

  4. Interesting article. I have read some of your posts and they are good. Where did you got all the information from. 🙂

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