Thursday, June 30, 2011

Vekees and Thomas - a Food Chain with Novelty

Sometime back I had written about my fondness for continental food and how it leads me to try out new Euro food joints. Some three months ago, a new Euro restaurant came up in my office area, Veekes and Thomas. The restaurant has a very bare-bone setup occupying a small space with two tables and some cane-chairs around them. It is fronted by strips of white curtains made of cane. There are only two to three people on the staff, two manning the kitchen and one doubling up as cashier and waiter.

But funnily, instead of putting you off, the austere setting actually lends the place the look and feel of an authentic low-cost European food shop. My first visit was a disappointment. I had ordered for a veg sandwich and received one with the stuffing of an egg (!) and finely chopped deep fried onions. The stuffing kept drooping out on the plate as I bit my way through the poor thing. I wanted to scream but held back.

Last week I visited them for French Onion soup priced at Rs. 30 and was happy with what I got. It wasn’t anything to drool over, just a concoction of a thick sauce, some finely sliced onions and black pepper. But the taste was good. And guess how they served it: In a road-side tea glass. I asked for a bowl, and the cashier, now acting as waiter, returned from the kitchen with a mini bowl, but by then I had made peace with the glass.

You may get a little irritated by all this ordinarily, but at Veekes and Thomas, you have to read their mission statement - here two wooden frames adorning the wall next to me framed it - to put it all in perspective. Veekes and Thomas is a chain of food joints built around the idea of village economy and inclusive growth. Their mission statement suggests that they source their vegetables from village cooperatives to keep profiteering middlemen out and increase the profit margin of farmers.

They recruit their staff from NGOs. In the long run, they plan to open street side food counters and over time transfer their ownership to the workers. They also additionally incentivize their workers based on their work (which I don’t think other restaurants do; workers may earn additional revenue through tips but nothing comes from the management). They are allergic to using plastic (this found couple of mentions in the statement). Even when it doesn’t concern packing food for customers, they follow “green” methods: “If you find an exotic dish served on a leaf plate, don’t be surprised,” warned the statement.

I don’t know how many of the lofty ideas translate into actions, but the idea of helping the society and village economy through a food-business model sounded impressive and the methods felt practicable.

Nowadays in India the middle class, especially the IT types, are coming under heavy attack by left-style intellectuals who claim that the middle class, high on its new-found prosperity, has become insensitive to the suffering of the poor. Most don’t pay attention to the allegation. But allegation or otherwise, if you are someone with a social conscience (or similar pretension), you will feel nice by patronizing Veekes and Thomas.

As for the food, I also tried out the Cream of Mushroom soup, served in a glass. I liked it. And paid only Rs. 35.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Modern Science Writing by Richard Dawkins

I never took interest in science during my school years but as a result of promiscuous reading for many years now, I have developed interest in many subjects and science is one of them. This explains why I bought Modern Science Writing by Richard Dawkins, an anthology of articles, written by prominent scientists, on various aspects of science and scientists.

Despite being a science book (a subject many dread), it doesn’t put you off with pedagogies of school science textbooks. The book mayn’t be to science what William Dalrymple’s books are to history – converting pedagogy into page turner. But the articles are surely absorbing (expect some that are too data-oriented) and introduce you to scientific subjects in a manner that makes you want to read the next article, bursting the old belief that writing is not for scientists.

Each article starts with an introduction of the author scientist of the article. And, as Dawkins is a scientist himself, he knows (or knew) many of the author scientists personally, having interacted with them during student life and later, and writes about various facets of their personalities in his introductions bringing to life the men behind the articles. However, sometimes the introductions become too admiring of author scientists and Dawkins starts appearing like a child in their awe rather than a writer giving his observations.

The articles are of varied types: some full of dry details (a little off putting); some academic discussions with conflicting scientific thoughts and some human emotions. Here is an excerpt. The author, Oliver Sacks, discusses his uncle, Uncle Tungsten, and his obsession with tungsten wire, used as filaments of lightbulbs.

“We had called him Uncle Tungsten for as long as I remember, because he manufactured lightbulbs with filament of fine tungsten wire. His firm was called Tungstalite, and I often visited him in his old factory in Farringdon. During my visits to the factory, Uncle Dave would teach me about metals with little experiments. I knew that mercury, that strange liquid metal, was incredibly heavy and dense. Even lead floated on it, as my uncle showed me by floating a lead metal in a bowl of quicksilver. But then he pulled out a small grey bar from his pocket, and to my amazement, this sank immediately to the bottom.”

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tale of Mangoes

This is mango session and I indulge myself with the fruit every now and then. I don’t know all their varieties and can’t tell one variety from another but like most of them once their colour turns from green to bright yellow. The green ones taste mischievous with sprinkling of salt but they leave your teeth numb.

I buy mangoes from the hawker who parks his cart near my house with ripe mangoes heaped on it. I had long wondered what happens to the mangoes that don’t sell. Mangoes tend to perish faster than other fruits and the ones that are yellow today develop black stains tomorrow.

Are they returned to the wholesale vendor from whom they were bought? Are they resold to some other vendor looking for cheaper deal? Do small fruit juice shops buy them at throwaway prices? Two days back, when I was there buying my mango, curiosity got the better of me. And I asked the hawker what happens to the hapless mangoes that don’t find patrons.

He dropped his voice to convey his self-pity and avoiding eye contact, said: “There is nothing in this business.” Then he explained why.

In Bangalore mangoes mainly come from Andra Pradesh. (Few varieties also come from Kerala, but they aren’t popular.)There are a few places in Bangalore where mangoes are sold on a large scale but the one in Hebbal, which is very far from most parts of the city, is the largest depot which attracts hawkers from across the city to buy mangoes.

Wooden boxes containing mangoes are auctioned. You have to indicate the box you will buy by placing a fistful of grass on it. Once you place the bunch of grass, the box is yours with its defects (underweight of mangoes with newspapers at the bottom of the crate, spoilt mangoes, etc.) or otherwise becoming your responsibility.

If you buy multiple boxes, you have to make sure they don’t go missing in the mundi; stolen boxes will not be indemnified by the seller. As Hebbal is very far, you need to buy good number of boxes to economize the transportation cost.

“But what happens to the unsold mangoes?” I asked.

“In old days you could return the unsold mangoes to the one you bought them from, but now they are your loss,” the hawker answered. The same goes for other fruits.

“Fruit business me pehle jaisa maza nehi raha,” he concluded twitching the corner of mouth, indicating resignation. (There is no meaning in fruit business any more.)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Science of Optimism by Tali Sharot, Time Magazine

Despite no dearth of disappointments in and around our lives, we keep our sanity and face the future. How? Because we are programmed to be hopeful.

The Time magazine has carried an interesting piece on our tendency to be optimistic as its cover story this time – The Science of Optimism. The article analyzes how optimism or hope shapes our relationships, professional lives, outlook, etc. It says optimism has helped us evolve into what we are today, an advanced race.

But what makes us optimistic? A memory that tends to recollect inaccurately.

Our memory, Tali Sharot, the author suggests, quoting scientists, tends to recall inaccurately partly because the neural system responsible for memory might have not evolved for memory alone. Its evolution, in fact, could have been for the opposite reason: to help us imagine a positive future.

The author interviewed some witnesses of the 9/11 attack asking them to recollect their experience and found that only a little above 60 per cent could recall details accurately.

But, as part of a study, when the author asked people to imagine their future, they imagined such that “Even the most banal life events seemed to take a dramatic turn for the better.”

By citing studies conducted by her and her peers, the author shows how our mind predicts the future with a glow of optimism subtracting adverse possibilities that can lead to an alternate future. However, when it foresees adversities in the future, it helps us to prepare for it by saving money, storing food, carrying an umbrella while leaving home, etc.

The hopeful tilt of mind recalls disappointing experiences, like professional failures, romantic heartbreaks, etc., as things that helped us evolve and become more experienced human beings, instead of wasteful experiences that only hurt.

A neural mechanism, located in the frontal part of our brain, is responsible for this optimistic bent of mind which helps us imagine an optimistic future or promotes slightly irrational thinking. People in whom this neural system is not active suffer from depression. And so when a depressed person predicts the future, he does it without the additional glow of optimism (or irrationalism) – and predicts more accurately than a normal person.
The article has much more than this.

The mind is complex, intriguing and scary.

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