Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tanjore Maratha Cereal - Lentil recipes

Tanjore soon became the second home of Marathis. Like the Saurashtrians of Madurai, Marathis of Tanjore were embraced by locals. Their rule was considered benevolent and their food, rituals and vocabulary were absorbed into Tamil culture. The Katha Kaalakshepam ( Religious Story telling) , Poikkal Kuthirai Aattam (Horse dance), their style of paintings (Tanjore paintings), their technique of embossing/ etching bronze plates ( thanjavur thattu) were all gleefully amalgamated. Dishes like puran poli, sambar, rasa vangi, dangar etc are now traditional tamil recipes.

This amalgamation came at a price. Their language, culture and cuisine became so altered that they lost touch with their roots. (In fact, Tanjore marathis would hesitate to speak Marathi before a Maharashtrian for fear of being ridiculed !) This alone might not have been serious. But almost overnight, they were downgraded from rulers and large landowners to commoners, forced to earn their living. Some coped by rising as eminent administrators, but as a whole, the community suffered, dwindling from a peak of 250,000 to less than 500 today!

Tanjore Maratha Curries

Tanjore Marathi rituals, cuisine and history are a little known but fascinating chapter in Tamil history. It is delightful to trace the evolution of a new community, cuisine and rituals. Migrations always seems to result in enrichment - prejudices lessen & new cuisines develop !

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cut wastage, make money !

Real data about restaurant performance is hard to come by. Irrespective of whether the restaurant is making a profit or loss, I see people invariably lie about figures.

So, here is something that might help - the past six month figures of an actual non-veg restaurant, which would go unnamed :)

It is amazing the amount of money you can make by just cutting wastage. Follow a few simple principles and you can dramatically increase profits.

1. Track all expenses every day.
2. Check stock every day
3. Get an item by item report printed at the end of each day and calculate the amount of stock that should have been consumed. Compare it with actual stock consumption. Charge the difference back to the kitchen.
4. If the customer has a complaint, never argue. Replace or refund.
5. Dramatically reduce gas usage by
a. Cooking covered
b. Presoaking
c. Pressure cooking
d. Regular cleaning of burners.
5. 'Taste' is a myth. It differs from person to person. Follow general cooking principles ( use fresh ingredients, do not use too much salt/ spices, do not burn stuff ) and you should be fine. On top of this remember the key characteristics for recipes - an Idli should be white and spongy, a parota whould be flaky and crumbly, a dosa should be crispy. Focus on these as you'll never be able to track the elusive taste. If you shoot for 'good' taste, you are dealing with a quantity you'll never measure or compare - and that is really frustrating !

6. Instead of focussing on the elusive taste, focus on standardisation. Standardise techniques and recipes so that you get an uniform result every time. Put the quality into equipment and techniques, rather than depending on the chef. Chef dependancy is the bane of many small restaurants ! Remember, standardisation beats taste anytime, as Mcdonald's demonstrates !

These principles were put in place during April and you can see the result by comparing March figures
with August figures. Sales goes up by around Rs.240,000 but production expenses rise by just Rs.60,000.

To put things in perspective, this restaurant does around Rs. 30,000 / day, whereas the Vadalapani Saravanabhavan, one of the top restaurants in Chennai, does around Rs.450,000 a day !

As a thumb rule, each 4 seater table in a restaurant generates around Rs.1000 a day. For reasonably well managed restaurants, it goes up to 2000 a day/ table. For popular restaurants, it can reach 4000 a day/ table.

If you are planning to open your own restaurant, remember it is easy to make money, if you put the right systems in place at the very beginning !

Friday, September 03, 2010

The spirit of a cuisine....

Whenever I have a discussion about what authentically belongs to a cuisine and what does not, I remember this quote from Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot (page 50) " How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed“? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.”

This argument holds well for food too! Like religion, people can be very finicky about food - many still believe their cuisines are about using certain ingredients and cooking techniques. It is an immature cuisine which focuses too much on recipes. A mature cuisine does not bother about recipes - it evolves broad themes into which you can slot in any ingredient and cooking technique. For example one broad theme evolved by Indian cuisine is that " Knead an edible flour with a liquid, roll into thin sheets and cook on a hot skillet into a flat bread". The beauty of this theme is that it can slot in flours Indians never knew existed! It is the genius of a cuisine which can make sweeping generalizations like this. The spirit of a cuisine lives in its themes - not in its recipes. Using new ingredients / cooking techniques does not make a recipe unauthentic. When Indians settled abroad, it was natural for them to use fruits / vegetables available in the new lands into their recipes - does it make the recipe unIndian ? No !

The spirit of a cuisine is a reflection of the beliefs of a culture. A recipe becomes unauthentic only if it goes against the spirit of a cuisine. Stick true to the spirit of a cuisine and you don't have to worry about authenticity anymore !

If I had Carl Sagan's way with words, I wish I had said "How is it that hardly any major cookbook author has looked their cuisine and concluded, "This is better than we thought! Our cuisine is much richer than our elders said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. It can even accommodate ingredients and techniques we never knew about. It must be even greater than we dreamed"? Instead they say, "No, no, no! My cuisine is a little cuisine, made only with ingredients and techniques I know and I want it to stay that way !"

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Cooking is fun - Duplication is a pain !

"It is extraordinary to me that the idea of creating thousands of recipes by mixing building blocks takes immediately to people or it doesn’t take at all. .... If it doesn’t grab a person right away, ... you can talk to him for years and show him demos, and it doesn’t make any difference. They just don’t seem able to grasp the concept, simple as it is". ( Thanks Warren Buffett !)

"What's angering about instructions in many cookbooks is that they imply there's only one way to cook a dish - their way. And that presumption wipes out all the creativity." Cook dishes your way - Download  1001 South Indian curries now and learn to cook, not to duplicate ! ( Thanks Robert Pirsig !)

"Recipe purity is no different from racial purity or linguistic purity. It just does not exist. Cuisines are alive and change all the time. What is traditional today was esoteric just a few decades back. So being a 'foodist' is as bad as being a racist !

About Me

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Chennai, Tamilnadu, India
Okay, let me start from the very beginning. 1500 crore years ago, with a Big Bang, the Universe is born. It expands dramatically. Hydrogen forms, contracts under gravity and lights up, forming stars. Some stars explode, dusting space with the building blocks of life. These condense into planets, one of which is Earth. Over time, self replicating molecules appear, multiply and become more complex. They create elaborate survival machines (cells, plants, animals). A variety of lifeforms evolve. Soon, humans arise, discover fire, invent language, agriculture and religion. Civilisations rise and fall. Alexander marches into India. Moguls establish an empire. Britain follows. Independence. Partition. Bloodshed. The license raj is in full sway. I'm born. India struggles to find its place. Liberalisation. The Internet arrives! I move from Tirupur to Chennai. Start a company. Expand into Malaysia, Singapore and the Middle East. Poof! Dot com bust. Funding dries up. Struggle. Retire. Discover the joy of cooking, giving, friendships and the pleasures of a simple life. Life seems less complicated. Pizza Republic, Pita Bite and Bhojan Express bloom !

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