Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Greece vs India. Is there any difference?





I am not an economist or an accountant, just a humble lawyer, a `Vakil’. Come to think of it neither Arun Jaitley, nor P Chidambaram nor Pranab Mukherjee were economists or accountants. All of them are lawyers. Yet they were our Finance Ministers. I guess as a lawyer I too have the right to comment on the Greek Crisis or Grexit.

Do you know what shocks me? How similar the Greek crisis is to what is happening in India.

I am not passing any judgement on whether India should adopt a Right wing, right of center; left of center or hard core Socialist policy to tackle, what I think is, a fast track for India towards financial doom. I am merely pointing out that, I believe, not many have understood our predicament.

Okay, after a bit of research I have a simple explanation of what caused the Greek Crisis and what the consequenses are for Greece. This is from the New York Times. The last paragraph is what is really the crux.

Greece became the epicenter of Europe’s debt crisis after Wall Street imploded in 2008. With global financial markets still reeling, Greece announced in October 2009 that it had been understating its deficit figures for years, raising alarms about the soundness of Greek finances.

Suddenly, Greece was shut out from borrowing in the financial markets. By the spring of 2010, it was veering toward bankruptcy, which threatened to set off a new financial crisis.

To avert calamity, the so-called troika — the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission — issued the first of two international bailouts for Greece, which would eventually total more than 240 billion euros, or about $264 billion at today’s exchange rates.

The bailouts came with conditions. Lenders imposed harsh austerity terms, requiring deep budget cuts and steep tax increases. They also required Greece to overhaul its economy by streamlining the government, ending tax evasion and making Greece an easier place to do business.

What are the bailout conditions mentioned in the last paragraph?

·         Austerity.

·         Budget cuts.

·         Tax Increases.

·         Streamline government.

·         End tax evasion.

·         Make Greece an easier place to do business in.

Sounding familiar folks? Are several bells ringing?

On 5th of July 2015, you may recall a referendum in Greece to determine if there would be `austerity’ or not. `Austerity’ finds mention in the last paragraph above. Austerity and budget cuts include among other matters, pensions and social benefit schemes. Yes, yes I know India is a poor country and the poor need benefits. I once again stress that I express no views on the rights and wrongs of this, but, only want to point out our foolishness at not looking at the `Greek’ reality staring at us. MGNREGA, midday meals, fertilizer subsidies, schooling subsidies, children subsidies, and women subsidies and so on, all cost us money.

Austerity also includes cutting pension. You hear that Greeks stop work at 50 and live of leisure on pensions. That is supposed to be bad. Really? Did you know that by law, yes by law, Jawans or soldiers have to retire by the age of 35 - 37. The soldier/sailor/airman retires after 15 years or 17 years of service depending upon his trade. Since he is enrolled at age 17 or 18 and is "attested" (formally becomes a trained soldier/sailor/airman capable of carrying out his duties) at age 19 to 21, he retires at age 35 to 37. That is provided he does not get promoted to NCO rank. If he gets promoted to NCO rank (Naik or Havildar in the army and equivalent ranks in the navy & air force) he gets to serve for a few more years. But the huge majority of soldiers (something like 75%) retire as jawan/sailor/airman at the age of 35 to 37. All soldiers, Jawans or Generals, get pension from retirement till death. But, this goes further - A widow, regardless of the rank of her husband, gets "family pension" which is 50% of her husband's pension, until her death. Please remember India has the largest mobilized armed forces manpower after China. That is a lot of people. Add to that number all the civil servants [national and state] employees of PSU, PSB, Mumbai University, and Municipal Corporations and so on and so forth. Now add to that number the 6th Pay Commission, 7th Pay Commission, 8th Pay Commission and counting. Cherry on top, OROP. Boggles my mind. `Hamari maange poori karo’.

I am not saying that the soldiers do not deserve pension. I am saying two things. One, don’t mock the Greeks when you have the same big, if not bigger mess in your country. Two, if you want to give pensions and not become more austere, please plan and provide for it.

Tax Evasion. If you think the Greeks have a problem, think again. Forget those persons who do file Tax returns but conceal or do not disclose a lot of their income. I am referring to the tens of thousands of shopkeepers, Pav Bhaji vendors, housewives making chocolates and Salwar Khameez at home, hawkers and so on who have an income in excess of the threshold of Rs 250,000 who do not file their income tax returns. Often, these individuals have companies and firms that do business and do not file returns. So not only is non-filing a huge problem but that is compounded by mis-declaration by those who do deign to file. Sounds Greek to me.   

Has our most Honourable Modiji not coined the wonderfully utopian phrase `Less Government more governance.”? Nothing has happened in that direction, again I express no opinion, however, you must understand that this idiom is simply a different way of saying - streamline government. We in India have a hugely bloated, inefficient and thoroughly corrupt government. And this is true at all levels be it the Thesildar, or the Municipality or the University or the State Government and in all parts of the country.

What has every Indian businessman, why Indian, every MNC been crying out for? Ease in doing business. Once again, Modiji’s phrase comes to mind - `Less Government more governance.” Doing business in India is extremely difficult, frustrating and prone to penalties and prosecutions. There is no stability in legislation and almost always no level playing field. Add to this is the extremely litigious nature of our people. Any new policy will be attacked in Court by a combination of vested interests, tribals, environmentalists, NGOs, RTI Activists, general do gooders and the locals where the business is to be done. Once you have tackled all this opposition you could think of starting, hoping that in the interregnum the laws have not changed.

So, I ask, is what has caused the Greek Crisis, or, is what the troika of IMF, ECB and EC prescribed as reform to Greece not exactly what the situation in India is? How are we different? The only saving grace is that our deficit is seemingly apparently being controlled. As I said I am not an economist and there may well be other cogent reasons why we will not go Greece’s way.

However, methinks we are well on the way to becoming Greek. Forget your `A’ `B’ `C’s’. Start learning Alpha Beta Delta Gama Epsilon Eta Deta Theta Iota and so on.



Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Bao - London






Bao is a new highly regarded restaurant/café/food truck gone upmarket/diner place in deep Soho London. Bao was started by Erchen Chang (originally from Taipei) along with his brother and sister; Shing Tat and Wai Ting Chung, as a tiny street-food stall in north-east London.  They were backed by the new and fast becoming all-powerful Sethi family who run/own/and have funded among others – Trishna, Gymkhana, Bubbledogs, Kitchen & Table and Lyle’s. This enabled them to open Bao on Lexington Street in Soho.






Bao the restaurant is an uncategorised – shall we say – restaurant. They say that Bao the restaurant has been influenced by David Chang the pioneer Korean American restaurateur whose Momofuku paired food with revolutionary drinks using new techniques and technologies devised by dessert chef Christina Tosi.

Bao is a small place done in blond wood with tiny tables, communal seating and small uncomfortable stools that do not encourage lingering. As with the trendiest places, they follow a no reservations policy. We reached at 11.50 for a 12.00 opening and found that we were already in line. The line steadily grew. Tables turn quickly as food is brought swiftly and eaten equally rapidly. But, be prepared to wait if the place is full. At about 11.55 a waitress came out of the restaurant and handed us a menu. This was much like a Dim Sum menu. Soon we were escorted to our tables. On the tables were pencils to fill in what we wanted from the menu. We were warned that each Bao is a single serving. The Scallops too were single servings. We ticked, numbered and waited.



A Bao is steam bread with rice flour or wheat flour, uses yeast, and is often stuffed. It is also called Baozi or Pao. The menu has three sections. The Xiao Chi section [translates as `small eats’] has plates which can be shared. In addition there were Baos which are all single pieces, and sides. A separate menu had teas, Sake and beers. We dutifully wrote out our orders and waited. A waitress arrived checked our order and said that the Scallops in the Xiao Chi section are single Scallops so we should order two. We did and were glad we did.

First came the Scallops with Yellow Bean and garlic. A single Scallop in a shell with a sauce, The Scallop was a single bite. I picked up the shell and drained the juices into my mouth. Fabulous. Cold, tart and full of Umami flavour. A wonderful start.



The Pigs Trotters were served next along with the Taiwanese Fried Chicken with Hot Sauce. The Pigs Trotters ended up being three little Piggies – sorry! The Trotter was cooked, the meat shredded and reformatted, covered in a standard breading mixture and deep fried. The result was a hot crisp outer coating and moist melting meaty inside. This was served with what seemed to be a very Indian chutney of spring onions and green chilli. These were nice, not outstanding. What was however outstanding were the Taiwanese Fried Chicken with Hot Sauce. A serving consisted of 4 pieces, both breast and thigh. A Chicken Pakoda to us Desi’s. There was a brilliant crisp batter coating a tender moist piece of chicken. The hot sauce was like the red Chinese chilli sauce we have all grown up with. A fairly simple dish, however, how often do you get something fried that is crisp on the outside? Not often alas. This was an example of how to do it.


Pigs Trotters



Taiwanese Fried Chicken with Hot Sauce 

For the Bao’s we ordered 3. The Classic, which we both thought was the best. You got a Bao shaped like `Pacman’ from the old video game. Inside was sweet shredded pork, tangy pickled Chinese vegetables and garnished with fresh Coriander -`Dhaniya’ – leaves and crushed peanut. This was brilliant. The pillowy soft Bao, the crunch of the Peanut and the at once sweet, sour and fresh filling was a winner. A wonderful dish. The next Bao we got was the Fried Chicken Bao. This chicken was different from the Taiwanese Fried Chicken. It had a different batter and the pieces were smaller. The waiter said the chicken was marinated in Soy Milk. The Bao had Kimchi in along with the crisp Chicken. Very good indeed. Again this was a contrast of flavours and textures with the soft Bao, crunchy hot fried chicken and salty sour spicy Kimchi. The Pork Confit Bao was different. Here the filling was discernable pieces of confit pork belly with a spicy sauce with chopped raw onions [which deeply upset the Royalty present] and garnished with crisp fried Shallots what we would call `Birista’ onions. This was good but paled in comparison to the Classic Bao.


The Classic Bao


Fried Chicken Bao


Pork Confit Bao


We did not have any of the drinks nor the sweet Bao.

All in all, an exciting restaurant to visit for lunch. Different good well cooked food albeit a little expensive. Though there is a lot of Umami flavour going around I personally thought the food was quite heavily spiced, a little too `tikha’ for me. I find the use of spice in food that I do not expect to be spicy, disconcerting. You may well as why I thought this food would not be spicy? Well, I have no real answer. I just assumed it would not be spicy.

Do go if you are in the area. But beware, costs really add up as you start ordering.






Monday, July 6, 2015

Hawksmoor - London





A steak has always had great symbolism. I guess that so long as capitalism remains [except Hindu capitalism] steak will always be symbolic. It makes no difference how rich or poor you are. A steak is always something that is aspirational. It remains a `treat’, a gift to yourself [if you are paying for it] a sign of your power and wealth. You can never go wrong giving someone a steak dinner.

Steak is not necessarily a Western creation. In Japan you have some of the most expensive and prized steak – the Wagyu beef is legendary. In South America Brazil and Argentina pride themselves on the quality of their meat and consequently steaks.

Technically speaking meat, as you know, is muscle. Muscle has fibres running along its length. A cut of meat perpendicular to the fibres, is a steak. Thus, a steak is one piece of muscle with or without bone attached. Yes you do have fish steaks, mushroom steaks, paneer steaks, tofu steaks and so on. But those are called steak simply because their shape is similar to a real meat steak.

A A Gill is a great writer. I am reproducing a few paragraphs written by him. The matter of steaks could not be more eloquently put.

“Why have we fallen in such greedy love with beef? What does steak say to us and about us? Well, it’s manly. If food came with gender appellations, steak would definitely be at the top of the bloke column. Women can eat it, they can appreciate it, but it’s like girls chugging pints of beer and then burping. It’s a cross-gender impersonation. Steak is a high-value food that doesn’t need a chef. You don’t want some twiddly-accented, jus-dribbling, foam-flicking chef mincing about with your meat. You want a guy in a checked shirt with his sleeves rolled up forking and tonging your T-bone. Steaks even come with their own butch utensils. It’s more like engineering or Lego than cooking. It’s boy stuff. The porterhouse used to be the dining choice of a gauche out-of-towner, a man who was uncomfortable with chic urban menus and didn’t know how to order—“Oh, I’ll just have the steak. Wipe its behind and bring it to the table,” they’d say, just to let the rest of us cheese-eating sophisticates know that they weren’t intimidated hicks. Restaurants would keep steak on the menu just for them because they knew there would always be a certain sort of guy who didn’t think it was an acceptable date restaurant if he couldn’t get a New York strip. Chefs hate steaks because their reputations are left in the hands of their butchers—two cuts off the same muscle can eat quite differently.

Today the prices being charged for prime cuts in prestige dining rooms—where the raw material is paraded to the table like a Premier Cru—can equal a day’s pay for the waiter. The expense adds to the special pleasure, the achievement, and is the secret ingredient of the filet mignon. It’s an emblem of victory, of survival. A slab of bleeding meat is symbolic of something fundamental, something pre-banking, pre-mortgage, pre-downsizing, prehistoric. It is a metaphor for the most basic achievement: to kill for sustenance, to be strong, to man up.”

We had booked to eat at Hawksmoor. This along with Goodman is one of the better steak houses in London. Of course there are many more like The Cut, or The Guinea Grill which are as highly regarded, but it was to be Hawksmoor for us. This was our second visit.

A bit about the Hawksmoor Group. The Hawksmoor was started by two school friends – Will Beckett and Huw Gott in 2006. 9 years later they have 6 branches – 5 in London and one in Manchester with seating for approximately 930 people [excluding Manchester]. Add to this seating in the bars which would add up to an additional 150 people. So you are talking about approximately 1100 seats in London. The Air Street branch where we ate has 235 seats and 50 at the bar. The waiter said that every normal evening from 5 pm to closing i.e. for dinner service, they feed an average of 350 diners. At Christmas time this number shoots up to 900. Yes, 900 in one outlet in one night, albeit the largest one in the group.

Now bear with me for one more paragraph.

In 2012 the average price paid by a customer was GBP 65. Let’s assume that this has gone up to GBP 75 today. In 2012 when they had only 3 outlets they served 7000 customers a week or 1000 a day. Today, I would imagine with two additional outlets in London [excluding Manchester] this number would be about 12000 a week. This is just my estimation. So if you do the math the revenues for the group would be 46.8 million pounds which is 468 crores! Yes sir 468 crores. I find that figure staggering.

We had a reservation at 7.30 pm and the place was quite full, not chocker block but healthy. As I have said earlier, this is a large restaurant, 235 seats and 50 at the bar area. The place is done up in an Art Deco style which I quite like. Green leather seats and banquettes with brass lamps. I guess to keep costs down the flourishes of serving bread and butter are done away with, as is the use of a tablecloth. This steak experience is boiled down to its essentials. The food, the cocktails and the wines. The meat served is all British and all grass fed. In America the beef is corn fed. This makes a big difference to the taste as well as the texture. The reason for this difference is that grass is the natural food for Cows not corn. Corn gives the cows diabetes and causes them to become fat. Hence the meat is far more marbled and noticeably sweeter.




I was very thirsty so I ordered a beer while HRH the Queen of Kutch asked for a Gin and Tonic. We pored over the menu. Larger cuts of meat weighing upwards of 750 grams are listed on the several blackboards. These are to share. This is a good way to eat. A larger cut works our more economical for the diner, but there is a problem if different diners want the cut to be cooked at different temperatures. We had no such problem. We chose an 800 gram Porterhouse cooked medium rare for our main course. As a starter we ordered Pork Belly which we decided to share. Good move that as you will read later. To accompany our steak we asked for some Spinach with Garlic and Lemon, Grilled Bone Marrow, Chips cooked in Beef Dripping – just like they did at MacDonald’s all those years ago - and an Anchovy Mayonnaise. To drink we ordered a bottle of Ramon Bilbao, ‘Black Label’ Rioja, Tempranillo/Garnacha 2012. A decent wine.

First came the Tamworth Belly Ribs, Tamworth being a breed of pig. I had imagined we would get spare ribs, which correctly are ribs from the lower end of the pig towards the belly. These are much smaller with consequent less meat. However what turned up was quite the opposite. We got the pork belly without the ribs. This was two thick sliced of pork belly cooked to the point of flaking covered with a rich dark sauce with reasonably exotic spicing. I could get some fennel, some mild chilli and some sweet. This was accompanied by a really nice salad of pickled onions and red cabbage. These were two large slices. More than enough for us to share. Absolutely delicious.


Tamworth Belly Ribs

Then came the main course. The star of the show being the Porterhouse grilled Medium Rare. A Porterhouse and T Bone are very similar. There is a central `T’ shaped bone and on either side you have two different cuts of meat. One side has the tenderloin or Fillet Mignon which is very soft, reasonably flavourless and virtually fatless. The other side has the New York Strip which is more chewy and with more marbling and therefore far more flavoursome. This came beautifully cooked, at the temperature requested, sliced thick and detached from the bone. Unfortunately, I did not take a photograph of the slice. The steak was excellent, tender and well-seasoned. Not a word of complaint.




The Grilled Bone Marrow looks very big, but the amount of marrow in each bone is small. This was scooped out with a spoon, salted and eaten with a mouthful of steak. The chips fried in Beef dripping were lovely and crisp. The restaurant makes its own tomato ketchup which we tried. It was good. The Anchovy Mayonnaise was excellent. I also asked for some English Mustard to go with my steak. The accompaniments were all top notch. Everything was finished.     






Pudding - Peanut Butter Shortbread with Salted Caramel Ice Cream

It is difficult cooking such a large cut of meat especially with a bone attached. This was done skilfully. A steak dinner is an enormously enjoyable meal which, alas, our honourable Government has for the foreseeable future denied us the pleasure of back in Mumbai. This restaurant was an example of skilful yet extremely simple cooking, very competently done. Cooking well and consistently is often the key to success. No need to complicate the menu. Have you ever eaten at Bukhara/Peshawri at the ITC? Exactly the same. A short menu, simple food [just barbequing meat] very competently and consistently done.

This is a place you must visit.


  

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Lunch?




Borough Market has been a favourite. We visit it whenever we are in London. This time was no different.

This post has lots of photos. Not much writing.

These are photos of just some of the stalls selling hot food. There are several more outlets selling hot food but these are either repeats of the food on offer [more and more burgers] or are restaurants – Black & Blue, Appelbee and many others. I did not take photos of stalls selling `cold’ food like bread, chocolate, cheese, Charcuterie and so on.

What a fantastic range of food available.

Our lunch was the Roast Hog Sandwich.

You can draw you own conclusions on several matters. Some that come to my mind, in no particular order are:

Go to Pakistan

Go to Saudi Arabia or is it dont go to Saudi Arabia

Cultural diversity

Open minds

Myriad culture

Is England a nation of immigrants?

Do we in India even have a chance?

Enjoy.



































Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Bombay Canteen - Revisited




Our old friend the Doctor Businesswoman from London was in Mumbai, on business. After aligning our respective calendars the next decision to be made was where we would dine.

Bombay Canteen.

You may recall that when I had written about Bombay Canteen earlier, I had said that it was an uneven experience, the service was bad, the food good but marred by the fact that the food was served lukewarm. This time the experience was better, much better.

The basic rules had not changed. You had to reserve a table at either the 7.30 pm slot or the 10 pm slot. Children under eighteen are not allowed. We had no problem with these rules, in fact we would be happiest if they were applied across the board at all restaurants in India.

Mercifully the weather was kind to us and the rains had eased leaving us with a much needed dry spell. We arrived probably 5 minutes before Doctor Businesswoman and were shown to what we thought was a decent table giving us an unrestricted view of the kitchen. Drinks were swiftly ordered, a beer for me and Vodkas for HRH the Queen and the Doctor Businesswoman. Soon a waiter turned up with what they call `Chintus’ which cost Rs 40/- each. These are small portions of what we call `small eats’ or `chaknya’. We got a pickled vegetable and some spicy Cheese Straws. Both good. Drinks were flowing, conversation was easy and animated.


HRH the Queen and the Doctor Businesswoman




`Chintus’ 



Pickled Vegetable 


Spicy Cheese Straws


Starters were ordered. Sea Food Bhel served cold which was something we had not had before. This was good. Prawn, Squid and other unidentifiable seafood was mixed with pickled Garlic, Bean Sprouts and mixed with a sort or creamy mayonnaise yogurt sauce garnished with Sev. A good dish, cold and refreshing. The other two starters were the remarkably good Eggs Kejriwal and the Methi Theplas with Pulled Pork Vindaloo. Both super.


Sea Food Bhel


Eggs Kejriwal 


Methi Theplas with Pulled Pork Vindaloo


Ordering the mains proved slightly problematic. There were so many dished we wanted but with our limited appetites we had to edit our choices. HRH the Queen of Kutch and the Doctor Businesswoman were very keen on the Brown Butter & Green Chilli Dosa which was stuffed with grilled Shimla Mirch, Turai, Ashgourd & Batata Chilli Fry. Most intriguing dish. Basically a Masala Dosa with an exotic filling. Nice, but not something I would order again. To offset this vegetarian dish we needed the Bheja Kheema Ghotala. This was spiced minced lamb [well goat to be precise] with some brain added in and topped with a soft fried egg. This is a typical Bombay dish. This was served with `Maska Pao’ Excellent. Good Kheema well flavoured with some bits of creamy Bheja what’s not to like? Thankfully the dish was served hot. With this we had to have the `Choriz Bunny Pao’ which was delicious the last time around. This is the extremely tasty Goa Sausage to which are added Double Beans and the stew is placed in hollowed out bread. All the food was polished off despite complaints of being full.


Brown Butter & Green Chilli Dosa which was stuffed with grilled Shimla Mirch, Turai, Ashgourd & Batata Chilli Fry


Bheja Kheema Ghotala



`Choriz Bunny Pao’ 


We could not possibly have dessert after this, but no, the Doctor Businesswoman was tempted by the Falooda Sundae which is served with Strawberry Jelly. We got a large jar of the Sundae and a smaller old fashioned bottle of milk which you poured into the Sundae. A childhood delight fancyfied for adults and great fun to eat.


 Falooda Sundae 


All in all a great evening with good food. A word about the service. The waiters are still clueless, however it’s the Captains who run the show, and they are good. Service had moved up several notches from the last time we were there in April.

The restaurant was packed to the rafters. And why not? With food as good and interesting and trendsetting as this, the restaurant deserves to be full.