It’s All Relative

September 2, 2011 12:49 pm by

For some, the best chaat is had on the street. Photo: Sheena Dabholkar.

I never refuse Kailash Parbat’s pani puri. Not once in my three decades of eating Mumbai street food have I turned down KP’s typically Sindhi version. On the other hand, in my opinion, pani puri at Swati Snacks is just a waste of time and money. I am a fan of many of their dishes, just not the chaat. Not so for the Gujarati side of my family, who swear by the Tardeo hotspot. They dislike KP’s version for the same reasons that I like it—the thick tamarind chutney, the semolina crunch of the large puris, and the chilled, spicy pani. My in-laws, on the other hand, prefer Swati’s gentler attack on their palate.

For me, it’s Kailash Parbat and pani puri but I’m sure that all of us associate a favourite place to each of our best-loved foods. Recently, my heart went out to the people who thronged Muchhad Paanwala every night. For most of last month, the paan shops of both Muchhad and his cousin and neighbour Tiwari were shuttered. In July, a family squabble escalated into violence, and led to arrests, hospitalisation and the temporary closure of both establishments. Muchhad re-opened a week ago. To me, this meant midnight traffic jams returning to Kemps Corner, but to the crowd near the shop last Friday night, it was sheer relief. For their loyal customers, Muchhad’s is the only worthwhile paan in this city.

Taste is subjective. As a food writer, and when I review restaurants, I try to remember that my idea of what is excellent or abominable comes from many factors: what I ate growing up, the dominant flavours in the traditional food of my Sindhi family (tomatoes, onions, ginger, garlic), how hungry I am when I am eating, the memories associated with a certain dish (hence our love of comfort food), how good my last meal was, and what I am craving at the moment versus what I am eating. These are but a few reasons, but they are true for almost all of us, even if we are not completely aware of them while digging in. Then, there is the science of it. A simple thing like a sweet tooth, for instance, results from a combination of genes, the baby food we ate, our olfactory sensitivity, and the density of taste buds on our tongue. We choose pasta over parathas, or the latter over the former, on certain days, for some of these reasons.

A few days ago, I re-read this piece by Malcolm Gladwell, in which he explains how mustard has many variations around the world, but ketchup not so much. In the article, Gladwell talks about “the notion of a platonic dish—the version of a dish that looked and tasted absolutely right”. This is what most food brands and restaurants hope to capitalise on, but from the number of variants for even ketchup in India—we have spicy, Jain and tamarind options—it’s clear that the theory has been proved wrong.

In his ketchup/mustard story, Gladwell provides a brief profile of American market researcher and psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz. Psychophysics is the part of psychology that studies the relationship between physical stimuli and the resultant sensations and perceptions. Consumer goods industries use this science in product research. Moskowitz is best known for his detailed study of packaged spaghetti sauce. His work led him to believe that “the mind knows not what the tongue wants”. It turned out that across the variations of sauce—sweet, spicy, chunky—preferred by people, if he made one group happier, he pissed off another group.

This may explain why customer reviews of new restaurants in Mumbai tend to be so polarised. Mumbaiites have either loved or hated Two One TwoSancho’s and Amadeus. Moskowitz’s findings seem to even apply for food that, for all practical purposes, is made from the same ingredients using almost identical methods. Every Tibbs Frankie stall uses exactly the same masalas, chutneys and parathas as the other. A Google search for “best Frankie in Mumbai”, however, finds that Rajesh Fast Food, near the American Consulate, is the favourite among equals. I enjoy the offerings at Rajesh and the Linking Road stall, but I still swear by Aga Brothers in Colaba, mostly because I had their rolls after my weekend swims during my school years. For me, a swim brings out a Pavlovian response for Frankie, for others, it may trigger a craving for a Theobroma brownie.