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Our Small, Lean Indian Wedding (Part 3): Setting a Precedent

This is the third and final part describing our wedding in India in December 2018. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

My family is pretty big. OK I am not talking in the thousands. But when we were trying to come up with a guest list for our original ‘full fledged’ wedding, my parents easily came up with at least 350-400 guests to invite – and it could have easily been more! (And I am not even including Devanshi’s family here). In the coming months, some of these would-have-been guests will meet or talk to my parents and convey their wishes, and no doubt some of them will make some kind of a remark about not being invited for my wedding.  To be fair, most of them are people whom my parents or myself rarely meet, if at all. And so it really doesn’t matter that much.

But what did matter to us to an extent was what the people who had attended the wedding thought about it. My dad may well be on his way to becoming an ‘elder person’ in the family himself, but he still valued his own elders’ opinions and continues to seek their advice. So while he was understandably apprehensive initially about how this might all be perceived, he was not at all ready for what actually transpired in this regard. While we were expecting some sort of suggestions (perhaps bordering on criticism) from family and friends about how the wedding could have been done, what we actually got was quite the opposite!

We had our own family and friends pleasantly surprise us by complimenting us for the simple wedding and for eschewing all the excesses. One Uncle of mine who had his own daughter’s wedding coming up soon was left wondering if such simple weddings were even possible at all! I had friends tell me how they literally suffered through their own weddings having to stand hungry for hours on end while the steady (and seemingly unending) stream of guests came to get their pictures taken with the couple. But most of all, what blew my mind was when the elders in the family unanimously praised the simplicity of the wedding! But they didn’t stop there. They went one step ahead and said:

I am glad that someone in our family finally took the bold step of conducting a simple wedding like this. I hope more people will now look at this and do similar weddings in the future!

Knowing that these were words coming from what we would consider as the generally very conservative generation, I was really very very pleased. And my dad was definitely overjoyed to hear that as well!

As much as I was very happy with the way things went, there were inevitably some things that I wish circumstances had allowed. The foremost is the absence of family from Devanshi’s side apart from her parents. Considering this was done at my place in Bangalore, it was always going to be difficult for her family in Ahmedabad, Rajkot and Baroda to make the trip here at such short notice. I certainly wish her brother could have made it but that was not to be either. So a lot of credit goes to my wife and her family for understanding this and still go through the wedding in great spirits.

Looking back now, when we planned for this small wedding, we had certainly not thought about having our wedding be some kind of an example or precedent for others to hold similar weddings eschewing the excesses. But now I hope it does act in some capacity to let people know that this is still very much a feasible way to conduct a wedding. I am acutely aware of all the societal pressures and expectations that come with conducting a wedding in the family – invite hundreds (if not thousands) of guests, a massive buffet, sharing a professionally done wedding video online, grand setting, fancy invitation cards, etc. Make no mistake!  We had those pressures and expectations as well. But we took a leap of faith and courage and went ahead with a very simple wedding. And not only did it go just fine, we also received compliments for doing just that.

Yes there will always be families who have vast networks – huge families, business contacts, government officials and clients that need to be invited and pleased. But what people need to realize now is that the requirements that such families face are not necessarily true of most middle class and upper middle class families. I am not asking everyone to hold their weddings at their homes with a 50 person limit for the guests. All I am asking is for families to exercise basic fiscal restraint and avoid excesses – especially if they are stretching beyond their means to conduct the wedding. I am also asking them to understand that it is OK to not have a lavish wedding.

And as counter-intuitive as it may sound, that is a progressive idea right there for society to take up.

I have seen people spend money they don’t have on their child’s wedding, often making loans. Some justify it quoting the “Once in a lifetime event, make it big” idea but I personally do not buy into that. Just because something is happening only once in your life doesn’t justify making large amounts of loans that could have otherwise been used for the couple to start their new lives together. If a family can genuinely afford it, then I cannot fault them for holding a wedding within their means – however grand it may be (think Ambani). But I can never comprehend people stretching well beyond their means to have a grand wedding simply because of their own perception of what is acceptable or necessary.

So in the end, what I realized was that most of these pressures and expectations stem not from other people in the society, but mostly from within ourselves. Some of these pressures and expectations come from our own perception of what we feel is necessary to maintain our “image” in the society, some comes from the “Keeping up with the Joneses” attitude, and some comes from the lack of precedents and examples – thereby making us believe that there is simply no other way to conduct a wedding!

Ultimately, when it comes to people’s perception of what is acceptable or necessary for a wedding, Devanshi and I cannot address the issues of people wanting to ‘maintain their image’ or their “Keeping up with the Jones’s” attitude. But we have certainly tried to contribute to addressing the lack of examples by providing one of our own and hopefully setting a precedent for other weddings in the future.

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Our Small, Lean Indian Wedding (Part 2): Planning and Wedding Day

This is the Second of Three parts describing our wedding in India last month. Read Part 1 here and Part 3 here

The planning had to start with a complete acceptance by everyone involved regarding the small scale of our wedding. And this is where I was so happy to see all of us come together to plan the wedding – suggest ideas and make compromises. Turns out, it is much much easier to get everyone’s approval for the details in a small scale wedding than in a full fledged wedding! Who would have thought!!???!? Yes we had a few instances of disagreements that required negotiation on my part but in the end all things were agreed upon.

Then we had to figure out the venue – which actually ended up being the easiest of all decisions. We simply decided to have my wedding at my home!

So what about the guest list? Who to invite, who can we skip? This was after all the biggest sticking point between my parents and I in all previous discussions. My parents inevitably wanted to invite people they knew but whom I had never met and probably never would, and I was dead against it. The cliched thinking of “How can we not invite X when we have invited Y?” or “X invited us to their son’s wedding so we have to invite them to ours” was in full play. But we found a way out without having to actually make any compromise as such. Our home could accommodate about 45-55 people at most, so our guest list had to be planned accordingly. As it turned out, my parents have been doing a small ceremony every year for the past 12 years at my home where they invite about 40 of their close relatives and friends. So they pretty much took that list, added a dozen more and we had our guest list at about 55!

But what about the ceremony? How elaborate would it be? That was the biggest sticking point with my wife. Overly long and admittedly redundant ceremonies were her (and to an extent my own) complaints from our first conversations about the wedding. But then who comes to our rescue other than our own Purohit – the priest in charge of the ceremony itself?!?? He was more than happy to conduct the wedding ceremony and be done with all of it in less than half an hour! My parents (especially my dad) and I have some strong opinions against practices like the ‘Kashi Yatra’ and ‘Vara puja’ – the former redundant, and the latter just plain inappropriate (and should probably be made illegal) – and we were definitely going to avoid that. In fact, of all the different parts of the Kannada wedding ceremony, we only planned to perform the Mantapa puja, Mangal Sutra tying and gruhapravesha. (The kanya daana and nischithartha parts were performed previously while we took our vows in Des Moines). Our Purohit was more than happy to facilitate this simple wedding!

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Moving on to an equally important facet of the wedding – the food! Of course we gotta talk about the food! We had arranged for one full fledged meal for the afternoon of the wedding with the usual gamut of wedding dishes – Savige Paaysa, Puliyogare, kosambri, Usali, beans palya, aloo palya, Kootu, Majjige huli, Pineapple gojju, rice, rasam, aloo bonda, mysore pak and Chiroti. (I had specifically requested that the chirotis be smaller in size but the cook provided normal big sized chirotis. When asked about it, he candidly remarked “Sir our cooks cannot comprehend the idea of a small chiroti!”) We had also arranged for breakfast for about half the guests (Idli, chutney, upma, coffee, tea). And that was all we arranged for the food! End of story!

Wedding gifts was one aspect that I did not interfere even slightly because I knew it meant a lot to both our parents. Gifting nice silk sarees to all the women in both our families was something that they took a lot of satisfaction in and I was in no way going to cast a blot on that experience – in spite of the costs involved. This was one thing I was more than happy to step back from considering all the compromises they did for the wedding.

When it came to our wedding attire, I wore a silk dhoti and shalya that belonged to my dad for the actual ceremony, after which I changed into a silk Kurta and a Koti – both gifted to me by my in-laws. Devanshi wore a silk saree with some basic jewellery for the ceremony  and a nice flowing lehenga after that. I was very happy we kept the cost of our clothes to a minimum considering the circumstances.

We never printed any invitation cards and simply called everyone to invite them. Nobody seemed to complain and everyone showed up! So I guess it was fine??!!?

And that was all the planning we did for the wedding!

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The evening before the wedding, my mother surprised us all with a very cute wedding cake that she had ordered (and no one knew about). I had all my aunts, uncles and cousins and we spontaneously decided to play music and dance together. So for the first time, I saw my parents, aunts and uncles dance. Come to think of it, it was the first time they all saw me dance since I was probably a kid. And we all had a great great time dancing to old 90’s songs, gharba songs and even a song (“Masthu Masthu Hudugi Banthu”) from the movie Upendra! This has to be put in perspective because nothing like this happens in typical South Indian weddings. As ridiculous as it may sound, we were actually breaking new ground in a South Indian wedding with the whole dancing and singing. It definitely helped that my wife is from a state where they definitely know how to have fun at a wedding! But overall, even though the dancing was a spontaneous activity, we all enjoyed it and I was very grateful for my mother to have planned anything at all for that evening.

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On the day of the wedding, things couldn’t have gone smoother and easier. Both our parents were up at 630 or so and they performed the Sankalpa around 8 AM. Devanshi and I got up around 730 and were seated at the ceremony around 930 AM. Most of the guests had arrived by then and some had even had their breakfast. The purohit performed the ceremony for about half an hour – a rather simplistic ceremony. At the right muhurtham, I tied the mangal sutra knot, everyone showered their blessings with the akshathe and we were pretty much done by 1015 AM! Devanshi and I sought the blessings of our parents and all the elders in the family, and they in turn blessed us and gave us gifts. We then did the gruha pravesha with her knocking over a glass of rice and entering my house (again) – this time as my wife and as a daughter of the house. Everyone had their lunch between 1 and 230 PM and were pretty much gone by 3. Then we all went to visit my grandfather to seek his blessings. We rounded off our wedding day with a visit to the nearby temple – the first time as a married couple.

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The whole wedding ended up being completely stress free and without any issues. Though I was personally very happy with the small scale of the wedding, I was very curious to know what all the guests thought. In this day and age where weddings are getting bigger and bigger, here we were having our wedding at our home with about 50 guests. Approval from the elders in my extended family is something my father has always valued and he was understandably hesitant while we planned the wedding at my home.  After all, this had never been done in our extended families and possibly among all our friend circles. Would people opine that we should have had a full fledged wedding as a matter of general principle? Or would they accept this for what it was and just move on to the next big wedding?

 

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Our Small, Lean Indian Wedding (Part 1): The Long Wait

This is the First of Three Parts describing our wedding in India last month. Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here. 

Devanshi and I finally had our traditional wedding in Bangalore last month. This came more than 2 years after our registered wedding in Des Moines, IA and after having moved out of the United States to Canada (more on that in a separate post). Predictably, our traditional wedding had been in the works soon after we got married in the USA. There were a few false starts and disbanded plans – largely due to my work travels and constraints arising from our immigration status. But things (mostly) fell into place for a wedding ceremony during our visit here and we got it done last week.

But ever since plans for our traditional wedding (henceforth just referred to as wedding) began to be formulated (from back in 2016), there were always points of disagreement between Devanshi and myself, my parents and myself, and my family and her family. The fact that we both were from different states (she from Gujarat and I from Karnataka) and having different wedding customs certainly contributed to the difficulty in planning the wedding. But whatever our disagreements, we all had one common objective – to have a wedding without any excesses.

It started off as a plan to have about 250-300 guests at a reasonably sized venue (we were looking at Ganjam Mantapa in Basavanagudi) over the course of one day – with the ceremony in the morning and reception in the evening. The devil, of course, was in the details, and we soon began to have our differences. Do we hire a professional photographer? What about the flower decoration? What’s on the menu? Who to invite? Needless to say, we were disagreeing on what each of us considered to be ‘excess’. Spending lots of money on a wedding photographer was excessive for me, while inviting guests we would likely never see again in our lives was an excess for her. There were many more arguments and disagreements with each of us wanting something that the others did not necessarily agree with. I understand this is all part of anyone’s wedding preparation, but it was still not a pleasant experience. Ultimately, due to all these small additions from each of us, the total cost of the wedding began to balloon out of control and we were all dissatisfied for different reasons.

I was probably in a fantasy land when I initially believed we could have a wedding as described above for less than 5 lakh Indian Rupees (about $7,000). When I eventually crunched the numbers, it became painfully obvious that that number was woefully inadequate and that it was going to cost at least 2-3 times as much (emphasis on ‘at least’). Attempts to introduce cost cutting measures were only met with more arguments and unpleasant interactions. Even though I was repeatedly told by my parents to “not worry about the expenses”, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable and hesitant to proceed with spending all that money for my wedding. In the end, I was tempted to simply give up and let my parents have their way – after all I have heard most brides and grooms end up doing exactly that. But in an unexpected intervention of circumstances, our process of immigration to Canada practically put a veto on any wedding plans till we had actually moved there. (I will not go into details, but suffice to say that we needed to stay put in the US and save our money till we finished our move).

Yes it was a little painful for all of us – especially for my parents who had already put in a lot of effort and were very excited about the whole thing. After all, I am the only child and they had been waiting for this for a long time. But these circumstances were beyond our control and we called off the wedding.

Fast forward to November 2018 when Devanshi and I have moved to Toronto and I am visiting India after 4 years towards the end of the month. Talks of our wedding inevitably resurfaces as this provides us all with one more chance to complete the ceremony. But with less than a month of notice, there was clearly going to have to be a big change in the planning of the wedding. My parents were understandably hesitant to drastically reduce the scale of our wedding – especially considering it had never been done before with anyone in our families. In the case of such a scenario, they were also not sure who to invite and who to not invite. Add to this their general desire to have a reasonably sized wedding for their only son, and it was going to take a leap of faith and courage from all of us to actually proceed with something like that.

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Life Lessons from a Mini-Excavator

For the last couple of months, I have been spending my time in West Virginia supervising a construction job. A big part of my responsibility here is to optimize and coordinate work between different contractors so that the overall project progresses efficiently. So I am continuously involved in assessing the resources available, the tasks to be accomplished, the sequence of those tasks, and how many (and which) people can be working at any given time – all to ensure that the overall schedule moves forward without any undue delays.

On one such day sometime last month, we had to accomplish a certain amount of excavation work and a certain amount of non-excavation work. But space constraints dictated that the large excavator that was scheduled to be used for the excavation work could not start the work until the contractor doing the non-excavation work got done with his task and got his men out of the way. The large excavator and the earth mover were on standby, waiting for the space to be cleared out for them to start working. This was clearly a waste of time and resources and I was looking for something – anything – that could help the situation.

I considered the mini-excavator sitting idly at a corner of the site. The amount of work that needed to be done was quite significant, which is why I wondered if the mini excavator would be able to contribute in any meaningful way. The size of the excavating bucket on the mini was minuscule compared to the size of the bucket on the large excavator. Not only that, even the power the bucket on the mini could apply on the hard soil paled in comparison to the large excavator. Generally speaking, the mini excavator accomplished in an hour what the large excavator could possibly accomplish in less than 10 minutes. And with the large excavator seeming like it could start working at any point, I wondered about the utility of using the mini to do any work at all.

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But like I said, I was looking for something – anything – to help with the situation. So I asked the excavating contractor to get the mini up and running. This was at about 11 AM. For the next 6-7 hours, I watched the non-excavation crew continue to ‘complete’ their job, while the large excavator continued to be on standby. And all this time, the mini excavator plowed on the dirt with its small bucket and far inferior power. It kept digging as much as it possibly could, only pausing to refuel at one point. Nobody initially seemed to care much for the work that was being accomplished by the mini. It was only around 4 PM or so that we all started to notice the significant amount of area that the mini had excavated out. And by the time we stopped work for the day at about 6 in the evening, the mini had accomplished way more than what we had expected it to.

It was a moment of pure inspiration. “That right there is the perfect analogy for anything and everything you are trying to accomplish in your life,” I told my co-worker. Indeed, there were so many lessons to be learnt from just watching that mini excavator work. All it was was a small amount of work done continuously and without worrying much about the overall progress or the general expectations. It was work that was done not waiting for the perfect time to arrive when all conditions would be conducive for the work to be done. And it was work done knowing that the resources available at its disposal may not be all of what was needed to accomplish that task.

Most of these lessons may be well obvious and familiar to the point of being a cliche. But that doesn’t make them any less true.

Take going to the gym for instance. Working out is possibly the number one new year resolution ever made, and is also the first that gets thrown out of the window. We put targets and expectations on ourselves before we even get started. We wait for the right time to come in our lives to even get started – after this project is done, after this trip, when I finish my course, etc, etc – and then promptly convince ourselves that it was not a realistic goal considering all the ‘commitments’ we already had going. Or we go to the extent of making excuses that we don’t have what we ‘need’ to start working out on a regular basis – I need to get the right shoes, my gym doesn’t have these specific classes at these specific times, there aren’t enough treadmills in my gym, etc.

The key, as the mini excavator clearly demonstrated, is to do something and keep doing it without worrying about the overall progress or expectations. The effort to optimize every single aspect of our lives is not at all worth it. I am guilty of it myself. Instead, we need to focus our efforts on simply doing something – anything – and keep doing it. So next time you find yourself unable to get yourself to the gym, or unable to make the effort in any task you want, just ask yourself one simple question:

What would the mini excavator do? 

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5 Months in New York City: The Food (Part 3/3)

I spent close to 5 months in New York City this year for my work. This post is part of a series of posts about my stay there, what I saw and what I observed. More to come. See my previous post on my 5 months in NYC (The People) (The Food Part 1) (The Food Part 2) for more.

Indian Food in NYC

I suppose in the end, it all came down to the Indian food for me. Very early on, it became painfully obvious that I was going to be spoilt for choice in every conceivable aspect. So, at this point, I am just going to go ahead and list the places I frequented the most and/or the ones I just want to give a special shout out to:

  • Spice Grill: God knows how many times I ordered from this restaurant for delivery. Yes, the mega-awesome ‘Delivery!’ guy from my previous post was delivering food from Spice Grill. I just could not get enough of their vegetable/paneer base and the very satisfying amount of food they packed into their ‘Lunch Box’ order. I pretty much had the same exact order every day for several weeks. Very prompt delivery (duh!) and great tasting food. The irony here, of course, is that I never actually visited their restaurant in person during all my time there! And I suppose I still owe them a good review on Yelp.
  • Vatan: If you have about $35 to spend on the best vegetarian meal, then really consider your decision already made. This is not just food. This place is a divine experience in itself. Devanshi and I went there multiple times with increasingly satisfying meals (and took our friends along with us). This is an all-you-can-eat place where the waitresses serve you at your table. The menu is primarily Gujarati food, but really, it doesn’t matter what label you give it. This is vegetarian food in all its glory and appeal!
  • Desi Deli: A Punjabi dhaba in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan that is open – get this – 24/7! With a limited menu serving both vegetarian and non-veg dishes, it pretty much gives you enough finger-licking food to more than fill your stomach. (Think Quality of food > Quantity of options). This place was a 15 minute M50 Crosstown bus ride away from my apartment. And anytime we found ourselves on the west side of Manhattan, there was really only one place in our minds for food. I will always remember that one time when I randomly woke up hungry at 3 AM, took the crosstown M50 to 10th Ave, ate a hearty meal, took the same bus back to my apartment, and went back to a blissful sleep! There should definitely be a Desi Deli in every city. No exceptions.
  • Adiyar Bhavan: This place probably served the widest options of South Indian food, and is best enjoyed in the restaurant. I learnt the hard way that having these food items delivered really brought down their taste and texture, making for an underwhelming experience. But eating the same food there, it was obvious that it was the best South Indian food place in Manhattan. I particularly have high praise for their Rava dosas and the sambhar that is served with it.

Shout Outs:

  • All the Jackson Heights restaurants in Queens: I only visited Jackson heights about 4-5 times and tried a new place every single time. I recollect having some memorable chats at Raja Sweets and Fast Food. Perhaps if I had spent a lot more time in that neighborhood, I would have found a place that I would have frequented often, but my visits there were limited.
  • Mumbai Express and Usha Foods: Great chat places in Floral Park in Queens. Usha Foods also had a whole array of snack items to take home. It was a long ride there, but totally worth doing it on a Saturday or Sunday late morning.
  • Darbar Grill: Ordered a lot of ‘Lunch Boxes’ from here as well (similar to Spice Grill).
  • IndiKitch: The only Indian ‘fast food’ place that had perfected the ‘Chipotle Model’ for Indian cuisine. There are so many ‘fast food’ places that were trying to ape the Chipotle style of menu – rolls, rice bowls, etc – but IndiKitch was the only one that got it spot on. Their menu might be a little difficult to navigate if you are not actually there, but once you get it, you will quickly realize why it works so smoothly.

So there you have it. Everything I found out and explored in NYC that was Indian food. I am sure there are many more there that I didn’t get to, but I guess that is for next time.

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And with that, I have concluded the ‘Food in NYC’ part of my ‘5 Months in NYC’ series. More posts still to come on other aspects of NYC.

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5 Months in New York City: The Food (Part 2 of 3)

I spent close to 5 months in New York City this year for my work. This post is part of a series of posts about my stay there, what I saw and what I observed. More to come. See my previous post on my 5 months in NYC (The People) (The Food Part 1) for more. 

Food trucks are omnipresent in New York City. There are a wide variety of them serving all kinds of cuisine and at all times of the day and night. Being a vegetarian, most of the food trucks (or most of the items on the food trucks) were things I wish I could eat, but wouldn’t. Of the things I could eat, my enjoyment came not just from the quality of the food itself, but from the sheer experience of being able to access the food in such a manner. Perhaps it reminded me of the informal nature of the food industry back home in India, or maybe it was the pleasure of having found some great food in a setting that did not conform to the general expectation of a ‘restaurant’. But there was essentially a raw kind of satisfaction that I derived from eating at food trucks – paying in cash, having limited menu options, cooking in an open air and/or confined space setting, getting my hands dirty with all the food, limited/no silverware, a full stomach, and leaving with a feeling of having somehow found a new ‘joint’ that served great (and cheap) food.

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The NYC Dosa Man

 

Any post on New York City food trucks serving vegetarian food would be incomplete without a shout out to the NYC Dosa man. Easily the best Dosa in town, his food truck is located inside Washington Square park, and he serves a limited number of Dosa options along with some Idli, samosa items. On my third visit to the place in about 2 months, the Dosa man, aka Thiru Kumar, actually recognized me and made a remark on the lesser quantity of food I was purchasing as compared to previous visits! I explained to him that my wife was not with me and hence only 1 serving. He is a very affable character and all the regulars seem to like and appreciate his food and personality. So, yeah, definitely go there if you are in NYC.

Which brings me to the idea of Vegan and vegetarian food in New York City. Devanshi and I found out (the hard way) what Vegan food has mostly come to signify in NYC. Being vegetarians, we were both on the look out for vegan places to explore. One of the ‘highly rated’ places was this restaurant called Wild Ginger in Brooklyn in the Williamsburg area. It was supposed to have some great Vegan food, so we went there. When we received our food, we were in for a rude shock. There was no meat alright. But that was all there was to the ‘Vegan’ part of the food. The food looked like meat, smelt like meat, tasted like meat, and even made us feel like we had eaten meat. In hindsight, the menu should have made it quite clear as to what to expect. Think of a regular Asian restaurant serving all the meat dishes. Now replace all the meat with ‘Soy protein’, ‘tofu’ and ‘seitan’. And you have the Vegan menu at Wild Ginger – and really most of the self-proclaimed Vegan restaurants in NYC.

Replacing meat with meat substitutes and taking a lot of pains to ensure that the final dish resembles the original meat dish in every conceivable way is the general idea of ‘Vegan’ restaurants in New York City. And I personally cannot and will not approve of this idea. However, the bigger realization my wife and I had was that, apart from Indian cuisine, there was really just no other cuisine out there that offered such a massive wide range of original vegetarian food. Yes, you will find vegetarian ‘options’ in many cuisines – notably Greek, Ethiopian and Middle Eastern – but they are just that – options. The primary dishes from these cuisine will always be meat based. And once you come up with the idea of ‘substituting the meat’, you are already out of the conversation on original vegetarian cuisine. Overall, it was a rather disappointing realization for both of us – that mankind through millennia of civilizations somehow never managed to come up with original vegetarian cuisine apart from this one country called India.

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Hangawi Restaurant in Koreatown

But it would be completely remiss of me if I did not make a specific and grateful mention to the very few exceptions we found in NYC. First and foremost, a big big shout out to Hangawi in Koreatown. It is an upscale restaurant that serves – believe it or not – only vegetarian food. And no, these are not meat substitute dishes. These are vegetarian dishes that look like vegetarian food, smell of vegetables and spices, taste like vegetarian food free of any meat influences, and most importantly, made me feel like having eaten a hearty vegetarian meal. Yes, some of the dishes do use Tofu, but I will personally attest to these dishes still not bringing any meat influences to their taste. The place is admittedly on the expensive side. But you also feel like you are dining at an expensive place once you start eating. So, yes, if you are looking for a nice date night that makes and serves vegetarian food the way it should be, this would definitely be the first place to check out.

I will mention two other places. One of them is Beyond Sushi – a vegan place that serves plant based food in the sushi form. Having been a regular consumer of sushi till not too long ago, I was particularly impressed with how plant products prepared to taste like a vegetarian dish while retaining the general feel of eating a sushi. Relatively inexpensive and strongly recommended.

Another reasonable exception would be By Chloe. We visited that place many times. Particularly like all their Veggie burgers.

And speaking of Vegetarian food, I am going to end this post with another rather comical interchange I had while ordering some food.

I was walking through Chinatown early in the morning on a weekday and passed by a bakery that appeared to have some nice pastry buns. I saw this one pastry that I wanted to try which had some sweetened coconut stuffed in a bun. Unfortunately, it also had a piece of ham in it. So I asked the lady there if they had a pastry without the ham. This is how the (short) conversation went:

Me: Do you have this pastry without meat?

Server: No meat?

Me: Yes, I want this without meat.

Server: No meat?

Me: Yes, no meat.

Server: No meat? OK! Meat take out!

Me: ???

Server: Meat take out! Meat take out!

Me: Oh! You will just take out the ham from that bun?

Server: Yes! Meat take out! Meat take out!

Me: OK. I will have one.

She then promptly removed the piece of ham from the pastry and gave the pastry to me! It cost about $1 and tasted great!

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PS: I initially intended this to be a 2 post series on the food. But I guess I am going to have to make this 3 posts now. The last post will be on the Indian food in NYC.

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5 Months in New York City: The Food (Part 1 of 3)

I spent close to 5 months in New York City this year for my work. This post is part of a series of posts about my stay there, what I saw and what I observed. More to come. Find my previous post on my 5 months in NYC (The People) here

Easily the one thing that both my wife and I were looking forward to the most during our stay in Manhattan earlier this year was all the food that New York City had to offer. After spending 5 months eating all that we possibly could, I realized that there was so much to write about the food in New York – apart from the food itself! And so this post is not going to be about what dish was best at which place, but more about the whole food industry in general, along with some rather interesting experiences that we encountered on the way.

First up, before anything, I would like to clarify that both my wife and I are vegetarians. So, yes, we were unable to eat probably more than 90% of the food on offer in the city. If you are a meat eater, then you would have a (admittedly valid) case to say that we never actually got to sample the best food there. I won’t argue that. But I will say that my general observations of the food industry and systems in place will still stand. And if anything, my extra attempts to find vegetarian food led me to discover places and things I otherwise would never have found.

Midtown East Restaurants
Restaurants in Midtown East in Manhattan

I will start with the general accessibility and distribution of restaurants and food in general. I lived in the Midtown East (E 50th and 1st Ave) neighborhood in Manhattan, right by the United Nations building. There were quite a few restaurants within a one block radius – including Thai, French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and American. And if you traveled about 2-3 blocks, you would find pretty much every cuisine. The nearest ‘proper’ Indian restaurant (that I liked visiting) was Adiyar Bhavan on 1st Ave and E 60th St – which was still a reasonable walking distance (or one short bus ride) from where I lived. (There were others within 2-3 blocks but I didn’t like them). And, from my general exploration of all of Manhattan, this was pretty much the case everywhere. That is to say, you could find a restaurant from any cuisine within about 3-4 blocks of where you lived. Just let that sink in. Pretty much any cuisine you want within 3-4 blocks of where you live – yes this is what you get in Manhattan! Of course there are small geographical pockets of specific cuisines that you will see all over – from Little Italy to China Town to Lexington Ave/24th St where a lot of the Indian restaurants are.

As far as Queens goes, I generally found that the food establishments were focused in some specific areas with a slight suburban feel in the rest of the area. So if you wanted something specific, you would still get it, but you would have to travel to that specific place. And Queens being the large geographical size that it is, it could take you a while to travel to, say, Flushing to eat some Asian food, or to Jackson Heights to get the best Indian food.

Brooklyn was about the same, except I cannot say I got to explore it as much as I would have liked to. And I never visited much in The Bronx and Staten Island.

So far I have written about the ‘distribution’ of the restaurants. But one thing I quickly learnt was that distribution meant nothing. What was more important was the accessibility to the food, regardless of where the restaurant was. That is to say that if you wanted food from a certain restaurant, which was more than just a 3-4 block walking distance, you should still be able to get it without making the journey there. Yes, I am talking here about the food delivery industry here.

The food delivery ecosystem in Manhattan fascinated me to no end during my stay there. It was the first time I saw people delivering food on bicycles – which, if you think about, really is the only obvious choice in a city like NYC. It probably employs hundreds of part time (and maybe some full time) food delivery bikers to bridge the gap in access between the customer and the restaurant. Services such as Grubhub, Yelp, Uber Eats, etc further help customers gain access to these restaurants through a one-stop app/website. It is not that there are no food delivery places where I live in Des Moines, IA (though it is largely restricted to Pizza, Chinese and Thai restaurants). But it was in NYC that I first saw how this whole ecosystem of food delivery worked like a well oiled machine round the clock – 24 hours a day!

2317delivery1

Barring any inclement weather, these bikers work all the time – rain, heat, snow, etc. Typically, there is about a 30 minute to 1 hour wait from the time you order to the food being delivered, which is really reasonable if you think about it. The delivery ‘radius’ is usually about 1 to 2 miles – which considering the density of the restaurants, is mostly not going to matter much. Most of the restaurants did not charge any delivery fee (but did specify a minimum order) and no “separate” tip was expected from the biker. Most of these bikers that I personally met were immigrants who did not speak much English, just knocked on your door and delivered the food before heading to their next destination. Many were also students at NYU or CUNY. (Read this piece for a full picture of the delivery folk in Manhattan).

Which brings me to probably the most comical conversation I had in NYC.

I had developed a sort of a routine where, after finishing my field work at around 3 pm, I would order my lunch for delivery from an Indian restaurant on my Yelp app – just as I left my work site (at Ave C and E 14th St). It typically took me about 20 to 30 minutes to reach my apartment. The food would generally arrive a few minutes after I arrived, so I would already be there to take the delivery.

But inevitably, there would be times when my bus would get delayed and the delivery guy (DG) would reach my apartment before I did. When the Concierge told him that I was out, the delivery guy would call me on my cell. The first time this happened, the following was how the conversation panned out. Remember, this guy doesn’t know much English.

Me: Hello

DG: Delivery!!

Me: Oh hi! Sorry I am not at my apartment yet. Are you already there?

DG: Delivery!! Delivery!!

Me: OK looks like you are at my apartment building. Please leave it at the Concierge and I will pick it up later.

DG: Delivery!! Delivery!!

Me: Yes, please leave it at the lobby or front desk. I will pick it up.

DG: Delivery!! Delivery!!

Me: Yes, leave it at the lobby!

DG: Delivery! Delivery!

Me: Yes, Lobby! Lobby!

DG: Delivery! Lobby???

Me: Yes. Lobby! Lobby!

DG: OK!

(Hangs up).

When I reached my apartment, the Concierge promptly handed me the delivery package!

I am not exaggerating or changing anything here. That is exactly how the first conversation panned out. You have to also realize that I was in the bus surrounded by a whole bunch of people in close proximity while I was yelling “Lobby! Lobby!” into my phone, not sure if the guy at the other end could hear and/or understand what I was saying! Since I ordered from the same restaurant around the same time on most days, I always bumped into the same guy either in person or on the phone regularly. So on all future occasions, when I got a call from this guy while I was still in the bus, the conversation went like this:

Me: Hello?

DG: Delivery! Delivery!

Me: Yes, Lobby! Lobby!

DG: Delivery! Lobby?

Me: Yes, Lobby! Lobby!

It was a beautiful thing! An immigrant guy who spoke no English was able to make a satisfactorily work in NYC by talking in English to a customer in a conversation that had successfully condensed itself into two words: “Delivery!” and “Lobby!”. It made me smile every single time! It was these small experiences that gave me brief, but insightful glimpses into the subtle beauty that lies hidden within New York City!

I do have more to share on the topic of food – including the ‘vegetarian/vegan’ options in NYC, thoughts on all the Indian food I could find, and of course more interesting interactions. All this in the next post. Stay tuned!