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Good food. Good friends. Good spirits.

“Laughing at your mistakes can lengthen your life” 
- Shakespeare

What  struck me  most was  Manoj Pai’s chef’s hat. Well positioned and truly defined the task at hand. Nevermind that infectious smile and tons of enthusiasm. I am talking about the Ontario Konkani Association Shravan cookalong. That chef’s hat told the story in bold letters, that the kitchen does not have to be only a woman’s domain. Given an opportunity men can be versatile and creative in the kitchen too, and at least helpful. Full credit to our presidents, Anita and Vivek Nayak for giving Konkani folks of both genders an equal forum to display their culinary skills. That is the true leadership of an equal opportunity “employer”. Kudos!!! 

While being respectful of  stereotyping and gender biases, historically women embraced the role of feeding the family at home. “Mom” is a word that defines the celestial virtues of compassion, kindness, and respect.  After all the phrase  “Maa ke hath ka khana” (home made food by mom) rules the world versus “pitajike hath ka khana” (order from Uber). 

It is more than just the cooking of meals. Creating something from scratch, solely through your own doing, as a comfort for yourself and family members should make anyone feel good about themselves. Add to that the kindness and respect for what the body wants leading to better overall health. The phrase “Kitchen is the heart of the home”  says it all.

Extrapolating from these motherly qualities, you would expect women to rule as head chefs in leading restaurants and even host  shows like Master Chef, Hell’s Kitchen and for that matter Khana khajana. Surprise!Surprise!! But instead the hosts are invariably male. Not only that, the hospitality industry is dominated by male chefs. As one data point, enrollment in culinary schools is 75% male. Even  Growing up in India whenever we had a big function we always had a male coming to  chef meals, nevermind it was always a male in dhoti. The word “bawarchi” literally means a male chef. 

This difference in gender between at home versus outside begs the  question, why are so few of the top restaurants with female chefs ?

According to one survey, the answer may have  something to do with the preferences of the patrons. The Gastronomy Association of England conducted a year-long survey and asked people who they preferred as chefs. The findings were startling because even women clients found male chefs to be better than female chefs. One may say that this is purely an error in perception because female chefs are as good as male chefs. The survey even is quoted as saying that female chefs lacked innovation and were less experimental than their male counterparts. 

Many of you may disagree. In my household, the female chef has for many years also been the more creative and innovative chef! 

Angela Hartnett is one of the best chefs in England. She is a joint owner of five excellent restaurants, three of which have women installed as head chefs. Though contrary to how she runs her businesses, even Angela believes that female chefs are more hesitant to go beyond the conventional when it comes to experimenting with food.

Even science may be ganging up against more women becoming top chefs.  It is believed that biologically women have a slightly less sensitive  sense of smell than men. Smell plays a very important role in cooking. All chefs are endowed with fantabulous olfactory senses. There’s a Greek term ‘Keroza’. It means, the ability to distinguish the smell or aroma of a food item after putting salt and spices. The female olfactory nerves often fail to differentiate between the salted and spiced forms. Male olfactory nerves can naturally distinguish this extremely subtle difference which is also known as ‘Naghaish’.

Well, my views tend to differ from these studies. Just look at the tyrant behavior of Chef Ramsey, really how many women would act like that. Add to that the  pressure cooker environment, sexism and  shift work probably does not fit the feminine domain.Never mind the physically demanding work and putting up with testosterone fuelled rage.

All said and done, where male chefs miserably lack is the department of emotional involvement. Female chefs are far ahead of them on this count. Male chefs may cook more innovatively, but they can’t cook emotionally like Mom. 

Finally, I saw a sign in restaurant recently, that sums up the whole debate:

“A chef must think like a scientist, organise like an accountant, plate like an artist and cook like a grandma.”

Those words should put this debate to rest. I will be happy to hear your three C’s, comments, criticism and compliments.

As for the chef’s quiz: What do each of the following chef’s specialise in?

1)Pantry chef 2) Executive chef 3) Sous chef 4) Station chef


About the author…
Madhav Shanbhag moved to GTA in 2017, after spending more than 40 years in Fredericton, New Brunswick. In retirement, Madhav enjoys the luxury of few hours of leisure and nature time

Good food. Good friends. Good spirits.

“Laughing at your mistakes can lengthen your life” 
- Shakespeare

A good way to build a good appetite before dinner is to take a walk. This has been our routine  for god knows how long. It is not just about burning a few calories and more about exercising your taste buds.

Confused? Let me explain.

Although barbecues and kitchens are out of sight, there is always that aroma in the still air. Hanging long enough to give hidden clues about what is cooking in the house. This aroma is more pronounced when barbecues are fired up. While the sources  are hidden in backyards, a whiff of smoke fills the entire neighbourhood and that aroma stimulates appetite. I can almost guess who is cooking chicken, who is cooking sausages and for that in a multicultural neighbourhood like ours even tandoori chicken.

Today propane has been the go to source of heat for neighbourhood barbecues. But we do still occasionally get that aroma of old fashioned charcoal. With manufacturers putting all the bells and whistles, propane bbq’s have become one stop outdoor kitchens. These are fancy, fashionable and easy to light grills. 

Call me old fashioned, or  ancient, but to me the charcoal BBQ still  reigns supreme as far as delivering the mood and the flavour of the food.  There is something special about that gentle struggle to light charcoal and then fighting to keep the coals alive. It contributes to  that spirit of cooking in the wild.  

Charcoal might be an ancient fuel but it still has a place in modern times. I agree charcoal is dirty to handle, it can be hard to light, it takes longer to get up to temperature, and there can be flare ups that can burn food. It is hard to tell what temperature you are cooking at, it is hard to turn down the temperature rapidly. If you do not give charcoal enough oxygen it can deposit soot all over your food and there is ash to clean up. So what is about that unique charcoal smoke that has drawn generations to outdoor cooking? I decided to find out.

The starting point of charcoal is wood, a useful fuel because it is full of molecules that can react with oxygen and give out heat in the process. Wood is the internal storage system of the tree and the scaffolding that holds the tree. The internal serum flows through a system that nourishes the tree and holds the tree up for many years. The strength of the tree comes from cellulose, lignin and long molecules with carbon backbones that form a thin wall around every cell in the tree. These molecules are what makes wood a fuel.

When you start to heat wood with  fire the first thing that happens is water evaporates. As the temperature rises to 400 or 500 degrees fahrenheit, cellulose and lignin start to break down but do not burn yet. The heat causes the other molecules in the wood to escape as gases and these burn in the air just above the wood surface. These are the flames you see as burning wood.  As the burning continues and the wood temperature rises further, the lignin and cellulose breakdown further, and all the mobile molecules evaporate and join the flames. What is left is pure carbon and that is the most potent fuel. When it burns, the carbon reacts to turn into carbon dioxide. There is no smell but a lot of heat.

Charcoal briquets are mostly carbon. The point of charcoal is to skip to the final step. In the commercial process of making charcoal, burning takes place in large concrete silos with limited oxygen. It  pushes wood through all the stages, stopping at the point where mostly only carbon remains. . 

This “lump charcoal“ burns hot and fast. Barbecue enthusiasts often use briquettes, which are made from powdered sawdust charcoal and then pressed into bricks with a binder. They are slower burning and more predictable.

Who would have thought that the authentic and appetizing aroma of charcoal is remnants from the tree?That is the story of science and charcoal. On the metaphysics side, there is something to be learned from that tree.  Panchmahabhutas came from earth, nourished with water, then fire, air and went into ether (akash) with smoke. The volatile molecules that survive the final barbecue also flavour our food, not to mention add “ bon appetit” , stimulating scents on a pleasant summer day.

Summer is a short and happy barbecue season for my Konkani Bandhwas. Finally, drop me a line if I have succeeded in converting you from propane back to a charcoal barbecue.

Something to think about, ”real men do not use recipes, they use BBQ.”

As for the BBQ quiz, what is the BBQ capital of the world?


About the author…
Madhav Shanbhag holds a Ph.D in biochemistry. In his retirement, he enjoys encouraging budding entrepreneurs and imparting the wisdom of our rich culture…

When less is more

“Laughing at your mistakes can lengthen your life” 
- Shakespeare

On more than a few occasions our amchigelomam has driven me around Toronto and gotten lost in the maze of traffic Even with GPS. “Trust your grey matter more than GPS ”that is my mantra, boasts amchigelomam. It happened again to our mam trying to maneuver for a parking spot at a Blue Jays game. amchigelomam explained, kasal karache, I am not alone – a man not wanting to ask for directions.“Call it manhood, trust your instinct, high testosterone, or men are from Mars and women are
from Venus…


The same holds true for amchigelomam while going grocery shopping. “I do not need to write down five things, it is all in my head.” This is exactly what   amchigelomam said to his loving wife  as he headed to the store. But then, once in the supermarket, there he was standing in front of a 20-foot long yogurt section. Staring at all the white stuff. So much to choose from, no wonder his mind went blank. All he could remember was Dahi. What brand? What size? What kind?. Lost in thoughts.

Amchigelomam wondered if he was being indecisive or is there simply too much choice these days to make his mind go blank. All these tubs of yogurt make your head spin. Should I pick Astro, Liberty, Danone, President’s choice? Should I pick up the 5%, 3%, 2% or zero fat; high protein, Greek style, Organic, light, creamy, soya, lactose….And this is before even getting to all the flavours or sizes. Of course, there is an option of calling home, but that would be admitting defeat. That is not in
amchigelomam’s  dictionary.

Amchigelomam reached out for a container with a bold caption “ take me home you will love it”. Once home, just a look in his wife’s  loving  eyes told the story of having picked the wrong item and wrong size. Never mind a  certain lecture from mai, for missing out on sale items. Amchigelomam wondered how  did the supermarket put a googly in his eyes, when all he wanted was a simple plain Dahi. A typical major supermarket chain carries 50,000 over different items. It is not just the yogurt that has gotten out of hand. Entire  isles are dedicated to just breakfast cereals or cookies or soups just to name a few. With hair colours,  I bet there are at least 10 different shades of Brown alone.

Supermarkets offer a great quantitative choice but not a qualitative choice. The longer they can grab your attention with time, the more likely it is you will spend more. Next time you are at the supermarket, take a look for yourself. On the surface in any given category each
product available appears different. Yet when you take a closer look, they are surprisingly similar behind a wall of clever marketing. Confused while shopping, amchigelomam is not alone. For example, compare Shreddies, Shredded wheat, honey coated shreddies, and wheatabix. At a quick glance, all have different boxes, but looking closely at their ingredients they are all similar – mostly wheat, sugar and additives. 

Every season, clever marketers design a new box and then distribute coupons to entice you to break old habits and try their “new” product, at possibly a higher price. . Line extensions are what they are rather than innovations. Call it “retail choice overload”.

One way to not get duped by marketers is to compare products in a nerdy way. Analysing the sizes and doing mental math to figure out the price per 100 grams.  Am I out for an enjoyable shopping experience
or for mental  math practice?  Marketers know that most of us are not mathletes, and this is why it is so easy for them to always stay a step ahead of us consumers. 

This is also one reason farmer’s markets have taken off in recent years. Most shoppers want a curated experience and quality over quantity. I agree, less is more. To verify the concept of “ less is more”, I looked at the stock prices . Below are the stock prices for Costco, with their business model of limited choice, compared to major Canadian supermarkets offering unlimited choice. Financial markets, like shoppers, have also voted with their dollars that less is more. (in full disclosure I do not hold any stock of Costco in my investments).

                  May 2011          May 2021       
 Costco           82                    378                     
 Loblaws         35                     74         
 Metro           57.42            58.76.  
 Sobeys         17.55              32.51
 
Just goes to show more is not necessarily better. That evening at dinner time, amchigelomam admitted to his better half, that choosing between different yogurts was not easy, and I made a mistake but choosing my life partner was easy, and I have made a perfect choice,  mai just rolled her eyes and said “thataastu!”
 

Here is a quiz from amchigelomam:
World price of pure Saffron is about 10 dollars a gram, how come locally you can get a Saffron for about a dollar a gram?


About the author…
Madhav Shanbhag holds a Ph.D in biochemistry. In his retirement, he enjoys encouraging budding entrepreneurs and imparting the wisdom of our rich culture…