Saturday, April 30, 2011

Mishti Doi, graduate student chicken, archival rice and food moments in the US

This is San Francisco, you never know”, said the waiter with a shrug, contemplating the plate of bay leaves and crushed ice he had placed on my table--when I clarified—that what I had asked for was some Baileys on ice.  An upscale, hustle bustle American cuisine kind of place, near Chinatown: we had just finished an enjoyable dinner.  I have had some interesting moments here, particularly with food, as I have tried to fit into the lay of this land the past 26 years.

My friends and colleagues have always found Indian food enjoyable, like that night under a starry sky in 1994, when we let loose fireworks bought legally across the Wisconsin border, seeing them streak upwards, beholding the flat expanse of darkness that is the signature of the midwest.  Then settling in, I grilled chicken legs on a coal fire smeared with tandoori  sauce.  The spouses of my midwestern colleagues, some of whom had never had Indian food, relished it with a curious trepidation, seeking its recipe and, recoiling in horror, when I describe the 3 tablespoons of cow’s urine that went into the marinade, then breaking into relieved laughter a split second later. 

When I came to Portland in 1985, there were no Indian restaurants in Beaverton, no Indian grocery store that I could think of.  Los Angeles was better, with a little Indian store near ISKCON in Venice that had a fantastic vegetarian $2 lunch on Sunday, and a little shopping center in Arcadia that sold, among other things, 220V appliances.  Those were the times when I cooked dal in the Hawkins pressure cooker my mother had packed for me, the one with a thin metal membrane gasket designed to perforate if the internal pressure got too high.  I had my friend Ty for dinner that night, in the bare, carpeted one bedroom apartment with its textured plaster ceiling and the overhead light that shone down on Ty’s bald patch like a helicopter searchlight on downtown LA.    Ty viewed the Indian engineered Hawkins with suspicion as I dismissively waived aside his objections as typical American arrogance.  Alas, I had failed to clean the relief valve nozzle of the cooker that night, and the gasket exploded with a vengeance, our meal sprayed on the ceiling, Ty ducking for cover, expletives aimed at me.

Inspite of the increased availability of Indian food, supplies are still limited and you often need to make do at times.  For years, M has followed a first order approximation to Misti Doi (sweet yogurt), that Kolkata delicacy of unblemished stature which, had it existed during the times of James Clive, would have sent him into a delirium of bliss so as to have made the battle of Plassey entirely unnecessary.   The real way of making Misthi Doi is a complicated one, but here is a cheat that she picked up from a friend.  Mix a can of evaporated milk, a can of condensed milk, and 2 cups of yogurt—mix it up, keep in an oven at 300F for a while, then turn it off, leaving overnight as the warm oven cools.  Served chilled, the result is a thick, rich, meal ending dessert that has always been a hit (The one made with Greek Yogurt is particularly good).

Indian food can take its revenge, like the time I travelled with a group of American colleagues to Delhi for a conference, and a few of the lionhearted ones ventured out for lassi despite my warnings.  The attack of Delhi Belly was swift and merciless, my close colleague found wandering the halls of his hotel at 4 in the morning seeking an attendant—he had run out of toilet paper.  Bengali sweets though, bathed in their sugary  sweetness are harmless, inspite of the swath of flies hovering around them under glass display cases—the sugar dehydrates the bacteria, preventing any bacterial population from forming. 

Then there was graduate student chicken, the first dish I mastered, whose memory still gives me nightmares--crafted with the engineered bird that Frank Purdue has bequeathed us (organic chicken was not readily available in those days, nor could we have afforded it on a student’s stipend).  It was important to have labeled those packages as chicken, for I sure would not have recognized the taste. We were cooking up a new Indian cuisine in the sparse expanse of Beaverton in those days, using memory, smell, impatience, and the palette of new foods we would uncover at the grocery.  It was a set routine, a terse sequence: chopped onions, ginger and garlic sliced to the extent that patience allowed, the chicken legs fried in an oily exuberance, some yogurt added along with a magic mix of whatever ground Indian spices may be handy.  So lenient was our use of turmeric that a fellow student and friend who came down with an acute case of Hepatits A from food in Mumbai, suspected for weeks that the turmeric was the root cause behind his yellow pallor.  My friend D had his special archival rice dish—it came from a rice cooker that had never seen a scrub with soap—for whenever the level of the rice dipped, D would add a few more cups of uncooked grains to the existing rice, and set the cooker to boil.  There were grains in there that were twice, thrice, perhaps quadruply cooked.

Our expectations of food at times raise amusing cultural cross-connections.   In the days that vegetarian fast food was difficult to find here, a trick was to order a burger at McDonald’s with an instruction to hold the burger.  But the point is perhaps no better illustrated by the writer R.K. Narayan who, when asked during a visit whether he wanted his coffee black or white, indicated that he needed it brown, as it should always be.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The 24 wishes of Robert Boyle

In 1662, the scientist Robert Boyle scribbled down a wish list of 24 scientific achievements in his notebook that he would have liked to have seen. Boyle is of course, then originator of the famous “Boyle’s Law” that relates pressure and volume in a gas, and author of The Sceptical Chymist, the book that triggered modern chemistry.  The list was recently put on display by Britain’s Royal Society as part of its 350th  anniversary celebrations.   How are we doing on his dream (see inset)?

Figure 1:  The list can also be viewed at (look for Volume 8), a collection of images of Boyle’s handwritten documents.
1)    The Prolongation of Life
2)    The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of It, as New Teeth, New Hair Colour’d as in Youth
3)    The Art of Flying
4)    The Art of Continuing Long under water and the Exercise of Functioning Freely There
5)    The Cure of Wounds at a Distance
6)    The Cure of Diseases at a Distance or at least by Transplantation
7)    The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions
8)    The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only
9)    The Acceleration of the Production of Things out of Seed
10) The Transmutation of Metalls
11) The Making of Glass Malleable
12) The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals and Vegetables
13) The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums
14) The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses
15) The Making Armor Light and Extremely Hard
16) The Practicable and Certain Way of Finding Longitudes
17) The Use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to Watches
18) Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc
19) A Ship to Sail with All Winds and a Ship Not to be Sunk
20) Freedom from necessity for much sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and What Happens in Mad-Men
21) Pleasing Dreams and Physicall Exercises by the Egyptian  Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French author
22) Great Strength and Agility of Body Exemplify’d by That of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall Persons
23) Varnishes Perfumable by Rubbing
24) A Perpetuall Light

Almost three hundred and fifty years past the appearance of this list, it is interesting to take stock.  Of the twenty-four items, we can claim success in fourteen.  For three we can claim partial credit, while the balance remains unfulfilled.  Fascinating, regardless, has been the meandering course of science and engineering that led to these developments: each wish unfolding past breakthroughs and breathtaking disappointments, amalgamated across a tapestry of human competitiveness, inspiration, and eccentricity.

The prolongation of life and the art of flying would have had a place on any carefully considered list and here we can claim victory. The average lifespan in 17th century England was around 35-40 years, skewed by high child mortality rates. Regrettably, there are places in the world where similar numbers still hold true, yet global average life expectancy at birth stands today at around 67 years due to improvements in medical science, nutrition and hygiene.  Boyle refers to flying as an art and not a science, though it was the Wright brothers use of aeronautical engineering principles and the analysis of experimental data from wind tunnel experiments that allowed them, in 1904-5, to demonstrate what others had not been able to earlier—powered flight that could be robustly controlled.

Abundancy of food was on Boyles’ mind with “the acceleration of production of things out of seed”.  About one hundred and forty years later, in 1798, the political economist Malthus made a famous argument in a 134 page essay: since the human population will grow at a faster rate than food production,  the world would quickly converge to the catastrophic situation of a population kept in check by food scarcity.
Malthus’ extrapolation proved erroneous as he failed to foresee innovations in technology that would keep the world ahead of this catastrophe.  However, the essay and its notion of competition and tension that arise from limited resources, was deeply influential in an unintended manner—it inspired Darwin, by his own account, to envision his idea of natural selection.

A series of maritime disasters caused by ships unable to accurately determine longitudinal position at sea, led the British government to declare one of the earliest government funded research initiatives in 1712, with the establishment of the British Longitude Committee. The challenge lay in building a watch that could keep time accurately at sea, while weathering the rough conditions of movement, corrosion, and temperature variations on a ship.  Keeping a reference time to the port of departure (whose longitude is known), and comparing this time to the local noon on any given day at sea (when the sun is at its highest point), allows a simple means of establishing longitude.   What ensued was a fascinating chronicle of developments in watch making over the next half a century—a saga of stubborn innovation, rivalry, and bitterness; leading to the successful fabrication of a five inch diameter “sea watch” by one John Harrison that accurately estimated longitudinal position on a trip from England to Jamaica in 1761.  By the early 19th century, the marine chronometer was an expensive, but available tool on ships (Captain Cook used one), fulfilling The Practicable and Certain Way of Finding Longitudes and The Use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to Watches.

There is much good news to report in the making of armor light and extremely hard, and not limited to armor alone: to impart modern relevance, it makes sense to interpret this in the larger context of new metals for engineering applications.  Only 12 of the 86 known metals had been discovered by Boyles’ time, and of these, iron, copper, zinc, lead and tin were in common industrial use.  The emergence of two metallurgies, those of steel and aluminum, has changed the industrial world since.  In Boyle’s time, almost all armor was made of iron and steel, but the quality was uneven.  It was only in the 1850’s that a new industrial process for steelmaking, called the Bessemer process, allowed the production of steel of consistent quality.  Stainless steel arrived in 1913, popularly, but disputably credited to the metallurgist Harry Brearley.  There is a story of how Mr. Brearley, charged with making hardier gun barrels, was experimenting with different steel compositions and realized one day that an earlier experiment, consigned to the scrap heap, had not rusted.  Such serendipity is not uncommon in the history of materials science.  The second metal, aluminum, though plentiful in the earth’s crust, was difficult to extract from its ore and remained more expensive than gold until the late 1800s.  It took a new electrolytic method of extraction, invented independently by two unknown (at that time) young scientists Hall and Heroult, for aluminum to be cheaply available.  Light in weight, its alloys revolutionized the aircraft industry. 

Varnishes perfumable by rubbing, is one of the more quizzical wishes—it certainly does not scale in importance to Boyle’s other, grander challenges.  But if we ascribe this to a bit of vanity on his part, then certainly something like the scratch and sniff product can fit this bill, where small amounts of perfume are sealed in tiny, hollow, polymer spheres.  Rubbing punctures these spheres, releasing the aroma.

Electric incandescent lighting turned The perpetuall light into a reality in the late nineteenth century. Sir Humphrey Davy demonstrated the first electric light in 1807 by passing an electric current to heat up a platinum wire. It then took almost an entire century to make this a practical reality, since it was difficult to make the glowing filaments last.  Incandescent lighting however is vastly inefficient: less than a few percent of the energy used actually translates into visible light. Perhaps the 21st century will leave behind a new legacy for the perpetual light; the light emitting diode or LED, a device that emerged in the second half of the 20th century.  Already a household object, most traffic lights and many commercial billboards are built with these, and they offer the promise for energy efficient lighting for wider scale commercial and domestic use in the future.

Boyle was himself an alchemist and he was following the alchemist’s dream in placing The Transmutation of Metals on his list. Seduced by the lure of turning base metals into gold, and attracting eminent scientists such as Newton, alchemy remained in practice till about the 18th century.  The transmutation of elements is indeed possible and was demonstrated in 1919 when the scientist Ernest Rutherford converted nitrogen to an isotope of oxygen by bombarding nitrogen gas with high energy atomic particles. This is however a costly and impractical process, and the news would probably only be of academic interest to the alchemists.

Pleasing Dreams and Physicall Exercises by the Egyptian  Electuary (medicine powder) and by the Fungus mentioned by the French author , contains curious references pointing to hallucinogens.  If Boyle could have heard the rendition of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, by the Beatles, it is likely that he would put a green checkmark against this particular wish.  Similarily, sleeping pills, pain killers and mood altering drugs bring to closure wish numbers 18 and 20, the ability to control sleeping habits and numb pain.

The seventeenth century was a time rich with innovation in the building of telescopes.  Jan Lippershey had invented the glass lens based refractor telescope in 1608, and Galileo a year later used such a scope to discover the four moons of Jupiter. Lenses of that era, with their surfaces ground to a spherical shape, were flawed, created distorted images.  Part of the reason, known at the time, was that the lens could not bring together a parallel set of rays to focus into a tight spot.  Much effort was therefore spent in determining the exact shape of a lens surface that would eliminate this particular aberration, till Rene’ Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician, showed in 1637 that it needed to be hyperbolic. Perhaps this partly contributed to wish number 14: The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses.  It was just a decade later that Isaac Newton  would show white light to be a spectrum of different colors, or wavelengths.  This was soon recognized as also contributing to the lens distortions and after a while it became clear that a reflecting parabolic mirror lens could eliminate both types of aberrations.  It would be another 60 years till the English mathematician John Hadley was able to develop a reliable method to grind out a parabolic mirror in 1721.  The telescope made by Hadley was only a few feet in length, yet it almost rivaled in quality the images from a 120 foot long  telescope made by Huygens using the earlier glass lens based technology.

The art of continuing long under water and functioning freely there, was a vision for many, including Leonardo Da Vinci, who had drawn up blueprints for the design of a submarine more than a hundred years earlier. David Bushnell, a graduate of Yale, built one of the first functional military submarines in 1775, the Turtle, with a human powered propeller and a water ballast for raising or lowering it (a method still in practice).  The development of the submarine, and later, scuba diving equipment, rounds out this list of Boyle’s entries that have come to fruition.

For three of the items, one can claim partial success. The age of practical, transoceanic travel with steam-powered boats began in 1838 when two passenger steamships, The Great Western and The Sirius made the transatlantic voyage from England to New York.  However, an unsinkable ship does not yet have a practical embodiment, leading to only partial credit for A Ship to Sail with All Winds and a Ship Not to be Sunk With

While it would be a stretch to claim that we can orchestrate the recovery of youth, preventive medications like those that control blood pressure or age related degeneration can certainly slow down decay processes in the body.  Boyle may have known about blood circulation in the body from his contemporary, the English doctor William Harvey, but would have been unaware of the intricacies of blood pressure.  These studies evolved in the 19th century, with many pioneering contributions from the English doctor, Dr. Frederick Akbar Mahomed, on the measurement of blood pressure, its relation to kidney disease, the vascular system, and the process of aging.  He was—in an interesting twist—a grandson of Sake Din Mahomet, believed to have started the first Indian restaurant in Britain in 1812, The Hindostanee Coffee House.  Blood pressure control was just one of the earlier “maintenance” medications to have gained universal acceptance.  Today, the regimen of pills have become part of everyday life for so many, not really reversing the vector of time on the body, but certainly feathering the brakes to slow things down a half step.

The cure of diseases at a distance or at least by transplantation raises a few questions.  In the 17th century, courses of action for treating diseases varied from herbal treatments, bloodletting with leeches, to the Hippocratic maxim of letting nature take its course as is described by Dr. Thomas Sydenham, an eminent 17th century doctor and friend of Robert Boyle, "I have consulted my patients' safety and my own reputation most effectually by doing nothing at all." In seeking a remote form of attending to the patient, could Boyle have intuited some form of radiation treatment, though it would be another nearly 250 years until x-ray radiation and its effects on the body was discovered?  Cures by “transplantation” are confusing.  Did Boyle intend moving the disease from the patient to another host, in the celebrated manner that the Mughal emperor Babur, over a century earlier, was reputed to have willed his cure on his ailing son Humayun by allowing the disease to possess him instead, resulting in his demise and Humayun’s survival?  Or can we allow for a more liberal interpretation, suggesting that Boyle foresaw solid organ transplants, first conducted successfully in 1954 with a kidney transplant between twins in a Boston hospital by an American doctor who refined his method working on dogs.  The uncertainty in interpretation leads one to give only partial credit.

There remain seven items, where it would be fair to state, we have not achieved success.  Continuing along the theme of Boyle’s interest in remote medical treatments, is the curing of wounds at a distance .  In today’s language, we would speak about remotely speeding up the biochemical reactions required to heal a wound, perhaps by implanting a soldier with medication that could be released by wireless means or putting on an ultrasonic tourniquet that clots arterial blood.  We cannot claim victory here yet.

The Making of Glass Malleable remains a difficult task.  We now know why materials are what they are—brittle or malleable.  Boyle and his peers did not know that glass is a compound principally of the elements silicon and oxygen, the two most abundant elements in the earth’s crust, each silicon surrounded by a quartet of oxygen forming a little tetrahedral cage, the material an amorphous collection of these cages, each cage slightly cocked with respect to the next one.  Indeed it would be another 100 years till oxygen, and yet another roughly 50 years till silicon would be discovered.  Glass is of course, malleable at high temperatures (this allows glass blowing) by inserting additives that break the link between the cages, but a glass that is malleable at room temperatures, that can be hammered out on an anvil like a piece of metal without compromising itself, is yet outside of our capabilities.

Boyle’s extension of transmutation to cover Mineralls, Animals and Vegetables, a universal alchemy where all things could be mapped onto others, undermining, effectively, the value of one over another, is not possible today.  Neither is the emulation of fish without engines, an example of what in today’s language could be called biomimicry, a subject that we are just beginning to probe.

The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums, the search for a universal solvent came straight from Robert Boyle the alchemist, using the jargon of that practice.  A universal solvent, if it were to be true to its capabilities, would have no vessel that could store it.  No such solvent exists today and if one were to recast this entry fashioned in the trends of today, it would be the search for a universal solvent that is cheap, non-toxic, and environmentally friendly.

Crafted at a time when great physical strength was of value in one’s daily life, it is questionable whether attaining gigantick dimensions and Great Strength and Agility of Body serves any beneficial purpose today outside of athletics. Human beings are larger today, thought the effects cannot be described as either gigantic or great.  Giant machinery  and robotics have obviated this need: perhaps in this sense Boyle’s wish has been indirectly met.

What did Boyle miss?  For one, his list is conspicuous by the absence of a computing machine. The need for automated calculations was certainly felt at that time.  The method of logarithms had been introduced in the first part of the 17th century and in 1627, Kepler was able to use this new method in producing the Rudolphine tables, an accurate listing of the planetary positions.  Well known 17th century scientists such as Leibniz, Pascal, and Schikard were already trying to build mechanical computers.  Boyle himself, while modest about assessing his own skills in pure mathematics, certainly used it for calculations relating to his “mechanical experiments”.  The omission of a computing machine from the list is thus surprising.  Advanced weaponry appears to be a second, important omission, one that shaped much of the world in the centuries to come--indeed Boyle seemed more concerned with protection (tougher armor, healing of wounds) than aggression.  And finally, while seeking better means of transport through two media--air and water, he ignored the third.  He was, one would assume, not unsatisfied with the mode of transportation closest to his doorstep—that by land.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Little Kabab Station, Mount Kisco

31 E. Main St., Mount Kisco

Mount Kisco has another Indian restaurant, this one a tiny place with about four or five tables that sells one of my favorite fast foods—kabab rolls.  We had a quick early dinner there today, and I have been back once more for a quick snack--here are some early thoughts.  The food was excellent.  We started off with a pot of masala  chai and pakoras (vegetable fritters).  Masala chai is tea made by boiling water, a little milk, some cardamon, cinnamon, and ginger with CTC (crush, tear and curl) tea—a process by which the loose tea leaves are shred into particulates.  This pot was good, but a bit too heavy on the cinnamon.  The pakoras were fresh, light inspite of being fried, without the dark cast from an over-used bath of frying oil.  Then we had the rolls—parathas layered with egg, rolled over lamb seekh kababs with fresh sliced onions and a lemony zing.  It did not have the oil laden heaviness that I rail against in my posts.  It was the way a roll should taste—a fast meal to satisfy a quick craving that leaves a medley of tastes in the mouth.  It would have benefitted from a drier texture, there was too much liquid dribbling out of the paratha.  If you haven’t had rolls, you should take the opportunity of its arrival in Westchester, in Ardsley some months earlier (Calcutta Wrap’n Roll) and now here in Mount Kisco.   Rolls originated in Kolkata at the Nizam Restaurant in the backstreets off Esplanade, where we—as teenagers—used to go to get beef (not readily available in Kolkata) and the story goes that a Britishe sahib  in colonial India wanted some meat and parathas on the go and received a convenient package of a roll wrapped in a piece of paper.  It used to be that even a few years ago we had to head to the city for a roll, to either Roomali or the Kati Roll Company, but of late Westchester has been getting pretty varied in its Indian choices.  As my son and I sat at a tiny window-side table for a quick meal before heading to the high school senior’s annual theater production, the place started to fill up.  On a return visit, we sat down one afternoon with a pot of masala chai—the tea is addictive—looking out the large windows at downtown Mount Kisco storefronts and a sliver view of “Limited Unlimited Jewellers”.  Music drifted from the store sound systems: Sheila ki Jawani (a recent Bollywood “item number” that, transliterated, celebrates the youth of a certain ravishing lady named Sheila), and a remix of an old classic, Neele Neele Amber, with the classic conga percussion that RD Burman imported into hindi music in the early seventies.  We had dessert—gulab jamuns on a stick.  These did not taste like they were from a professional Indian confectionery, but rather like home cooked gulab jamuns with a variable texture: the taste was certainly not unpleasant.  There is a much wider menu available, with entrees and other appetizers, and I will follow up with a return visit.

Note added April 17, 2011:  Biryani was excellent, though the next time I will opt for the milder version.  Preferred the lamb over the chicken biryani.  Seekh kabab was great, decadent and luxurious.  The Shammi Kabab was dry.

Little Kabab Station on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Dhaba Indian Cuisine, 108 Lexington Avenue, New York City

We drove to Dhaba for lunch during one of the rainiest spells that New York City has seen, whipping up an appetite in the effort to find street parking.  The Dhaba serves “British Indian Food”, as a sign proclaimed, though the word Dhaba itself originally refers to Punjabi truck stop eateries on Indian roadways.  I remember one of my most memorable dinners in one, on a dark metalled highway in Assam at night, sitting on charpoys (a light hammock like bed with a wooden frame and four legs) in a little clearing by the road soiled with engine oil.  Then in the mid 1980’s the “Dhaba” brand name caught on and trendy North Indian restaurants in places like Kolkata would adopt this name. 

This Dhaba on Lexington had no truckers, no charpoys and no bedbugs that often accompanied the charpoys.  The Bangadeshi taxiwallahs preffered to eat at Kasturi, a nearby hole in the wall on Lexington with great (apparently) Bengali food.  Dhaba is a trendy Indian restaurant with a trendy New York Indian style—a tidy space jammed with people and a long row of glass bangles hung above the buffet spread in a horizontal line, a sort of letimotif to the place. 

The appetizers at Dhaba were delicious, a significant cut above what I usually have.  Do not miss the Bhel Puri, a sort of West Indian version of Jhal Moori, and Pani Puri, where you fill little crisp and hollow puris with spiced mashed potatoes and tamarind, plopping them whole into your mouth.  Do not miss the Pao Bhaji either, a Mumbai specialty of bread and a potato- pea curry that originated as a quick lunch meal for textile workers in Mumbai, the Marathi name for bread adopted from the Portuguese “Pao” from neighboring Goa.

But just as a song that uplifts with its opening melody but dissipates in time when the tune can’t hold—so it was with the entrees that followed at Dhaba.  In an undesirable salute to its name, the entrees were indeed like food sold at Indian roadside Dhabas: oily and spicy--cooked without much fuss or deliberation.    The lamb curry was overtly rich, but the meat was soft and tender.  The sag paneer was greasy, and lit up your plate with a fluorescent green.  The entrees were not bad, as the huge crowds that afternoon attested to, it was just that there was little originality and too much oil.  Perhaps it was because this was a buffet lunch, for the lunch entrees at Indian restaurants are often not up to the standards set for dinner.  Finally do not miss the Dhaba style Indian tea—it is authentic.

There is one irritating note of complaint--Dhaba is a decent Indian restaurant short of a good dishwasher.  More than once I had to reject a clean buffet or dessert plate because it had food stuck to it that was left over from the previous customer.  For a Manhattan restaurant that is not cheap, this was atrocious quality control.

Dhaba on Urbanspoon

Friday, April 1, 2011

Abu Dhabi, conversations with taxi drivers, and the S&D Oyster Company in Dallas

I remember an arresting cartoon from the nineties offering a birds eye view of toilet stalls in a public men’s rest room, each stall occupied by a seated businessman busy at work on a laptop.  The Johns of today are the airline seats, and some of the laptops have morphed into e-books, ipads, and smart phones-- I notice on a flight from Dallas to Chicago, en-route to Abu Dhabi.  It is an impressive display of the power and scalability of modern electronics.

Less than 24 hours ago I had had a memorable meal at Dallas’ best oyster restaurant, the S&D Oyster Company on McKinney St.  It  has a New England ambience, set off by pink checked tablecloths and a Texan American clientele-- ladies in perfectly coiffed hairdos, men beefy and sun burnt, crows feet crinkling their eyes.  The oysters, on the half shell, were delicious and comparable to the best that the Northeast has to offer, the large fried shrimp brought in from Galveston a bit too heavy.

The Etihaad flight from Chicago to Abu Dhabi picks up a lot of sub-continental traffic headed to India and Pakistan.  Waiting at the check-in line, I see modern suitcases built with 21st century polymers, reinforced with unnecessary rounds of hand tied nylon rope;  large sheets of paper taped to their sides with names and addresses written out in large handwriting.  Such is the power of tradition, what we did thirty years ago at Howrah station—to aging canvas or leather suitcases at high risk of disintegrating.  I read the addresses to spend time.  Immigrants in small towns buried in the depths of the Midwest, headed to busy, bright sunny streets in Madras and Rawalpindi.  On the face of it, it does not to cease to impress me that a human transports himself in 24 hours between such apparently distinct and different cultures.  Yet this compaction of transport demystifies the exotic, banishing the adage that cultures are very different—they are not—the differences at best are to second order, with characters that slip in and out of the two worlds perhaps not seamlessly, but not with excessive effort either.

Landing in Abu Dhabi, the first thing that strikes me is that almost all service personnel are from the sub-continent (along with some others from the Philippines, or Africa).  The clerk at the airport money changing station is from Bangladesh; the driver who takes me to the hotel is Malayali.  I chat with him on way to the hotel.  He has been in Abu Dhabi for 20 years.  His family lived with him till about three years back, but they moved back now that his son goes to engineering college in Trivandrum.  He has three more years to go, after which he too will retire and head back. 

The hotel and its surroundings are opulent.  The flat desert is lit up, with giant soaring constructions in smooth, curvy lines, roofs broken up in truss patterns.  The freeways are wide and well sign posted.  The sodium vapor lamps and the dust make it look like Delhi, but the flow of the traffic makes it feel like a western US metropolis.

The place I am in, Yas Island, is a macho man’s delight. The night that I drive in, the scene is unbelievable.  The entire place is bright, shining like the sun, the glow drifting gently into the darkness outside.  The air fills with the sounds of racing cars.  We cross a bridge over a Formula 1 racetrack and three cars bent upon destroying each other, swoosh by meters below.  Less than two hundred meters away sit a number of streamlined yachts, moored in a marina.
The next morning I have breakfast at the hotel restaurant.  A large number of workers from the sub-continent mill around us: cleaning tables, making omelettes, coiling up a watering hose after use, shining stainless steel fixtures.  Oblivious to this flurry of background activity, a couple of Americans are in deep discussion regarding a Ferrari show.  Outside a flag flutters near a large yacht in silent repose dockside; a clear sky rains down on the green and blue empty Formula 1 track surface. 
I am here for only a few days.  The night before we leave a colleague and I rent a taxi to go to Dubai for dinner.  The driver is a young man from Barisal in Bangladesh and he has been here 6 years.  We chat in Bengali and I translate for the benefit of my Spanish friend.  He feels homesick but plans on sticking it out for a while.  In  three to four years he would like to go home and get married and has aspirations of trying to make it to Europe after that.  He takes us to the Burj Khalifa a nearly mile high building that you have to arc your head all the way back to take in.  It is an impressive construction, the tallest in the world that was scaled by a French daredevil the day we visited.  Dubai Mall, adjacent to the Burj has a grand bookstore--The Kinokuniya—the kind that makes you want to visit a city.  With nearly 70,000 square feet of space and a half a million books, it approaches the  dimensions of The Strand in NYC, and Powell Books in Portland.  This is a fancy mall and as in malls all around the world, there are teenagers hanging near its entrance.  As we walk out and wait for our driver,  a foursome of teenagers out for the evening, slip out of a Porsche Panamera and into a Rolls, five hundred thousand dollars of wheels between them.
Our taxi driver looses his way, insisting all the while that things are under control.  We drive through anaconda freeways, past metro stations with aerofoil shapes, a sleek, glittering sculpture of a city with enormous buildings, a city that is probably the most international in the world.  There is a sadness to this city though, a transient feeling, a Las Vegas without alcohol, a ghost city with lights and a sifting populace.  It is not the organic, collective feel that Tokyo exudes, a city that matches Dubai in the enormity of its constructions.
We end up at a popular hangout, the Jumeirah Beach Walk, a km long strip of restaurants and stop for dinner at the “Sarai”, a Middle Eastern restaurant.  If there is something bracing in the Middle East, it is to sit outside on a pleasant night, with a gentle breeze, dipping soft bread into hummus moist with pools of olive oil, and baba ghanoush.  Alas there is no beer (of the alcoholic kind) for this is only served at select hotels, or sold to those with a personal liquor license (such as expatriates).  Sarai specializes in kebabs and offers an entire assortment—with nuts, with orange sauce, with yogurt, with tomato sauce.  We ordered a couple of plates: the lamb kebabs were good, not great, of the kind that you can have at a decent Middle Eastern place in the US. 

Folks of all nationalities were out for a stroll.  The women were varied in fashion: from those who would not be out of place in an American glamour magazine, to ones fully clothed in the abaya, covering all except for meticulously made up faces, the object of their focused attention to fashion. 

A day later I was headed back to the airport, this time in the hands of a Pakistani taxi driver with light eyes.  It was the same story: his family consisting of his parents, a wife and small child were back in northwestern Pakistan.  He used to be in the medical business but he made more here, and needed to send money back for his parent’s medical bills.  He missed his family, the situation in Peshawar was bad and the schools for girls had been closed because of the violence.  The cricket semi between India and Pakistan was looming.  He was an enthusiast and we spoke of cricket and cricketers, past and present, and of the camaraderie of ordinary Indians and Pakistanis notwithstanding the three wars between them.

There is a vast and omnipresent sub continental workforce here, of single men or men apart from their families that keeps the machinery of this place going.  This is not a place that they seem to view as an end to their journey, they are transients rather than the immigrants.  They come here with a goal, and for a length of time during which they hope to firm up an economic situation before moving on elsewhere or returning home.  My memories remain of the Ashok Leyland bus that I glimpsed on the road to Dubai that evening, full of sub-continental workers getting bussed home.