FSSAI’s Delhi Belly Bull Run

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) seems to be extremely busy and for good reason, I guess, considering that we have a billion bellies to fill. There is literally a bull run going on when one looks at the noodles of media mentions that this august institution has been garnering ever since it came into existence in 2006. The first chart below shows this uptick in popularity. If you are a technical chartist, I am sure you will see some pennant patterns getting formed. Pennants of waving authority in the name of food safety. Authority indeed! FSSAI Bull Run in MediaThe “Authority” has quite authoritatively stamped its seal of disapproval on more than 400 food products between Aug’12 to Apr’15 (see chart on the right, below). This is based on the list of product applications that were rejected by the FSSAI. This list is available on FSSAI’s website.FSSAI Food Products Banned

When I look at the list of the food items banned by the FSSAI, I realize that I have consumed around 20 of them myself. Is that why I am suddenly feeling queasy? I miss my “meri blog post karne wali Maggi“?

I obviously do not understand anything about food safety and regulations apart from the fact that food items, while being agents of nourishment are also implements of commerce, livelihood and international relations. In that context, and bereft of any finer nuances of information, some of the actions of the FSSAI seem to be out of balance. And it personally hurts as well – especially if they work again to keep my beloved Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, Aberlour [oh, yes!] et al out of India. 😦 The FSSAI’s apparent objection to the import of the bottles of these ambrosia is that their manufacturers have/had not mentioned “water” as an ingredient in the product labels.  Lindt, makers of chocolate since 1845, have/had reportedly dropped their business plans in India since they could not explain some finer
points of “composite chocolates” to the Authority. FSSAI was also reportedly ‘cheesed off’ at the fssai basketimporters of Parmegiano Reggiano because it is made of milk that is not pasteurized. Huh! I consume P. Reggiano regularly and I don’t care whether it made of pasteurized milk or not considering that this King of Cheeses is a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) food and has always been made this way since the Middle Ages. There are accounts of green olives being allowed into India but black olives being ‘black’ listed since it may have been surmised that black olives are green ones gone bad! At least that’s the story being trolled around in the Internet. The picture on the right is my attempt at creating a food basket of some of the foodstuffs which have earned the attention of the FSSAI over the years.

It’s imperative to “build a healthy India with safe food”, but not at the cost of logic and good business order. Outliers do tend to get noticed, reported and talked about. The 2013-14 annual report of the FSSAI does show that the organization cleared 99.79% of shipments for import FSSAI Budget vs Food Industryclearance, but I guess parties connected to the balance 21 basis points make a lot of noise and complain. So I think there is some PR work that needs to be done by the FSSAI to maintain and improve its image amongst the intelligentsia. There is indeed a Facebook page, which has some really useful food safety information amid all the clutter of the automated feeds of their periodic notifications and circulars. Their isn’t much traffic on their Facebook page though – they need to solve for that. There is also the question of whether the organization is staffed adequately (both in terms of the number and quality of employees) and if it has adequate testing and admin facilities. If one goes by the steady stream of adverts for open jobs put up on its website, it does appear that the organization is looking to hire aggressively. The mandate of FSSAI is extremely large and my hunch is that the proficiency and sufficiency of the testing labs will lag for a very long time. According to the BCG [link], India’s food market is a staggering 23 lakh crore in 2014 and is expected to grow to 42 lakh crore by 2020 (13% CAGR). To monitor a 2,300,000 crore industry, the FSSAI spent 42 crores during 2013-14 doing stuff. Thoroughly inadequate.  The white dot in the picture on the right is the FSSAI – sitting as it is in the center of an industry which is approximately 55 thousand times its annual spend. The picture is scaled down to 20% – at it’s full size the black circle would not fit your computer screen.

The Price of Food

I stopped by at a local grocery store on my way back home to pick up something for breakfast. The idea was to wedge an  oregano infused, golden brown double omlette inside slices of whole wheat bread layered in garlic and chilly-garlic mayonnaise. The ensuing breakfast was bearable, but the previous evening commerce gave me something to write about: the escalating prices of food in India. The egg at INR 3 per egg is a lot of egg in the face and the whole wheat bread leavened me with its INR 22 tag. I would recommend heading to the nearest kirana store, especially if you haven’t personally shopped for a while. I am sure the prices will shock you. Any crescendo that escalates at c15% per annum would.

I am sure Humpty Dumpty would have an even mightier fall today than during the early 19th century when he/it was conceived as being perched on that wall. The reason is simple – eggs are dearer since poultry feed prices (corn, et al) are increasing fast both in local as well as international markets. And that may not bode well for companies like Godrej (Real Good chicken, sob sob) and Venky’s India Limited.

There was a lot of attention to the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) winging up of its repo rates in a bid to contain inflation. Whether this move has its desired effect or not remains to be seen (in media). Actually, such causality might be difficult nee impossible to establish. Since a section of the intelligentia remains convinced that monetary tricks do not influence food prices and therefore the hesitant intervention by the RBI may not really amount to anything. While you may have certainly caught the story of the repo rate hike, this sagacious comment by Montek Singh Ahluwalia may have escaped your notice:

Rural areas have benefitted from the economic prosperity seen in the country. Demand for foodgrain, milk, vegetable and protein have gone up. It is a good development

Of course it is! But our preparedness to tackle the implication of that (i.e. a higher price level) may not be. The Deputy Chairman’s (of the Planning Commission) comment reminds me of a similar observation by the President of the United States (was it Clinton?) that countries like India should eat less! Here are some facts: per capita income in India has increased from 24,095 in 2004/05 to 43,749 in 2009/10 – that’s a CAGR of 13%. Agricultural productivity has lagged this rapid growth in incomes – growing at only 2% per annum. The large transfer of purchasing power via the Rural Employment Guarantee scheme has indeed ushered in a new found prosperity in rural India. In my native village, I never used to see the local folk eat vegetables and fruits. It was always variations of millets and pulses. They now have started to add variety to their cuisine, and as Mr. Ahluwalia says, what’s wrong with that?

There is an expectation of rice prices coming down this year due to the copious amount of rainfall that we received this monsoon but that might be washed out too. For since 2005, there has been a continuous rise in prices regardless of the monsoon. So what gives? It has to be basic demand and supply. If demand goes up and supply remains constant then the prices have to increase, right? How I wish our planners get this right – the re-rating possibilities for the fertilizer industry (if it can get it’s gas supply worries sorted!), micro finance organizations, irrigation sector (Jain Irrigation, Yo!) would be significant.

Our production is focused largely on basic food grains which are certainly not income elastic – i.e. one does not start consuming more rice or chapattis if one’s income rises. However, things like eggs, butter, fruits, vegetables, milk, meat etc are most certainly in greater demand if income rises. This will be difficult for someone from the industrialized world to understand, but in India, these food articles are aspirational to many. There are 370 million people currently in India living below the poverty. Forget an apple a day, even if they have consumed an apple in a lifetime till today, they’d be lucky. But all that will change and is changing…slowly. We need good old Keynesian artifacts in Indian agriculture, not RBI’s intervention. The focus should be on the Agricultural Ministry and not the Ministry of Finance.

And while Shri Sharad Pawar remains overworked and occupied by the political flux in Maharashtra, I do not think he is the only one to blame. The reason for the rotting mountains of grain in the Food Corporation of India’s (FCI) godown is less a consequence of callous administration as much as it being a fallout of India’s federal structure of government. It’s a states of the Union vs. the Union issue. The center just cannot get the states to lift off the stocks – I do not know why but I can guess that it must be due to pricing issues. FCI’s hoards cannot be culled by a mere addition of storage capacity. That’s a long term process – the short term measure is getting trucks to line up at FCI’s godowns are carting the stuff away. At least Sonia Gandhi did admit that the responsibility of bringing down food prices is as much the responsibility of the center as it is of the states.

The other important aspect is the cost of farming. In my village, a daily wage woman labourer was paid INR 50 a day to plant onion seeds. This year she is getting paid Rs.100. Male labourers are demanding INR 150. Just like the BPO industry, cheap labour that gave Indian agriculture its competitive edge is blunting rapidly. Cotton is another crop that is sown by my cousins in their farms. They are paying farmhands Rs4.50 for picking cotton this year, again double from last year. They tell me that the total labour cost for cotton has touched INR 15 per kilo this year. I can only imagine the plight of the farmland owners in rich Punjab and Haryana! This again comes back to the point – if a business has to start paying more per unit of labour then it needs to extract greater productivity per unit of labour. The fracas over the modest brinjal shows how arduous the path to this goal will be. Our farms need more mechanization, drip irrigation (Jain Irrigation, yo!), better seeds, non-urea fertilizers and understanding politicians.

Food for Thought

I’ve never considered myself to be much of a cook. The truth is that I cannot even make tea or instant noodles forget abrosia. However, eating out or ordering in every day gets boring and frankly the food stuff that I get at reasonable prices is flat to taste. You can imagine what kind of chinese food an Udipi joint will produce! So, whenever time permits I have been forced to personally seduce my taste buddies. These instances have admittedly been rare and given the fact that I am quite finicky when it comes to food my choices are limited. In hindsight however, I guess what works for me is the process of making the damn food and not the act of stuffing it in. Calories are calories after all.

So I’ve been approaching my culinary acts not as a hobby or as something I need to learn but more as a challenge and adventure. Given who I am and what I am, the presentation of the food is sometimes more important to me than its taste. Luckily whatever I have made so far has tasted ok, but I would rather bet on IFCI getting a banking license than my coming up with a finger licking creation. So I try to be a little creative and therefore keep needing ingredients that are not so commonly found at least in the part of Hyderabad that I live in.

What good is a painting if only for the eyes of the painter? Imagine Beethovin, deaf as he was performing the Ninth Symphony to a house of deaf Viennese. Also creativity is subjective and is worth the value that its obersevers put to it. Towards that end, I decided to put up pictures of what I cooked some time back. It was a weekend with time at hand and the following is what the tornado left behind in its wake after it passed through my sparsely used kitchen:

The main course – stir fried chicken. I relate to stir fry cooking. It’s all about speed and I love speed. If you give me a hundred shots and a challenging time limit, I might fire away all of the shots and probably hit the target on equal if not more occassions than someone who might take his time aim and shoot carefully and accurately but save bullets. In a world of scarce resources and if one takes count of inventory as well, then I’ll lose. But if the end is all important and not the process to reach it, then count me in. Endless hours of baking or stirring or marinating is not me. Also, when you stir fry, you have a very short time to get it right since its done over a hot flame. the first pic is about the process – its not come out good, I know. Cooking stir fry over a hot flame with one hand and negotiating the Olympus SP-570UZ (weight = 455 grams ex batteries and memory card!) in the other is not exactly easy!







The side character – Cruncy fish salad. I like bright colours and there were lots of them here. A slice of sweet lime and capsicum gave the yellow, baby tomatoes threw in the red, iceberg lettuce, zucchini, pitted olives,cucumber and cilantro tangoed around in green. The white was solemnised by a few rings of raw onion and fish – canned sardines and anchovies. I don’t know if I was painting or preparing a salad. Whatever it is, it kept me alive over that weekend! 🙂

Finally, the dessert – strawcolate. Well, not really a dessert but perhaps it comes close. Theres something quite divine about the compliment of sour and sweet which came out rather well when I coated these plump strawberries in chocolate and froze them to a contradictory death.

That was it. I guess it was a self created treat that Mr. Market allowed me to indulge in given the way he has been perking up these days. Hell, even the metal counters have started gleaming. Here’s to more such epicurian menus and euphoric markets. I know, white wine was missing. 

The Hot Pani Puri

Yesterday, there was the familiar in-between-meals pang that got me walking down a street in search of something to kill my hunger. That and the possibility of my shifting base to another citiy got me to the pani puri. Cost of  living indices across various Indian cities is a topic that has occupied my mind quite a bit in the recent past and taking a lettuce leaf out of the big Mac’s book, I thought of developing a pani puri index of affordability. I hit the internet on coming back to my pad, but gave up quickly. The prices of pani puri either seem to be a closely guarded secret or could be so low that the cost of hooking up to the internet for 10 minutes seems a lavish splurge in comparision. While still on the internet and the topic, I thought of killing some time in assorting and discovering things about this humble food of the masses in the sub-continent.

For me personally, the Kolkata variety of this dish that is the best. I am no gastronome but since I’ve grown up in the east, stuffing these roundels down my throat – especially during the Durga Puja festival, I am biased. What’s the difference? Firstly, it’s called puchka, phochka or phuchka (depending on what stage are you in the devouring of this beauty) there; secondly, it’s obviously cheaper in the east – though the gap seems to have narrowed down of late and thirdly, the stuffing: its got mashed potato in it with a bits of gram et al thrown in for good measure. That’s the staple pani puri for me and will always be, but I’ve relished the other varieties as well. When in Lucknow, I thought that the vendor was loony for not understanding what a puchka was till I learnt that its called something like pani batasha or batasha there. Apparently the Hindu heartland is where this puffy delight seems to have originated from. Then of course, there are the gol gappas (gol = round; gappa = that hurried act of stuffing and swallowing something decidedly challenging). The stuffing changes as you cover the breadth of the country ranging from boondi (I don’t want to translate that to English), gram, sev (fried semolina), etc. The water also flows different courses, some being mint flavoured, some carrying a strong infusion of tamarind and other pungent spices while others being sweeter and date flavoured. I dig the tamarind, pungent types.

What to call them in English? Many people have attempted this before and I don’t know if an official term is out yet but let me add my two cents here. Some have called them water balls (sound like Holi missiles) and wheat bulbs (sounds like some smart alec invention at Monsanto). Some others have even called them fried balls? Yuck! Imagine: “I looked at my girlfriend, so pretty in her white cotton dress having Ramu’s fried balls by the main street – her eyes watering and the mascara threatening to run and the only remorse I felt was the fact that I had no small change in my wallet. All knew that Ramu’s were the best”. Whoops. Change fried balls to pani puri and I’ll bet you’ll be better off. So if papads became poppadums then should pani puris be called tangypops? Why not?

 How does it taste feel like? mmmmmm….when you bite, the gol explodes flooding your mouth with that sweet, tangy and hot infusion of a million flavours. India is a land of contradictions – yes, sweet and fiery do co-exist nicely in this small fried universe. There’s far more liquid than you’d imagine the little ball to have. It bites, it challenges and if you give in, it makes you choke. The urban chic brigade is going hep by using vodka instead of the spicy water – to each his own. Some vendors have started using mineral water for making the pani and plastic gloves obviously spurred by a Supreme Court of India directive to make such offerings more hygienic. But my real foodie buds feel that the taste of the dirty fingers crushing the puris in the center and dipping them in that pungent water kept ready since yesterday is the real heaven. Who cares about the innards – it’s always the entry that jangles the senses (if you know what I mean!) Heck, we’ve grown up forcing these spicy spheres into ourselves and nothing much has happened to us. Some of us even have the strength to blog after years of gorging. Some balls we have. But this gets me to the poser of the day: Do docs (i.e. the Hipocratic Oath types) eat the real hand crafted roadside ones? For that would make them watered down hypocrites, no? I haven ‘t noticed, but if you have please let me know.

Who eats them? Nearly everyone, though a few are confirmed closet ball stuffers. Mostly women seem to gorge on it. Does that make it a sissy food? Hardly, if the challenging taste is any consideration. Or is it that a well made, spicy plate of this alkaline food threatens the male bastion by making men cry? Maybe the whole transaction has a subtle gay overhang – a guy giving another balls to eat. I don’t know, but I like to eat them. But yes, I tend to avoid the carts that have women flocking to them. Nothing like a quiet man to man deal.

Is it cultural? You bet! There’s a recent T Series produced Bhojpuri song called Gol Gappa Khiyae Ke Balmuwa. I’m sure the lyrics would be quite interesting. Got it? Bhojpuri. Pani puri. 😐 Apologies. And then there’s the sartorial connection set up by Rish Oberoi, an ex investment bank employee who in an Andy Warholish adaption attempts to sell fashionable clothes each having a motif and graphical application of the puchka through his venture aptly called Paani Puri Clothing. And then of course there was the gol gappa eating contest beteen SRK and Anushka Sharma in the film Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi that was quite a mouthful.

Is there a business opportunity for me? Yes and depends. For you might be a tad too late, but it’s a huge market and many mouths to feed. Some time back the Ahmedabad based Arvind group of companies had plans of starting a chain of gol gappa outlets called NRI Panipuri. I hope the venture has not turned soggy. Any Amdavadi readers, please ring up your street side pals and let us know. The group also had plans of developing gol gappa automated vending machines and installing it in malls! Wow! That would have been fun. Imagine feeding the machine a 10 rupee note, squatting down, eyes wide shut and the mouth wide open waiting for the nozzle to fire the lovely roundels into you. I love India. No really, if the Arabs can export hummus and pita and even have Adam Sandler doing all sorts of weird things with it in the Zohan flick, why can’t someone accept gol gappa stalls et al outside of India? And a note for my esteemed Pune readers: have you visited Om Jai Shankar Pani Puri? At least check out their website. I hope they start selling them balls online. What can you do? Puchugol, the patron saint of the pani puri vendors needs you! Some time back the Supreme Court of India said that street food must be prepared and sold in a hygienic manner. But local municipal corporations seem to have interpreted the order as banning the sale of street food. This is posing a threat to the survival of the vendors. I am sure you must have or will shortly notice the prices of pani puri plates going up in any street near you. Inflation hits these guys the most considering that a good portion of their earning might be disappearing as bribes to the local policemen/municipality officials. I don’t know what help to offer other than exhorting as many of you to get down on the streets and patronize these stalls. Micro sized sales units sold at low prices but in large numbers is the essence of India. Do you your bit and bite. 🙂

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