Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Food Trucks in Bangalore: In HBL's Blink

Food trucks that sell burgers and hotdogs and steaks are apparently all the rage in Bengaluru. A feature in The Hindu Businessline's BLink supplement this week. It was sweet of them to mention that I am the editor of The Forager. But, but, there is a horrible typo that they seem to just not change online. Grrr.

Read the story here. Or see below.


How does one keep up with food trends? If there is the mysterious floating foam of liquid nitrogen in molecular gastronomy one season, there is the back-to-basic flavours of greasy ‘dude food’ that trends for the next, each preceded by the now ubiquitous hashtag. Perhaps the latter is a nod to the ‘all-American man’ — slouched on a sofa with cold beer in hand and boxes of pizza or a burger in front — popularised by generic Hollywood offerings. Dude food — or burgers, hotdogs, sandwiches, nachos, BBQ-ed steaks and an in-house special or two — make up the standard menu on a food truck, where the fluff of restaurants is trimmed to highlight just the food.

Bengaluru has 18 registered already, out of which one is an ice-cream truck. Several have been started by former corporate employees, lured away from regular paycheques by a love for food and the promise of a receptive market. Some are trained chefs, others good home-cooks. Operating with minimum staff, they front the desk, so to speak, cooking up a storm around the city, at concert venues and even private parties.

The investment to fabricate a truck and turn it into a mobile canteen can vary widely. Siddhanth Sawkar, co-owner of The Spitfire BBQ truck, built the vehicle himself, at a cost of ₹11 lakh. “We have a fabrication unit, so this was a piece of cake,” he says. Shakti Subbarao’s Gypsy Kitchen, one of the other popular food trucks in town, is a year and a half old. He stations his truck — fabricated at a cost of ₹8.5 lakh — at HSR Layout in the south-east of the city. Fuel Up, co-owned by Deepthi Das and her husband Jaisimha, cost them ₹36 lakh, because “we got a brand new truck,” said Jaisimha. Several buy and modify second-hand trucks, he said, adding that there are rules against using second-hand trucks to sell food if they have been used to ferry passengers and/or goods. Without hefty rents and by mostly cooking the food themselves, revenues are in the range of ₹3-8 lakh per month, all three say.

Food trucks, however, remain in a grey area of the business because of the near-absence of laws regarding this new entrant to the food industry. Subbarao told me that apart from the standard food licence, there should be a permit from the city municipal corporation to park these trucks in different neighbourhoods and from the RTO for modifications made to the vehicles. But provisions for the latter two don’t exist “yet,” he said. It is an issue Das is trying to resolve, having started The Food Truck Association, a nationwide body that already has 80-plus members, mostly from the metros. The municipal corporation in Gurgaon is soon going to consider food trucks as commercial establishments, which will be a relief to owners who have to battle against frequent complaints from residents for ‘taking up too much parking space’ and occasional harassment from the authorities. Das said that Mumbai is also considering introducing guidelines and laws, and it should soon happen in Bengaluru as well.

In Bengaluru, these three food trucks — and others like De3, The SWAT Truck, Off Road Food Truck — are starting to build what might soon turn out to be a community of food truckers. Das said that he has seen a phenomenal increase in the number of food trucks opening for business in the last four months alone. “… I know of six more trucks that are being fabricated as we speak. We share staff, when there is a need,” he said.

As a community, they plan to rent out large grounds for events. Later this month, nine food trucks will gather at a common venue. An annual food carnival is also on the cards. Fuel Up also creates a personalised menu for private parties, though their regular haunts are tech parks, where they offer healthier options like salads and sandwiches. According to Das, their goal is to bring “gourmet food onto the streets.”

Experimenting with the sauces, adding new flavours to regular hotdogs — New York-style one day, Vietnamese the next — in-house specialities like pork ribs and fried Oreos are how USPs are created. The frequent changes in menu ensure that customers keep coming back. People from different age groups and earning brackets — several of whom turn into regulars — can easily afford to eat at the trucks.

Indian cities and street food have an intrinsic connection. But these trucks stand apart not only for their eye-catching get-up but also the food they offer. For the well-travelled city slicker, it is a slice of New York in namma Bengaluru.

Deepa Bhasthi is a writer and the editor of 'The Forager', an online quarterly journal on food politics

(This article was published on November 6, 2015)

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Memories of Mangaluru: Filter Coffee Column in Kindle

Things were never the way they are now, when we inhabited that city. In the wake of the rise of fundamentalism in Mangaluru, something I wrote for Kindle.

Read here or see below.


Anniversaries, those damned things. They serve perfectly to throw a harsh spotlight of how much you have aged, how long your past now is. Ten years since this, twelve since that, twenty this, more that. High school seems so very far away now, because university itself was ten years ago. The eleventh year now, since I first moved out of my home in the hills and went to university four hours away in Mangaluru, nee Mangalore. The city, clad in the cloak of its old name and the ideas of its past (and present) as a trading port that came with its old world charm, was what we then called a small town trying very hard to be a big city. And never really succeeding. Not then, this was before the malls and Café Coffee Days and Pizza Huts and air conditioned halls of clothing that began to crop up the year I left that city.

I feel like a subject in those Iran and Kabul photos from the 1970s, where the women in university wore short skirts, smoked cigarettes and hung out with the friends who happened to be boys, those pictures that lamenters of a bygone era juxtapose with burkhas and hijabs and cold streets filled with fear and restriction. I feel like the women in those pictures, and alternatively like these lamenters, when I see what is happening in Mangaluru these days. The latest is that two men were beaten up for working in the same shop as women of another religion. It goes without saying that the former are Muslims and the latter are Hindus. It is always, always this. It is always Hindus against the Muslims, though sometimes it is the other way around too. For talking to each other, for being in the same classroom as each other, for breathing the same air as each other, for being alive in the same time as each other….again and again, it has begun now, this relentless dangerous trip that they seem to be on – what have they been smoking? Shouldn’t it have made them peace loving and mild and blissful? At least that was what the hippies said it did to them? What has happened to the hippies?

Like two aunties sitting back with our men alongside us feigning mild interest, dear old friend of a decade, P, and I talked about Mangalore the other day. Her native, as they say, for me, the town I grew free and me in. We talked of the senior who used to sneak into the hostel late in the night after a party at the pub – a mild place with bad music that served alcohol and was not grand enough to be called a pub.

The privately owned buses that plied between the city and the university had gaudy lights and were painted in bright red and fuschia. They all drove like bats out of a deep dank hell. You could set your watches by the time they kept, for so fierce was the competition and the time allotted to each company to ensure fairness. The drivers, pilots they sometimes called themselves, they were young and brash and wore cheap perfume and acted powerful. Short affairs sprouted often enough between them and girls who were regular passengers. The whole route to the city was strewn with colleges of various status, degree and cool levels. Some of these girls were Muslim and were clad in burkhas, tightly clinched at the waists, their kohl-darkened eyes beautiful, enchanting and seductive. The affairs, I am told, were mostly conducted through these kohl-ed eyes and the eye contact the driver held in the rear view mirror. Like some innocent love story in a village from a time long past, the eyes spoke, apparently. P and I, liberal as we were, with more easy access to boys and the freedom we had, have taken for granted, had laughed then. We laughed now too, recollecting these stories. We told ourselves it was a reluctant laughter, as if with that carefree, harmless judgement of these futile romances, we could ignore the threat something like this would pose today. The driver would be chopped down in broad daylight, if not beaten beyond recognition. The girl would be married off within the month.

We found ourselves remembering old stories, as it often happens when old friends meet. We also found ourselves commenting on how the stories we knew to be innocent and befitting of the young and foolish age we were would be seen in this raging times. We felt like old wives talking yet again of our times when times were good and people were kind.

Can we ask ourselves some innocent questions please? Call me naïve, I won’t mind. Strip away all the complicated politics and nuances and power games that go on here and explain to me why we hate and why we hate so much people that look, talk, eat, act, copulate, live and die like us. Such an unanswerable question, isn’t it? Because once you strip away all that makes these questions so much more than what they are in plain words, the question becomes irrelevant too.

It seems like such a simple thing, this whole caste and religion thing. It is all really about respect and that live and let live policy we learnt about in school. Yet. All this fundamentalism, this utter, utter stupidity, foolishness that is so juvenile, yet is the most dangerous because it comes not with logic or thought.

Such pointless things we say to while away the time. Like how things were not the way they are now. Like how the Muslims in our friend circles were just friends, not ‘Muslim’, that their names were just the words we called them by, not a marker for which god they believed in. Like how, in just a decade or less, the city we happily walked about in is a city we no longer recognize. Not merely for the glitzy shopping arenas it sprouts. Not for the indie bookstore, beloved, much frequented, that has now closed. Not for the veneer of modernity that is the Midas touch for most of its lanes and people. Not for any of the things inevitable in everyone’s sprint to happy consumerism. And that is why P and I don an aunty’s demeanour and join the lamenters.

For it is not for the innocence lost. We aren’t the innocents we were either. It is for the regression that is walking alongside the outward markers of modernity – the malls and such like – that is turning a town pretending to be a city into a village where power and fanaticism, religion and state all mesh together to weave a web so entangled that one can only hope won’t trap the spider itself.

For hope, hope is all there is, however bleak and futile.