Category: Food and Drink

How to travel to India

From a reader:

I have really enjoyed your travel posts on various countries, and am currently planning a trip to India for the month of November. However, I have struggled to find much writing of yours on the country. Perhaps a post on tips/places/cities/culture is in order? It would be much appreciated.

I have only a few India tips, but I can recommend them very, very strongly.  Here goes:

1. You can’t just walk around all day and deal with the pollution, the bad sidewalks, and dodging the traffic.  This ain’t Paris.  Plan accordingly.

2. When Alex set off to live in India, I said to him: “Alex, after a few weeks there, I want you to email me “the number.”  The number is how many consecutive hours you can circulate in an Indian city without having to stop and resort to a comfortable version of the indoors.”  You too will figure out pretty quickly what your number is, and it won’t take you a few weeks.

3. India is one of the very best and most memorable trips you can take.  You should go repeatedly.

4. Every single part of India is interesting and worth visiting, as far as I can tell after five trips.  That said, I find Bangalore quite over-visited relative to its level of interest.

5. My favorite places in India are Mumbai, Chennai, Rajasthan, and Kolkaata.  Still, I could imagine a rational person with interests broadly similar to my own having a quite different list.

6. India has the best food in the world.  It is not only permissible but indeed recommended to take all of your meals in fancy hotel restaurants.  Do not eat the street food in India (and I eat it virtually everywhere else).  It is also permissible to find two or three very good hotel restaurants — or even one — and simply run through their menus.  You won’t be disappointed.

7. Invest in a very, very good hotel.  It is affordable, and you will need it, and it will be a special memory all its own.

8. Being driven around in the Indian countryside is terrifying (and I have low standards here, I do this all the time in other non-rich countries).  If it were safer, I would see many more parts of India.  But it isn’t.  So I don’t.

9. If you go during monsoon season, your trip will be quite memorable.  I cannot say I recommend this (I don’t), but I am myself glad I did it once, in Goa, when monsoon season started early.  I got a lot of work done.

10. Do not expect punctuality.

11. Most of the sights in India, including the very famous ones, are overrated.  The main sight is India itself, and that is underrated.

12. “In religion, every Indian is a millionaire.”

I thank Yana and Dan Wang and Alex for discussions relevant to this post.

The meaning of death, from an economist’s point of view

A few days ago Garett Jones came to my office door and asked “what do we really know about labor supply?”  I said we might as well extend the query to labor demand.  In any case, here was part of my answer, paraphrased of course:

I’ve been much influenced by having kept a dining guide blog/website for almost thirty years, and seeing so many places come and go.  On one hand, I see the stickiness of plans.  A restaurant opens up, and the proprietor has the intent to be a certain thing.  They’re not going to take the pupusas off the menu, just because the price of corn has gone up.  Similarly, increases in the minimum wage might not much alter the hiring plans of the restaurant.  The very act of starting a business selects, to some extent, for people who stick to their plans.  The dishes still need to be washed, and many owners are not at the margins of considering serious automation.

That said, sooner or later these restaurants pass from the scene.  And when the El Salvadoran place closes, there is a real competition across competing food visions.  Will it be pupusas, roast chicken, or kebab?  Once again, relative prices will exert their influence, on both the supply and demand sides of the market.  In fact, pupusa places are slightly in retreat, as they cannot always bid for their higher area rents — it is hard to sell a pupusa for more than a few dollars and at the same time the requisite labor is harder not easier to come by and demand seems stagnant at best.

Similarly, if the minimum wage is high, the new restaurant, if indeed it is even a restaurant, will economize on the number of laborers required to make the food.  The plan for a true Bengali sweets shop will not get off the ground.  You might see storage space or a less labor intensive means of food preparation.

We thus come to a truth that is both happy and sad: death and turnover are how relative prices imprint their impact on the world.

And that, to an economist, is the meaning of death.

Do land use restrictions increase restaurant quality and diversity?

Daniel Shoag and Stan Veuger say yes, but I am not so convinced.

It turns out that metrics of land use restrictions are correlated with restaurant quality, across cities.  To cut to the chase, Los Angeles ranks number one on this index, and I can agree with that assessment in terms of food quality and also diversity.  (Other good food cities, such as Miami, also rank high on the index.)  Yet for the metropolitan area near L.A., food is generally best where the land use restrictions are least binding.  Beverly Hills and Santa Monica have some decent fancy restaurants, but the real gems are to be found elsewhere, in fringes such as northeast Hollywood, Silverlake (gentrifying a bit too much these days, however), north Orange County, Monterey Park, and so on.  Pasadena has hardly anywhere excellent to eat.

I would suggest an alternative channel of influence: urban areas with high inequality have both better food (see An Economist Gets Lunch, but basically imagine the wealthier people generating demand and the poorer people supplying cheap labor) and more building restrictions.  The wealthier people decide to do something to keep the poorer people out of their neighborhoods.

I hate to say “correlation does not prove causation,” but…correlation does not prove causation.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

So you think you know diet?

For every 100,000 inhabitants, Okinawa has 68 centenarians – more than three times the numbers found in US populations of the same size. Even by the standards of Japan, Okinawans are remarkable, with a 40% greater chance of living to 100 than other Japanese people.

Little wonder scientists have spent decades trying to uncover the secrets of the Okinawans’ longevity – in both their genes and their lifestyle. And one of the most exciting factors to have recently caught the scientists’ attention is the peculiarly high ratio of carbohydrates to protein in the Okinawan diet – with a particular abundance of sweet potato as the source of most of their calories.

People, I am not trying to claim this is true!  As is so often the case, I am trying to confuse you and persuade you that maybe you know less than you think.  Here is the full story.  Here are other pieces on why Okinawans live so long, none to me very convincing.

Airport food is hard

* space is at a huge premium, you can store very little
* knives are usually chained to the wall, and inventoried between shifts
* you can’t just bring supplies down the airport corridors when you need them. Items need to clear security.  It’s often a third party that’s engaged to do that, and it has to happen off hours.  Working with the third party can make sourcing ingredients challenging.
* customers have varied tastes and need to be served quickly.  Despite the high rents and challenging operating environment airports often require ‘street pricing’ (charge the same in the airport, perhaps plus 10%, versus what same item would cost on the outside)
* it’s not even the restaurant that’s managing the operation, usually they are licensing he concept.  For example there are only two vendors offering food serving in the Phoenix airport, despite all the different restaurant names.
* in Atlanta the way you get into the airport is ‘partnering with’ the former Mayor’s daughter
And consumers are pretty captive, security won’t let you bring many food items into the airport…

That is all from an email from Air Genius Gary Leff.

My Conversation with Rebecca Kukla

She is a philosopher at Georgetown, here is the audio and transcript, I thought it was excellent and lively throughout.  Here is part of the summary:

In her conversation with Tyler, Kukla speaks about the impossibility of speaking as a woman, curse words, gender representation and “guru culture” in philosophy departments, what she learned while living in Bogota and Johannesburg, what’s interesting in the works of Hegel, Foucault, and Rousseau, why boxing is good for the mind, how she finds good food, whether polyamory can scale, and much more.

Here is one bit:

KUKLA: What’s interesting in Hegel? Okay. You ask hard questions. This is why you’re good at your job, right?

I think Hegel’s fascinating. I think the main idea in Hegel that is fascinating is that any cultural moment, or set of ideas, or set of practices is always internally contradictory in ways it doesn’t notice, that there are tensions built into it. What happens, over time, is that those tensions bubble up to the surface, and in the course of trying to resolve themselves, they create something newer and better and smarter that incorporates both of the original sides.

That was a much more Hegelian way of putting it than I wanted it to come out, basically — the idea that going out and looking for consistency in the world is hopeless. Instead, what we should do is figure out how the contradictions in the world are themselves productive, and push history forward, and push ideas forward, is what I take to be the key interesting Hegelian idea.

COWEN: Michel Foucault. How well has it held up?

KUKLA: Oh, you’re asking me about people I mostly love.

COWEN: But empirically, a lot of doubt has been cast upon it, right?

KUKLA: On the details of his empirical genealogical stories, you mean?


KUKLA: Yes, but I think that the basic Foucauldian picture, which is — let’s reduce Foucault to just two little bits here. One basic piece of the Foucauldian picture is that power is not a unify-unilateral, top-down thing. Power expresses itself in all of the little micro interactions that go on between people and between people and their environments all the time.

Power isn’t about a big set of rules that’s imposed on people. Power is about all of the little things that we do with one another as we move through the world. All of those add up to structures of power, rather than being imposed top-down. I think that has been, at least for me and for many other people, an incredibly fertile, productive way of starting to think about social phenomenon.

The other bit of the Foucauldian picture that I think is incredibly important is the idea that a lot of this happens at the level of concrete, fleshy bodies and material spaces. Power isn’t sets of abstract rules. Power is the way that we are trained up when we are little kids — to hold our legs in a certain way, or to hold our face in a certain way, or to wear certain kinds of clothing. Power is the way that schools are built with desks in rows that enforces a certain direction of the gaze, and so on.

I could go on and on, but the way that the materiality of our bodies and our habits and our environments is where power gets a hold, and where our social patterns and norms are grounded, rather than in some kinds of high-level principles or laws, is also, I think, very fertile.

That’s independent of the details of his genealogical stories. Because, yeah, he does seem to have played fairly fast and loose with actual historical details in a lot of cases.

Here is another segment:

COWEN: Let me start with a very simple question about feminism. What would be a rhetorical disadvantage that many women are at that even, say, educated or so-called progressive men would be unlikely to see?

KUKLA: A rhetorical disadvantage that we’re at — that’s a fascinating question. I think that there is almost no correct way for a woman to use her voice and hold her body to project the proper kind of expertise and authority in a conversation.

I think that there’s massive — I don’t even want to call it a double bind because it’s a multidimensional bind — where if we sound too feminine, sounding feminine in this culture is coded as frivolous and unserious. If we sound too unfeminine, then we sound like we are violating gender norms or like we are unpleasant or trying to be like a man.

I think that almost any way in which we position ourselves — if we try to be polite and make nice, then we come off as weak. If we don’t make nice, then we’re held to a higher standard for our appropriate behavior than men are. I think there’s almost no way we can position ourselves so that we sound as experts. So oftentimes, the content of our words matters less than our embodied presentation as a woman.

Definitely recommended.

Quito travel notes

LLapingachos are the way to go: “an Ecuadorian dish of potato patties or thick potato pancakes stuffed with cheese and cooked on a hot griddle until crispy.”

Given the landlocked nature of Quito, the seafood — and I don’t just mean lake fish — is remarkably good.  Try the fried corvina at Las Corvinas de Don Jimmy, in the Mercado Central, with a drink and ceviche only $6.  Zazu is one of the best restaurants in South America, and many of the dishes are below $15.  I recommend La Briciola for Italian food and chocolate ice cream, noting that in Latin America the most boring-sounding pastas, such as the ravioli, are the ones to order.

The 17th century heritage of Quito makes the colonial center feel like central Mexico.  Think “built up early, backwater later on, for a long time.”  The mix of mestizo and indigenous.  The design of the inner city and its churches.  The role of crafts.  The persistence of particular foodstuffs, in this case potatoes and corn and avocado and palmitos.  Popcorn was invented somewhere around here.

The weather is perfect every day.

Compañía de Jesús is arguably the most beautiful church I have seen.

There is an unusually high percentage of Indian-American tourists (do any of you know why?), that said the absolute number of tourists is quite small.  Most people are passing through on their way to the Galapagos, described by one skeptical pro-Trump tourist we met as “$7,000 worth of lizards.”

Following dollarization, it seems that all the Kennedy half dollars and Sacagawea dollar coins have ended up here.  .

Cops dress like superheroes to make themselves more approachable by children:

The Saturday “Indian market” at Otavalo is the nicest, most hassle-free market I know.  Cotacachi would be a wonderful place to retire, except I won’t.

The quechua-speaking guide for Cotopaxi volcano loves YouTube and listens to “adventures, news, music, and much more.”  He is still hoping to get a phone with an internet connection, and believes that lack of good education for indigenous children is the country’s biggest problem.

“In 2010, more than 2,600 people were killed in Ecuador, a homicide rate of about 18 per 100,000, almost twice the level the World Health Organization considers an epidemic. This year, the small Andean nation is expected to record 5.6 killed per 100,000, one of Latin America’s lowest rates.”  (Excellent piece, WSJ link).

On the “is now the right time to visit Quito?” scale, I give 2019 a 9.5.

Shared Plates, Shared Minds: Consuming from a Shared Plate Promotes Cooperation

A meal naturally brings people together, but does the way a meal is served and consumed further matter for cooperation between people? This research (n = 1476) yielded evidence that it does. People eating from shared plates (i.e., Chinese style meal) cooperated more in social dilemmas and negotiations than those eating from separate plates. Specifically, sharing food from a single plate increased perceived coordination among diners, which in turn led them to behave more cooperatively and less competitively toward each other compared with individuals eating the same food from separate plates. The effect of sharing a plate on cooperation occurred among strangers, which suggests that sharing plates can bring together not only allies, but strangers as well.

That is the abstract from a piece by Kaitlin Woolley of Cornell, via the estimable Chug, with whom I have shared meals.

Price discrimination markets in everything

Parents who give up their phones during dinner will be rewarded with free meals for their kids at one U.K.-based restaurant chain. For the first week of December, Frankie & Benny’s is running its “no-phone zone” campaign in an attempt to improve family interactions at the dinner table.

The promotion was announced following a study that the Italian restaurant chain ran earlier this year, where they studied the dinner table behavior of over 1,500 people. And the results were staggering—almost a quarter of the parents admitted to not only using their phones during mealtime but that they did so while their kids were talking about their day.

Here is the full story, via Tadd Wilson.

Legalize Pay Toilets!

Image result for CEPTIAPay toilets are common in Europe but uncommon in the United States. Sophie House writing at City Lab explains why. Pay toilets were made illegal in much of the United States in the 1970s:

In 1969, California Assemblywoman March Fong Eu smashed a porcelain toilet with an axe in front of the California state capitol, protesting the misogyny of restrooms that charged entrance fees for stalls but not urinals. She was not alone in her frustration. The grassroots organization CEPTIA—the Committee to End Pay Toilets in America—mobilized against pay toilets, putting out a quarterly newsletter (the Free Toilet Paper) and exchanging warring pamphlets with Nik-O-Lok, the leading pay-toilet manufacturer. The group won a citywide ordinance banning pay toilets in Chicago in 1973, followed by bans in Alaska, California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, and Wyoming.

The logic seems to be if we cannot sit for free then you cannot stand for free. House calls the pay toilet ban a triumph over sexism. Is it so hard to understand why urinals are cheaper to operate and more difficult to lock than stalls?

In any case, CEPTIA was remarkably effective. In 1970 there were some 50,000 pay toilets in America and by 1980 there were almost none. The attentive reader, however, will not be surprised to learn that smashing the pay toilet conspiracy did not result in an abundance of free toilets.

In the decades since CEPTIA disbanded, however, pay-toilet bans have proven to be a Pyrrhic victory. The committee’s vision of free toilets for all never came to pass. Cities have persistently refused to construct public restrooms, and existing facilities have fallen into disrepair. Citing the difficulty of keeping bathrooms safe and clean, municipalities are often unwilling or unable to pay. Even assuming that funds are available for initial construction of public toilets, the maintenance and operating costs are a deterrent.

By contrast, in cities from Europe to India to Latin America, small entrance fees help to cover the costs of keeping facilities in good condition. Creating a similar revenue stream to defray operating costs would likely make pay toilets more attractive to U.S. municipalities. For example, fees could offset the costs of hiring restroom attendants—an excellent, but expensive, way to keep bathrooms safe. Pay toilets also redistribute the operating costs of restrooms. Free toilets are, of course, taxpayer-funded, while under pay-toilet schemes, tourists who use urban infrastructure also contribute to its functioning.

A Time to Fast

Over one hundred years ago researchers demonstrated that calorie restriction in rats increased lifespan, sometimes by as much as 50%. Since that time, the finding has been replicated and extended to primates. A few humans have taken up the diet but for most of us easy access to delicious food trumps willpower. A new paper in Science reviews the literature on calorie restriction and also offers some evidence that less restrictive regimes such as intermittent fasting may have similar effects.

First on calorie restriction. As noted, we have data on mice and primates showing increased lifespan and we also have data on humans showing the same physiological improvements as seen in other species:

In humans, short-term trials such as the multicenter CALERIE (Comprehensive Assessment of Long-Term Effects of Reducing Intake of Energy) study (2629), the observational studies of centenarians residing in Okinawa who have been exposed to CR for most of their lives (30), and observations of the members of the Calorie Restriction Society (CRONies) who self-impose CR (31) have shown the occurrence of many of the same physiological, metabolic, and molecular benefits typically associated with long-lived animals on CR. These studies support the observation that long-term CR preserves a more youthful functionality by improving several markers of health, including decreases in body weight, metabolic rate, and oxidative damage (14); lower incidence of cardiovascular disease (31) and cancer; and decreased activity of the insulin-Akt-FOXO signaling pathway (32, 33).

Although these findings clearly indicate that a reduction of caloric intake could be an effective intervention to improve health and prevent disease during aging in humans, there are several obstacles [including safety concerns and lack of data in older popualtions] and…The current “obesogenic” social environment makes it difficult for individuals to adhere to strict dietary regimens and lifestyle modifications for long periods of time. Thus, there is interest in alternative feeding regimens that may recapitulate at least some of the beneficial effects of CR by controlling feeding-fasting patterns with little or no reduction in caloric intake.

So what else works? Three regimes have shown promise. 1) Time Restricted Feeding (TRF), i.e. limiting eating time to a 4-12 period during the day and preferably earlier in the day, 2) Intermittent Fasting (IF)–say a 24-hour period of 1/4 calorie consumption once or twice a week and 3) a Fasting Mimicking Diet (FMD) in which calories are restricted to 30% of normal with a higher proportion coming from fat and doing this for five days periodically, i.e. once a month to once very couple of months. The diagram presents the main results and evidence.