A recent article seemed to suggest that the central government in India is concerned about the amount of food served in “standard” (read: non-dhaba) restaurants and that it plans to talk to hoteliers about this. The thought apparently stemmed from the wastage of food that happens in restaurants. While the article was rather brief, the responses that followed on social media weren’t: They ranged from protests about a nanny state to whether focusing on grain storage, rather than restaurant menus, is a better way to curtail food loss.
While I’m no political expert, the discussion did bring back memories of the time I’d moved to Mumbai, about 20 years ago. My new friends and I loved the independence that living alone, with a salary, offered. Part of the fun was eating out as often as we could.
The problem was when I’d eat out by myself. The first time I had a biryani in Mumbai, I was flummoxed by how different it tasted. Then I saw it was a lot more expensive than the biryanis in Kolkata, the perfect budget meals in our college days. As I dug in, I realised the amount of rice and the number of mutton pieces were a lot more than in Kolkata. The higher price seemed fair then. However, even my 20-year-younger self, with a higher metabolism and a more active lifestyle, could not finish the biryani.
The same issue occurred when I went to a Chinese restaurant. Unlike Kolkata, there was no concept of a half-plate, priced at 60 to 70 per cent of a full plate. The fried rice I ordered was too much to finish. It was rather bland, clearly engineered to need a “side dish”. In contrast, a good plate of fried rice in Kolkata could serve as a one-dish meal. Once again, I couldn’t finish what I ordered. Then came my first encounter with a sizzler. With our limited exposure back then, this was far more exciting than any foaming molecular gastronomy dish I might encounter today. We excitedly worked through the vegetables once the dish stopped sizzling, leaving the meat for the last. But, by then, one was full and the dish again went back unfinished, although sizzlers were not cheap.
Mumbai challenged my value equations: When eating alone, I’d be faced with meals I couldn’t finish and yet, had to pay for in full. That hurt me. Soon, I met my future wife. We had dinner out together every night while dating. At sizzler places, we’d order a single portion of mixed meat grills, ask for French fries instead of vegetables, and finish the dish. I came to the wry conclusion that restaurants in Mumbai were geared for those in love rather than those living by themselves.
Yet, several places across the world allow you to decide how much to eat while eating out. In Singapore’s Newton Centre Hawker Market, the Hokkien Mee I ordered at a stall came in serving options of: 1 person/2 person/3 person. Tapas in Spain came in small plates, allowing you to try dishes without filling yourself up. In Europe, good steak places give you an option to order your dish by weight. These meals are geared to not encourage excess.
Interestingly, food and beverage control is an integral part of the syllabus of the Institute of Hotel Management in India. Future restaurantiers and chefs are taught the values of standardising portion sizes in their menus, to manage business projections. The nutritional value of a meal is taken into consideration too; planning aims that the meal should be wholesome, yet not excessive.
There is no denying the fact that no one, including the government, should tell restaurants what or how to serve — however, with portion control, as a consumer, you can decide what works for you. I still prefer places which offer manageable servings I can finish, where I don’t waste my money. There are restaurants in Fort, Mumbai, meant for value-seeking office-goers. The dosas in Udupi joints there are smaller than those in Bandra, and cheaper too. The omelettes in old-school Irani cafes are not as gigantic as those in the modern European cafes of the suburbs. A fish curry thali in the Malvani joints in Parel are easy to finish, as are the dhansaks in the Parsi restaurants in the south.
Ironically, you also find trimmed-down portions in the modern high-end European restaurants, where the food served on a plate is usually perfect for one — though a lot more expensive. I urge you to look at portion sizes when you eat, for eating a smaller biryani is often a more fun diet than having to eat biryani made with “cauliflower rice”.