Friday, 19 February 2016

Wheel, Idly, Dosa and Technology

This is about a year old item.

Wheel was one of the most important inventions in the history of mankind that changed his life for better. Wheels were used for making carts, drawing water from well, grinding grains, making earthen pots etc from time immemorial and is one of the basic parts used in most of the machines of modern technology. So any talk of attempt to reinvent it now would appear meaningless. The idiomatic metaphor 'to reinvent the wheel' means to duplicate a basic method that has already previously been created or optimized by others and would be considered a waste of time and scarce resources.

People have to make a 'Buy or Make' choice very often in their lives, be it at home or office or factory or even at National level. Buying also includes 'sub contracting', 'off loading', 'outsourcing' etc. When you decide to 'make' something, instead of buying it, you need to possess or develop the know how for that purpose.

One approach to make progress in that direction is to duplicate what is already done by others and follow them. It also means to lag behind them. Another approach is to leap frog in to what others are planning to do in future, if it is possible. You need a strong base for that. The first one is often derided as 'reinventing the wheel', but it is considered a cautious alternative, with less amount of uncertainty, to invest your scarce resources. If you do not even know what the others have done and have difficulties in finding it out, the reinvention effort is also full of excitement and hardwork. They say 'Neccessity is the mother of invention'; It also applies to reinvention in such a case.

I had written an article on making idlies ans Dosaa at our home to illustrate my interesting experience. It could also be applicable to other things at higher levels. It is given below.

We were permitted to eat only home made food items in my childhood days, due to the traditional customs and beliefs. Eating in the not-so- good eateries in the small town was considered bad and harmful, almost on par with drinking in a liquor den. So nobody from respectable families would visit them. An entrepreneur from South Canara opened an Udupi hotel and started serving Idli and Dosa when I was in school. That was probably the first time when people in my town tasted these new food items. However, since we were not allowed to eat any outside food, we were still unaware of existence of these tasty food items.
Once one of our guests from Mumbai took a bold step to break this barrier. He coolly went to the Udupi hotel and brought home a lot of Idlis and Dosas. Since our elders did not want to hurt his feelings, they allowed children in the house to eat that stuff. Some elders also took a byte after a lot of pursuation but some stuck to their traditional convictions. Since this was a one time exception, the ban on bringing outside food in to our house continued, but children had once tasted Idly and Dosa and liked those items and they wished to eat them again and again. So my mother decided to cook them in her kitchen and fulfill the wishes of the children.

She had closely observed the colour, texture, softness, smell and taste of the Idlis and Dosas and guessed their ingredients and likely process of manufacture. Idli was similar to steamed dumplings such as Modak and Dosa looked similar to Amboli, our traditional items. My mother probably consulted other ladies, including wife of the owner of the Udupi hotel and got some hints. She connected the dots by her own R&D efforts and completed the picture.

As she continued her R.& D., She tried use of different ingredients, soaked them for different time periods, ground them, fermented, cooked or baked them for different time periods at different temperatures for establishing the process. Each step was required to be repeated several times to optimize the parameters. She finally succeeded in making Idlis and Dosas almost as good as in the Udupi hotel, after several attempts with small sample lots. It may be also noted that she did not have any of the modern gadgets like gas stove, mixer grinder, pressure cooker etc and had to use conventional utensils, grinding stones and firewood choolha. This was an example of 'reverse engineering' I had seen, when I did not even know these words.

We shifted to a new building in a remote place soon after our marriage. There was no hotel or canteen nearby and plying of autorikshas also had not started in that locality. We were required to go to a rather far off place for eating out, whenrver we desired. It was not at all convenient.  So we started our attempts of making Idlis and Dosas at home.

A number of cookery books were available by this time and our kitchen was equipped with gas and electrical gadgets.  Moreover, there were South Indian families in the building to advise. So we could start making reasonably good Idlis and Dosas in fewer number of attempts, as compared to our mother. This time there was no reverse engineering or re-invention, just some trials and acquiring skill through training and practice.

There was a lot of simplification of the processes in the subsequent period, when we started getting various mixes from MTR, Gits etc. Just open the pack, follow the instructions printed on the cover and make idli and Dosa in a jiffy.  Almost anybody who has preliminary knowledge of appliance in the  Kitchen could do it. Neither great skills nor deep knowledge was required.

Now we have many good restaurants near our house. We can either go there or order Idlis and Dosas by home delivery. We can buy ground dough paste or MTR packets from our grocer. We can now use any of these methods to get our idlis and Dosas.

However, the spirit of innovation does not die easily. We still occasionally experiment with different new ingredients and make minor changes in the processes to get different results. For example, Oats Dosa was recently prepared in our kitchen. Perhaps it was another re-invention of some sort!

This article got a good and varied response

K.Natarajan commented as a perfectionist would do:

You are making it sound very light, one of the greatest intricacies of South Indian culinary delights. After 50 years of struggle, we, in our home, are still not very sure whether the idli-or dosa -will turn out to be alright! Sometimes the dosa will not come out of the pan,  and will have to be served along with the pan, and if you struggle, you will end up with uppuma instead of dosa!.

All idlis are not idlis. It must be fluffy and have a spongy touch and should melt in the mouth. You also may end up with a hard, round stuff, meeting only dimensional requirements, but nowhere near the quality requirements, as stipulated above.

It is a difficult art to acquire.

Krishan S Chopra :
Beautiful, the way you have put in the reverse engineering. This spirit in man was always there. Is it not a wonder how the early man experimented and wrote volumes of scriptures like Pitanjli Yog sutra essentially study of human brain functioning .  

Anand Ghare (myself):
 I agree that making soft idlis and round crisp dosas of consistent quality standard is very difficult, perhaps as difficult as firing every bullet right into the bull's eye. However, our objective was limited to get some good snacs. Achieving high level of perfection is another matter.

I saw some similarity in our indigenisation efforts and  developing technology (not art) of making idli and dosa at home. Qualities such as strong will, determination, patience, experimentation, keen observations, grasping capacity, logical analysis and quick decision making was required in both cases, though to a different extent, in initial stages. Certain innovations and improvements were made to cut down time and efforts in both cases as the infrastructure was developed.

If I would have written about the story of our development of Dhokla (instead of idli and dosa) at home, perhaps somebody might have written "Jenoo Kaam tenoo Thaay, beejo kare to gotaa khaaye". This is another point of view. It helps in making the challenge more attractive. I end with recalling a quote, "If it is (considered) impossible, it is worth trying." That is the human spirit I wanted to stress in this article.


Mohan Babu :
A North Indian friend had been brought up partly in the South and had acquired a taste for idlies. When he married, he and his wife learnt how to make perfect idlies without a wet-grinder for the batter, with only the usual blender (the dear "mixie").

At times reverse engineering can surpass the original! (Leap frogging?)

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