Pastry and the Progress of Civilisation

On the weekend gone by, I was attending a class on how to cook Hokkaido Cheese Tarts and Xiao Long Bao, the famous and delicious soup filled dumpling. The class was a birthday present from my darling wife, and as birthday presents go, has been the best one since she got me Ticket to Ride, which continues to provide hours of fun to this day. In time to come, the ability to make xiao long bao or cheese tarts may provide more cumulative pleasure and meaning than Ticket to Ride. But why speculate? For now, I shall write about the insights I gained during the class.

As I went through the class, the teacher pointed out that xiao long bao, for all its fame, does not have particularly exotic or expensive ingredients. It’s made with flour, minced pork, gelatin, and the same seasoning ingredients – sesame oil, vinegar, soy sauce, and salt and pepper – as are found in any East Asian chicken. The only really unusual ingredients are yeast and gelatin, which are procured easily enough. The reason you have to pay almost a dollar a dumpling, said Ms Tan, is that making the dumplings is both time consuming (you start the night before by adding yeast to the flour) and highly skilled; and that restaurants have to scour China to find skilled dumpling makers. Xiao Long Bao, she said, was all about the people making it, and not about what they were making it from.

This, I realised, is an interesting parallel to my older aunts’ and uncles’ idea of a good time. But as I thought more about it, I also realised that it is brought about by dramatically different circumstances. Let me elaborate.

My older aunts and uncles, all born before 1947, started adulthood as post-Partition refugees in Jammu and Delhi. Those were bleak years, not just for refugees, but for India as a whole. Material luxuries were scarce, or didn’t even exist. Automobiles and telephones were on a waiting list. Fruit and butter were major treats. But even with fruit, variety was limited; and so the treat was more to have a lot of a single kind of fruit, than to have many different kinds of fruits.

The thing that wasn’t scarce in those days was people. And so for my older relatives, their idea of luxury involves people doing work for them. The more work, the better. For my bua, bliss is having her driver drive around in the rains with no destination in mind. The driver, who has to control the car in miserable weather and driving conditions, may disagree. But anyhow. As they – and India – became richer, they started treating themselves to newly available material goods as well, but never quite lost the habit of thoroughly enjoying themselves by getting other people to do the work on their behalf.

Today, the situation is dramatically different. Free economies, free trade, and internet shopping, among other things, mean that we are spoiled for choice when it comes to material things; and they all cost much less thanks to the Chinese manufacturing miracle. Smartphones and motorcycles are within everyone’s reach! There are five different kinds of grains in the market. The fruit shop has fruits from all over the world, and farmers in Uttarakhand are now growing zucchini. What a cornucopia!

The trouble with cornucopias is that if everyone1 can have a smartphone, a smartphone ceases to be a signal of status and wealth. So if displaying your status and wealth is important to you, you can’t really do it with material things; unless you get really rare and exotic material things. Or, you could buy things which require something else scarce to make them – that is, skills. Such as xiao long bao.

So, sixty years ago, when money was limited, but things you could buy with it were even more limited, the only way you could show off was by buying labour. Today, money is widespread, things you can buy are even more so; and so the only way to show off is again by buying labour. What a full circle, and what a sandwich generation it makes those people who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s and could impress others with laptop computers or automobiles.

This is possibly overgeneralisation, but I think there’s another difference between buying labour in a scarcity era and in a post-scarcity era. In the scarcity era, you paid for conspicuous waste, like having five domestic servants run around to find your glasses; while in the post-scarcity era you pay for conspicuous skill2 like folding the perfectly symmetrical dumpling. Which brings us back to the class.

At the end of the class, I can testify to the importance of skill. Making the dumpling dough is easy enough, and the stuffing is even easier. But picking out the perfect quantity of dough, rolling it out into a flat disk that’s thinner on the edges, and then folding the disk into an aesthetically pleasing dumpling are skills that take probably take months of practice to get right. Frustrated at my fumbling efforts, Ms Tan frequently took over the doug rolling herself, and the bun folding even more so. About twenty dumplings in, my folding technique finally became adequate, if not good. It was hard to overcome habit and heed Ms Tan’s advice to do the folding right rather than do it quick3.

During the class, demonstrating a method of squeezing out dough, and noting my Indian origins, Ms Tan told me that it was the same method as would be used in making pratas. Too embarassed to admit that I have never made a paratha by hand, and buy frozen ones from packets when forced to make them for myself; I merely nodded; but this observation, coupled with her comments about xiao long bao being all labour and skill and not material cost, made me remember a classified advertisement that had gone viral a few years ago.

I’m not sure if the classified was real or a photocopied joke, and I can’t even find the image any more, so I’m describing it from memory. It was in Tamil, and listed several job openings, along with the salary offers against those openings. Beginner software engineers, or something similarly white collar, were being offered 8000 rupees a month. A parotta master (or perhaps it was a dosa master) was being offered something much higher – ten or twelve thousand rupees a month. In general, people were amused at a blue collar occupation making much more than a white collar occupation. Further commentary, if any, focused either on the utter commodification of IT skills, or on pointing out that domestic and cooking skills were actually in very short supply and worth paying for. But it was only on Sunday that I realised that Douglas Adams too had made a pertinent comment on the situation, many years before the classified had come out. It is this quote from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series:

The history of every major Galactic Civilization teds to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?’

So yes, a parotta master making more than a software engineer has a lot to say about the dignity of blue collar jobs, the commodification of coding skills, the changing demographics and economic fortunes of South India, and our tendency to carry around too many expectations. But at a very big picture level, it also suggests that South India, as a civilisation, has started the transition from Inquiry to Sophistication. Hurray!

  1. For sufficiently small values of everyone.
  2. I got the conspicuous waste and conspicuous skill terminology from Geoff Miller’s Spent, about which I blogged enthusiastically last year.
  3. This is ironic, considering that my day job frequently involves me telling customers that Chinese manufacturers only want to produce stuff which they can quickly make in bulk, and sell at lowest-bidder prices; while I as an Indian manufacturer am willing to make small production lots at lower productivity. When it came to cooking for myself, I flipper the attitude around completely.

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