One of the best meals I had in my life was at a hole-in-the-wall in Prague serving what I considered then, and now, as the best Lebanese food I’ve eaten. This, I suppose, is one of the ironies of globalization—that you can have a superlative Indian meal in Tokyo, great Italian pasta in Zermatt, wonderful Chinese in Jo’burg, and a memorable Lebanese meal in Prague.
I don’t remember the name of this restaurant. It was near the Vltava river at the end of a cobblestone pathway. I almost missed it. I was with a crew of people. We walked in after a long exhausting day and sat down at the one available table. Almost immediately, a plate of pickled and freshly sliced vegetables appeared. We weren’t asked what we would eat; there was no menu in sight. Plates of food simply appeared, each more delicious than the previous. Finally, when we could eat no more, we paid the bill and left. There was little discussion about choices. This, I think, was the charm of the meal.
Maximizer mindset: Multiple choices don’t necessarily ensure a good life.
As psychologist Barry Schwartz argues in his book, The Paradox of Choice, sometimes “more is less”. In other words, just because we have more choices doesn’t mean that they will be better, or more meaningful, or give us more pleasure. Au contraire, many psychologists, including Schwartz, have discovered that an abundance of choices leads to confusion and consumer anxiety.
This is probably why I loved my Prague Lebanese restaurant so much. At the end of a long day, I didn’t want to be faced with menu choices. I just wanted food—tasty food. The Japanese omakase meals in which you basically entrust yourself to the chef and eat what he or she serves; and the chef’s tasting menus all over the world attempt to do this as well by removing the responsibility of choice from the diner. When you say “omakase onegaishimasu” in Kyoto, you are asking the chef to “do me the favour of choosing my food”. No thinking, just eating. In a way, it is like being back in your mother’s kitchen, especially if your mother was an amazing cook.
Schwartz uses another example to make his point. Say, you go into a wine store in interior Maharashtra. There are only three types of wine available and you pick up a bottle. It’s okay wine but what did you expect? You end up satisfied. Instead, let’s say you go to a wine shop in Paris or in San Francisco. For any wine that you care for—be it Merlot or Chardonnay—there are 2,000 choices. You pick up a bottle but you are always left with a niggling dissatisfaction. What if the other bottles that you discarded were better?
Choice is complicated. I value personal freedom above all but I am also a person who likes fewer rather than more choices. One of the reasons I love Indian retail is because it still hasn’t reached the abundance of choice that people in the West enjoy. When I call my local Family Supermarket and ask for cheese, I know that he will send me Amul or Britannia. No-brainer. I don’t have to go into a complicated explanation about French Brie, about whether I want imported or local, artisanal or mass-produced, organic or not, with or without rennet—all of which are the choices that will face me at Whole Foods Market. In India, whether it is a Bata chappal or an Amul cheese, I get what they give me. Sure, I miss the Gorgonzola and the Camembert, but not on a daily basis. And for that, I have Olive Beach’s Gourmet Bazaar, and my friend, Kavita, who picks up stuff for me.
For people like me who get overwhelmed by too much choice, Brahmin’s Coffee Bar in Chamarajpet, Bangalore, is delightful. You go to Brahmin’s for two things: the idlis and the coffee. Their total menu offering consists of idlis, vadas, coffee, kharabath and kesaribhath. The menu hasn’t changed in 20 years, I am told. In ambience, it is similar to parathewali gali, with its limited but immensely satisfactory offerings. In contrast, my nemesis is the multi-cuisine restaurant with five pages of food choices. When we go to Koramangala, we usually end up at Sukh Sagar because it is one place where the three generations of our family can be satisfied. I go there out of necessity but I hate the long-winded menu with its 10 types of dosas, juices, nachos and pasta.
Schwartz divides people into the satisficers and the maximizers. Satisficers are people like me who dislike an array of choices. While I may be intellectually interested in the best coffee in town or the most flavourful chocolate bean on earth, when it comes to daily life, I am easily satisfied. Good enough is good enough for me. Mostly, I am just lazy.
Maximizers are those who seek the best in life. They will travel 50km to a store because it sells the shoe brand they crave (something that I can’t fathom doing); they love shopping in malls that offer every variety of tie there is (something that will make my head spin after 10 minutes); and will not eat at Brahmin’s or MTR, where you are pretty much told when you can eat, where you can sit and what you will eat.
These maximizers, Schwartz discovered, are more successful in the monetary sense. When he tracked these two profiles through and after college, he discovered that maximizers had starting salaries that were $7,000 (around Rs2.8 lakh) more than the satisficers’ starting salary. But by other measures—stress, depression, and job satisfaction—maximizers felt much worse about their lot in life. Makes sense. To maximize is to seek what can sometimes be an unreachable goal. To be satisfied is to say enough.
We in India have one thing going for us. Even though economists rue our gradualist instincts; even though social workers rue our inherent fatalism that accepts injustices rather than fight for what’s better; even though capitalists frown upon the legacy of Fabian socialism; we are as a nation more “satisficer” than “maximizer”. Our roads may be clogged, our infrastructure crumbling but, with limited choices, we have no choice but to take pleasure in the small things and be contented with our lot.
If Shoba Narayan had to choose between a rock and a hard place, she would be in limbo for the rest of her life.
Write to her at thegoodlife@ livemint.com