It’s not particularly the most hope-inducing time, especially for those of us who live in concrete cages, but there are some urban images that serve as instant pick-me-ups for the world weary. Somewhere near the top of this list lies a group of delivery executives from various food apps, parked at a street corner, exchanging damning gossip about you and me and our insatiable lusts as they wait for their next call. It’s time we invented a collective noun for this comforting sight. A boon of delivery execs? A huddle? A promise?

Those weren’t the days

Returning to Mumbai after a long escape into the lower Himalayas, where the rolling mist shrouds one’s most persistent fears in a forgetful haze, it’s time for the existential dread to return with a deafening screech. But there’s something about the city that even the most picturesque surroundings cannot match: the utter joy of knowing you can fulfill your 10am Vietnamese coffee craving, or get your 4pm samosa fix with a swipe more satisfying than any dating app can tempt you with.

In the pre-Covid days, which have taken on a mythic air of innocence and splendour, these apps were a convenience I took for granted, like movie theatres, salons and pubs. I now wonder why I didn’t spend all my time at these unspeakably decadent spaces. I dream of watching mindless matinees, followed by elaborate beauty rituals and rounded off with ill-advised cocktails. The pandemic has clearly turned me into a bourgeois cliché, deliciously depicted in Masaba Masaba, a rare upbeat watch in these thriller-obsessed times.

The forbidden cup

I’m surprised how the title The Tao of Food Apps hasn’t already been released by a canny publisher. There’s so much to learn about pandemic psychology from the way we use them. To those of us who grew up shaking out the stubborn remnants of ketchup thicker than one’s bedside pile of unread books, or re-squeezed limes till they were drier than the humour of an Englishman in a Hollywood film, the freedom is intoxicating. The idea that food can be ordered in simply for the joy it brings, and not the need it fulfills, is still radical and transgressive.

The ‘bestseller’ tag on an online menu has the power to throw even the most clear-headed orderer completely off-track!

Coming back home to an empty apartment, a two-month old milk carton curdling in the fridge, I’ve revelled in the glory of a home-delivered cup of chai while recoiling from the extravagance of the act at the same time. Who knew a simple cup of tea could become a forbidden pleasure? I’m ashamed to admit it tasted wonderful, not least because it was spiced with freshly-ground guilt. A midnight waffle, a midday roll, anytime ramen – for best results, enjoy with a smattering of self-doubt.

Bestselling distractions

The ‘bestseller’ tag attached to items on an online menu has the power to throw even the most clear-headed orderer completely off-track. What starts off as a butter chicken and naan order gets derailed by the lure of a bestselling biryani or raan. A modest Thai curry and sticky rice order inevitably morphs into a greasy paneer chilli and burnt garlic fried rice. And an innocent jalebi expands to encompass gulab jamun, ras malai and kaju barfi. How weak the human spirit is in the face of such delicious distractions. How incapable of making the distinction between need and greed, urge and splurge. And how lucky to have the chance.

With the dark year heading towards the notional brightness of the festive season, the temptation to overuse food apps is immense. In seasons past, every food joint from the neighbourhood chaat stall to a five-star bistro would draw crowds hungry for the company as much as for the food. It’s all a bit different this troubled year, pre-occupied with safety. After months of being prudent, I finally gave in to the maddening urge that every sushi lover knows well. That slippery slope from the first thought about sashimi, to the sinful dunk into a bowl of soy, till the grateful click of chopsticks. Arigato to the gentlemen on the scooters, whose temperatures readings we are now intimately, and disturbingly, acquainted with. A sprinkling of stars is in order.

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From HT Brunch, October 18, 2020

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