Pune: Science and food

My visit to Pune, as it was in Chandigarh and shall be in Thiruvananthapuram (the new name of Trivandrum), were at the Indian Institute for Science Education and Research (IISER), which teaches science to undergrads and graduate students, as well as harboring many labs with their complements of researchers, students, professors, and postdocs. You can read more about this small but elite network of institutions here.

These are fancy and well-funded institutes which take their mission seriously; there is not only high-quality research, but groups devoted to teaching and outreach to secondary schools. And of course there are undergraduate courses. Admission is selective: I’m told that less that one tenth of one percent of the applicants get in. That’s far more selective than Harvard.

Here’s the “Main” (Administration) building at IISER Pune, where I am now. This is where I have an office (they gave me a nice room to work in and meet the researchers).

The entrance to the building, lined with bronze busts of famous Indian scientists:

My office, nicely air-conditioned and with wireless Internet. There is an espresso station down the hall, and from time to time a man pops in and asks me if I want coffee or tea. The result is that I am drinking too many cappuccinos!

This is a classroom and auditorium building, and it’s where I gave my three talks here. As you see, the architecture is modern and very nice. 

This being India, IISER Pune has its own high-level cricket stadium. Here it is. It’s suitable for international matches except that it seats only 2000 people, about 1/30th of what they’d need for pro games. 

Nearly all students and faculty live on campus, which is very convenient (and the campus is beautifully landscaped). Here’s the house of the Institute’s director.

A strange cat-related mural on the outside of one of the student residences:

The night before last, we went to a fancy dinner at a hotel restaurant whose name I can’t remember. We sat outside by the swimming pool and gorged ourselves on fancy food, starting with masala papadum, the familiar lentil-flour crispy bread, but this one topped with all kinds of spicy goodies:

Then two rounds of appetizers: first grilled mutton, chicken, and other meats (the Indians excel at grilling and kebab-making):

and then grilled vegetables, some filled with Indian cheese (paneer):

The main course: a HUGE masala chicken dish, more than enough to feed seven people (one guy took home a pi-dog bag). The chicken is overlain here by sculptured vegetables, garnishes. and shreds of boiled eggwhite:

And of course the obligatory basket of rotis. parathas, and naans to sop up the chicken. I can eat endless amounts of Indian bread, which makes me a northern Indian by taste (Southerners and Bengalis prefer rice as their sopping-up starch.) Picking up food with rice balls is an art I’ve not yet perfected, and I make quite a mess!

My plate, loaded (and soon ready for refills):

Before going out for dinner this evening (I am having a rest day), I lunched in the canteen with a local foodie professor. We had a vegetarian meal, but then the lovely Nepalese manager, Ramji, offered to make us an omelet. It came in the form of egg bhurji, in which the egg is chopped up with hot chilis and onions (many variations exist):

After lunch, Dr. Dey and I walked around campus and, besides talking science, inevitably arrived at the subject of food. I mentioned that I had not yet tried the local kulfi, the fantastic Indian version of ice cream. I had heard there was a world-class kulfi shop in Pune, and regretted that I hadn’t tried it. I was informed that, in fact, the student cafeteria had on sale kulfi made in that very shop, so we stopped in at the refectory for a treat. Here’s what the students have on offer; this is very cheap food. At about 65 rupees to the dollar, a full veg or non-veg lunch runs you less than $1.25:

And our kulfi: malai kulfi made with milk boiled down to a thick, creamy substance called rabri. Kulfi varies in quality but I’ve never had a bad one. This one, however, which was thick and not watery, tasting of pure, fresh cream with no detectable ice crystals, was sublime.


I will clearly be gaining weight on this trip, and must revert to a severe fasting regime when I return to Chicago early in January.


  1. Historian
    Posted December 24, 2017 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    The India seen by foreigners is probably not the “real” India. Economic inequality is one of the worst in the world. As reported at the World Economic Forum site: “Based on the new India Human Development Survey (IHDS), which provides data on income inequality for the first time, India scores a level of income equality lower than Russia, the United States, China and Brazil, and more egalitarian than only South Africa.”



    • Blue
      Posted December 24, 2017 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      in re “The India seen by foreigners is
      probably not the ‘real’ India,” = t h e
      .reason. I no longer want to visit it … …
      as I had wanted to within my unknowing youth.

      The oppression of and the violence onto,
      including of Mohandas Gandhi’s era and,
      of course, before … … the humans who are
      the country’s female ones … … and who are
      the World’s tourist ones thereto … … are
      unconscionable. It is y2018. But s t i l l.


    • Posted December 24, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      Well, I guess I didn’t see the real India, and too bad for me. Is that what you wanted to say about my visit?

      Regardless of what India I see, and I have seen plenty since I first came here in the mid 1970s when I traveled third class on the trains with the poorest of the poor and stayed in hovels and ate in dives where the “real” Indians ate, it was and is a wonderful country with friendly people and an ancient and substantial culture. Yes, they are often poor and sick and I hate that. But there is much to love about this land.

    • Posted December 24, 2017 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      One could say that about every single country on the planet, surely.

      • Historian
        Posted December 24, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        Yes, that is the case. I don’t think many tourists to any country go on poverty tours. This is why I think most foreign visitors to a country learn little about what the country is really like, particularly if they’re there for only a few weeks or less. They may learn something about its historical heritage and how the well-to-do live, but little about the lives of the masses. The tourism industry and governments try to keep the latter out of sight. Some countries have more to hide than others.

        • Posted December 24, 2017 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

          Well, then I have to say that I don’t see the point of your comment, which seems to have no other reason than to chastise me for not seeing the “real” India, even though I’ve visited here at least ten times over the years and yes, seen a lot of the poverty-stricken real India, including the villages.

          Frankly, Historian, this is a rude comment that seems unworthy of you. Did you think I shouldn’t have come to lecture on evolution to Indian students and scientists? And if you think the government of India can hide the poverty when you’ve been all over this land, as I have, you’re dead wrong. Have YOU been here?

          Merry christmas to you, too.

          • Historian
            Posted December 24, 2017 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

            I didn’t mean to be rude to you. I was just viscerally disheartened by your pictures of culinary feasts that the vast majority of Indian people can only hope to enjoy in their dreams, at least as served in upscale restaurants. I know that this situation exists in many countries, including the U.S., but the pictures reminded me of the Romanovs and the French aristocracy before their respective revolutions. Extreme economic inequality, without rectification, can only result in social unrest, often manifested by violence on a massive scale or oppression by the ruling class. I hope this is not the fate of India and that the Indian government is taking measures to prevent it.

            By no means was I suggesting that you shouldn’t have made the trip nor that you had no knowledge about Indian society as a whole. What I am saying is that most visitors to foreign countries, being tourists, gain at most a superficial understanding of the country by virtue of the visit. As an analogy (although perhaps not a good one), until the last decade or so visitors to southern plantations would hardly have known that they were worked by slaves since the docents never mentioned them. It takes more than a visit to a place to understand it.

            • Posted December 24, 2017 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

              “The pictures reminded me of the Romanovs and the French aristocracy before their respective revolutions.” Excuse ME for trying the local delicacies. I guess I should be beheaded!

              Remind me on my next post to show a few chappatis and a plate of daal. Perhaps that will make you feel better.

            • PS
              Posted January 21, 2018 at 12:27 am | Permalink

              It is important to put Dr “Historian”‘s views on “inequality” in perspective here.

              All it takes to be in the “top 1%” in India is to have a monthly household income of about US$1000. That is barely above the poverty line in the USA.

              These are the people “Historian” thinks ought to be compared with the Romanovs. I daresay the comparison lies somewhere else, across national borders.

    • nicky
      Posted December 24, 2017 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      South Africa scores worst on inequality, but scores higher on education (x2) and health (x3) than India. It is not clear how this inequality is calculated (not that I think it is wrong, just not clear). Must admit that much of the education in South Africa is in a mess, as are some of it’s health services. 70% of South Africa’s extensive social grants are ‘child’ grants.
      [Something of a moot subject here, since many contend it encourages young girls, children really, to get pregnant in order to get the grant, perpetuating poverty into the next generation (a child costs much more than the grant -about 30 US$ a month- provides). It is known this does happen, but there are no serious data measuring the extend of the practice]

      • nicky
        Posted December 24, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink


    • nicky
      Posted December 24, 2017 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      And I’m sure our host, old lefty as he is, is far from blind to this poorer part of India.

  2. davidintoronto
    Posted December 24, 2017 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Beautiful campus! And the food, as usual, looks amazing.

  3. Posted December 24, 2017 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    To lose weight when you’re back home, just eliminate all carbohydrates and sugar for a couple or three weeks. You can eat meat, fresh fruit, vegetables and even fatty milk and cream all you wish. You can substitute sugar with Xylitol (it is even sweeter than sugar and tastes better, and it protects the teeth against decay).

  4. Heather Hastie
    Posted December 24, 2017 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    As usual, the food all looks fantastic, and everyone is clearly looking after you really well.

  5. Vaal
    Posted December 24, 2017 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Ok, I’m going to India!

  6. Michael Fisher
    Posted December 24, 2017 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    The Masala Chicken. In the UK the most popular Indian dish is the closely related Chicken Tikka Masala [or CTM for short] – it was probably invented here in Birmingham, UK.

    Here is Madhur Jaffrey’s CTM recipe for those who want to give it a go. It’s basically chicken chunks, garlic, ginger, cumin, turmeric, chilli powder, paprika, lemon & yoghurt. Anything else called for in the recipe can be ignored if unavailable.

    • Merilee
      Posted December 24, 2017 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

      Probably invented here in Birmingham…our local Indian grocery store ( near Toronto) advertises its delicious samosas as English-style.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted December 24, 2017 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

        Is there a company name? Brit retail frozen Samosa suppliers are in the double figures. We’re surrounded by the most excellent Indian /Pakistani /Kashmiri grub in the Midlands.

        Brexit may result in a curry chef shortage for which free migration is required & then we’ll lose our curry dominance. Worrying times caused by nasty, small-minded & rather thick people.

        Merry Christmas Merilee dear

        • Merilee
          Posted December 25, 2017 at 12:00 am | Permalink

          These samosas are fresh, and sometimes still warm when I pick them up. Merry Xmas to you, too, Michael. Speaking of grub, we had our Xmas meal today with a delicious standing rib roast, to which I added Indian-ish potatoes and sweet potatoes, eggplant, and even Indian spices in the salad. Thankfully have leftovers for a few days.

    • Posted December 26, 2017 at 7:35 am | Permalink

      I’d hate to fall out with a fellow Brit over own of our most loved dishes, but legend here in Scotland has it that the Chicken Tikka Masala was invented in Glasgow’s Shish Mahal, a very popular restaurant with university students in the 60s. Peace, man.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted December 26, 2017 at 8:17 am | Permalink

        I didn’t know that. I see a few Glaswegians campaigned [& failed] in 2009 to get “Protected Designation of Origin” status for CTM back in 2009 – as in “Glasgow Chicken Tikka Masala” on packaging & menus throughout the world!

        I never eat CTM anyway – there’s always something better on the menu than that bright orange industrial spill 🙂

        • Merilee
          Posted December 26, 2017 at 8:35 am | Permalink

          Kind of like the red industrial spill on chicken balls in cheap Chinese restaurants.
          Red dye #247?

  7. Andy Lowry
    Posted December 24, 2017 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    I’m surprised by all the signs in English– is English heavily in use in higher education there?

  8. Blue
    Posted December 24, 2017 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    in re “is English heavily in use
    in higher education there?” It is.


  9. Posted December 24, 2017 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    This is high level institution with advanced facilities. Many people can’t afford this type of education and training.

    • Posted December 24, 2017 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

      Umm… you don’t think I know that? JEBUS! And many of the faculty here do science outreach to local schools full of poor kids. I continue be amazed that people will come over here and say stuff like this as if to impugn my visiting India. Would they say that if I were to give a talk at Harvard, which has the same characteristics?

      It’s beyond belief that people can be so clueless and rude as to tell me, as if I didn’t know, that India is poor and therefore I shouldn’t visit it and discuss science. And God forbid that I should eat some of the better food here!

      Perhaps you critics manqué don’t realize that I’ve eaten gazillions of Indian meals in humble places with poor Indians. No, you just have to tout your own superior knowledge that, yes, India has many poor people. Boy was I surprised to learn that!!!

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