Monday, May 18, 2009

The things we stomach at eateries

IF you have been eating street food long enough, you will no doubt have a fair number of horror stories to tell, with the severity of your experience depending largely on your luck, or perhaps, the lack of it.

I had just had another "unforgettable" experience while having breakfast at the stall near my house. When my two pieces of capati and a glass of Nescafe tarik arrived, I asked for sambal.

I was happily tucking in when the spoon scooped up something flat and black from the red paste of anchovies and chilli.

What looked like a piece of coconut shell the size of a 20-sen coin killed my appetite.

I paid the bill and showed the cashier the foreign ingredient in my sambal. The cashier called the cook who took a look and broke out laughing.

In halting Malay, he said that it was only a burnt piece of sambal that had been dislodged from the griddle, and added that it was edible.

Finding his explanation hard to swallow, I promptly passed him the stuff, said he could have it for lunch, and left.

When I related this to my friend, she said I was lucky. Her brother-in-law has weaned off chicken porridge for good after his regular morning stop at his favourite stall in Chow Kit.

"He felt something sinewy in his bite and when he took the thing out, it looked like a piece of cuttlefish tentacle. He thought nothing of the stuff, put it back into his mouth and continued eating.

"After all, some people do add dried cuttlefish to chicken porridge to enhance the taste, he reasoned. That morning the porridge did taste unusually good to him," she said.

"But as he continued, he noticed something bigger in the bowl, and promptly scooped it out -- it was a dead lizard, its tail missing."

My father-in-law is sharp when it comes to eating out. Open-sky policy is out for him after a bird's dropping missed his plate at an open-air foodcourt years ago.

Now he only eats at places that are brightly lit and have a roof. If he could, he would scrutinise the premises to appraise the general hygiene before even sitting down.

My mother-in-law is often exasperated with this routine and likened him to a health inspector. I am not complaining, though, since no lizard or bird droppings have turned up in my meal yet.

But I sometimes wonder how many of the eating places in the city will have passed my father-in-law's cursory scrutiny if indeed he was a health inspector. It doesn't take much training or common sense to know that grimy floors, dirty kitchens and smelly toilets spell trouble where food business has become a 24-hour activity.

How dirty eateries escape the attention of the authorities is best left to speculation but it is mind-boggling that we should have health warnings on cigarette packs and non-smoking signs everywhere but no indication of how people could report dirty eateries.

Have you seen a hotline number for complaints being made a mandatory part of a restaurant's menu?

As for the consumers, many don't seem to mind the occasional cockroach or rat scuttling across the floor or the strand of hair that turns up in their curries.

Some would dish out their wisdom on how to tackle the A (H1N1) flu while at the same time not even batting an eyelid at the dirty fingers or unkempt attire of the food handlers serving them.

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