Monday, May 31, 2010

It's costly to tell others where to eat cheap, tasty food

A FRIEND with whom I shared the discovery of a place where local oysters were going for a song, jokingly told me not to write about it.
He said I could do the oyster collectors a favour and put a better roof on their dilapidated huts, but I would be depriving people like him of cheap local oysters -- an indulgence that would cost an arm and a leg at city hotels.

My friend reminded me of the tale of the mee udang stall a food writer discovered in a coastal town in Perak.

She wrote about it and subsequently, a TV station did a documentary on the place. A year later, when she visited it again, she could hardly find a place to sit. When she finally got to the menu, prices had almost doubled. The quality, however, was not as she remembered it.

Much to her amusement, the number of "original" mee udang operators had also increased. She wondered if she had any part in spoiling the market for locals now that vehicles with yellow plates were robbing locals of parking spaces there.

Some years ago, I visited a noodle shop on the outskirts of Port Dickson after reading about it on the Internet.


The humble mum-and-pop operation beneath a fig tree was then known among locals for its handmade noodles, and the prices were in keeping with the general economy of the small town.

Years later, when I returned to the same spot, the operators had moved across the street. The stall was now a fully air-conditioned restaurant and it was packed with customers. I had to station myself by a table of diners to grab a seat for my family when the group got up to leave.

The waitress who came to take our orders was not only well-dressed, she was also well-versed in salesmanship and persistently recommended other dishes she claimed to be famous, supporting her claims by pointing to the clippings of stories which appeared in newspapers and magazines plastered on the walls. I had to oblige or risk looking like a cheapskate if I only ordered the noodles for which the place was famous.


When we left, I whispered to my wife that the noodle had lost its original taste. She said my taste buds could have been be fooled by the nostalgia of eating under the tree. Food always tasted better as we remembered it, she said.

However, she did not argue when I pointed out that the price had gone up in tandem with the decor, ambience and number of waitresses there.

In a few weeks, I'll be hoping my favourite coffee shop in Chukai, Terengganu, still serves that lip-smacking kopi peng (iced black coffee) and roti paong (Terengganu's famous home baked bread).

The shop was a wooden shack when I took my wife there 19 years ago. Seven years ago, it occupied a spanking new building and the crowd was spilling onto the road.

This time, I will be introducing the coffee shop to a friend who found it on a food blog.

A wise person said that the discovery of a new dish might do more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star.

For the moment, I think I would be happy not to share with everyone where they can get fresh local oysters for RM2 each.

No, I am not worried about their prices going up - I just don't want to be responsible for sending the local species to extinction should the pen prove to be mightier than the fork.

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