Monday, June 27, 2011

What does it take to have hygienic eateries?

IF you have your breakfast out of home most of the mornings, do take a good look at your drink before you take a sip. The next time your order of Nescafe or teh tarik arrives, scrutinise it-especially the glass or mug it is served in.

What you discover could make you think twice of patronising the popular stall you have been frequenting — just like the guy I encountered at the always-packed restaurant in Sentul last week. I was already about to finish my weekly treat of thosai when a commotion across the table next to mine caught my attention.
A customer had just taken his first sip of teh tar ik when he called out to the waiter who had just served him. The customer spotted a lipstick stain on the rimof the glass mug and pointed it out to the waiter. The latter, who was a new face at the restaurant, did not appear to understand what he wanted.

When complaint turned into commotion, the supervisor who was manning the cash register rushed in to intervene, only to receive an earful from the angry customer. Apologising, the supervisor explained that the worker, a migrant, had just started work and did not understand the local lingo. To appease the angry man, the supervisor reprimanded the waiter in his own language as another waiter was gestured to change the customer’s drink.

As the supervisor calmed the man down, the drink was brought promptly to the drink station. The drink maker, who was hidden from the customer’s view by a boiler, merely poured the drink into a new glass and the tea was brought back to the customer. As the customer started tucking into his breakfast and sipping in his tea, I lost my appetite for mine.

Ever wondered how many restaurants in the city are concerned about hygiene these days? If the City Hall’s enforcers were to conduct daily checks on all eateries in the Klang Valley, especially on the understaffed 24-hour restaurant chains, chances are that city folk would have to starve for weeks. Many outlets would have to be closed down for a week of cleaning up.

Food preparation hygiene is being compromised daily and we have been fortunate not to have a large-scale food poisoning case. As a microbiologist told me, the E.Coli strain that hit Europe recently, is also probably on the tables and sinks of dirty eateries and restaurants. And the reason they have not caused harm is because they had not gotten into the food chain in large numbers yet.

How difficult is it to keep plates, cups or mugs clean anyway? Immersing them into boiling water before they are used is a cheap and effective method to kill germs. But do you see any eatery doing it? There is a café near my office that uses an age-old method of sterilising its cups for any drink it prepares.

The cafe uses an old-fashioned boiler that you used to see in coffeeshops of yesteryear.

Made of stainless steel, instead of brass like its predecessor, the boiler has a long trough at the side. Cups are soaked in the simmering water in the trough whole day long, until they are needed to prepare drinks.

Back in the 1970s, many coffeeshops used this method to sterilise their cups. Unfortunately these days, you don’t see the practice any more. Even the modern cafes that boast of oldcharm ambience you see in the city have failed to incorporate this hygienic practice into their business.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Current trend of electric steam iron leaves some cold

IN THE days when the electric iron was a luxury and the steam model had yet to arrive on our shores, clothes were pressed with the coal-powered iron.

You can see these heavy brass irons at museums, antique shops and old charm cafes, where they are spending their days in retirement as conversation pieces.

In the past, ironing was usually carried out in the evenings after cooking was done. Leftover embers from the charcoal stoves, instead of being left to burn out, were fed into the jaw-like compartment of the brass iron.

I recall it took at least 10 minutes for it to heat up to the right temperature for use.

Since, there wasn't a thermostat to control the different degrees of heat for various types of fabric, one could only rely on experience -- acquired through trial and error -- to not burn holes in the clothes.

Thick khaki trousers and shirts that required high heat were ironed first. Thinner, cotton materials were next, after the heat had dissipated. But even thick fabrics had to be given generous sprinkles of water when the iron base proved too hot.

For the iron to move smoothly, banana leaves were used. The hot iron was first applied on a banana leaf. Its organic wax enabled the iron to glide over even the stickiest of fabrics. You could always tell when a neighbour was ironing by the unmistakable whiff of singed banana leaves.

If one had lots of clothes to iron, the embers were kept burning by adding raw charcoal chips into the iron. However, the burning chips gave out sparks that sometimes escaped through the holes on the sides of the iron. On windy days, those sparks landing on new clothes could literally burn a hole in one's pockets.

White clothes had to be treated with a mild blue dye (known by its brand "Cat Blue" or "nila" in Malay) and starched before they were put out to dry.

The starched clothes, if they had been under an iron in the hands of an expert, not only had perfect fold lines, but also gave off a nice sheen.

Even in those days when coal irons were common household appliances, poor families had to borrow theirs from their neighbours. Otherwise, they made do by folding the clothes neatly and placing them under heavy wooden chests to be pressed.

Today, the electric steam iron is slowly replacing the electric iron.

The latest contraption looked like a vacuum cleaner. A salesgirl at a departmental store was demonstrating its use. The device had a T-shaped nozzle that spewed steam. No ironing board was needed -- the clothes were ironed straight on their hangers.

The teenage salesgirl showed me how easy it was to iron around buttons and other hard-to-reach places, and remove creases on the inseam of trousers without adding more on the adjacent sides.

I told her I was impressed by the new technology but I could never get used to a steam iron. The one that I won from a lucky draw is still in almost mint condition.

I used it twice but gave up the third time when I could not stop water from spilling all over the clothes I was ironing. I was also worried about the safety of an appliance which combines water and electricity in one neat package.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Two sides to our generosity

A FOREIGNER I met at lunch last week praised Malaysians for our generosity.
When I asked him how he came to that conclusion after having stayed in the city for less than a week, he said he had seen enough beggars at hawker centres to arrive at the conclusion.

Embarrassed, I explained that the beggars were probably members preying on gullible locals. They have found rich pickings on our soil and are coming in droves on tourist visas to beg here.

Malaysians, I said, are too easily embarrassed and do not want to be seen as rude when approached by beggars at public places. So, instead of refusing the latter, most give in.

But, yes, I said, we are quite generous. We rally round to raise funds for disaster victims, here and there, at home and thousands of miles away.

Those who can give cash, those who had none, give in kind. We did it in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami which hit Aceh, and we rallied around to help many more disaster victims after that.

Millions of ringgit were raised within days, collectively and single-handedly, by corporations and individuals, and sent to these disaster-hit areas.

We give, whether or not our help is asked for or if our beneficiaries will remember the kind deeds we had done and not hit back at us at the slightest provocation later.

Yes, I think we can be proud of our generous nature and give ourselves a pat on our backs for the good that we have done -- unless of course, we are only giving to rid ourselves of the burden of an old or expiring possession.

I say this because of my experience at a religious observance a couple of weeks ago where boxfuls of soft drinks were donated for helpers and participants of the event.

For years, I recall, helpers had only filtered water to offer as refreshments. This year, they had soft drinks.

I was delighted to see the generosity displayed in a mountain of soft drinks. I even praised the donor's kind deeds when my attention was drawn to the expiry date on the boxes by a helper at the event -- the drinks were about to expire the following day.

Consuming the drinks would probably do no harm, I am sure.

I have unknowingly eaten bread several days after their expiry dates because they were printed on small sealing tags that were easily misplaced rather than the plastic bags.

Is the well-wisher aware of the expiry date before donating the soft drinks?

Or was the donation made because the drinks would otherwise have to be thrown away?

I think it is morally wrong to give only when you know you cannot possibly hold onto your possession anymore -- never mind if it is still consumable or usable for another day or two.

A disaster relief organiser once told me of her post-earthquake aid-raising effort. Her team had asked for blankets and clothes for the disaster victims who were facing an impending winter.

A week after the call was made, the collection centre was inundated with so much generosity. Unfortunately, many donors had also responded to the call to clear their homes of discards.

For days, the aid raiser and her helpers had to sieve through rags in search of clothes that could still be used by the disaster victims.

Otherwise, they would have brought embarrassment to themselves as well.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A kind deed renews our faith in humanity

A TOUCHING scene at a night market in Air Panas caught my attention last week. It was the sight of a woman belting out sentimental Mandarin songs of the 1970s which I believed were sung by Taiwanese songbird, the late Teresa Teng. The woman, whom I presumed to be in her 30s, was singing with a karaoke box. She had positioned herself in between the stalls.
Although techno music was blaring away from two illegal DVD sellers a stone's throw away, her voice managed to come out quite clear that I thought the music which accompanied her songs would have done her justice with a better set of speakers.

But it was not her songs alone that attracted me -- it was the handicapped man seated in a wheelchair in front of her. He was holding a biscuit tin on his lap with his right hand. His left hand was only a stump of an elbow and he had no shirt on his back.

As the woman sang, the man appeared to be immersed in a world of his own. He was oblivious of the crowd hunting for bargains and snacks just as they were of his presence. The sad songs the woman sang did not appear to have tugged at anyone's heartstrings. 
For a good 10 minutes I watched as she sang. Fate was not generous that night. Every single pasar malam shopper walked passed, watched them, and moved on. Some did it with looks of pity, some with whispers of suspicion. None drop any money.

One chap, who wanted to take a closer look, was quickly ushered off by his lady partner.

The trader selling fried stuff two stalls away was cursing under her breath at her bad luck to have the couple nearby -- they must have driven her customers away, I thought.

Then a woman with a small boy in tow walked past. The boy, about seven years old, I think, stopped his mother and asked for some coins. When his mother asked why he wanted money, he shouted above the din that he wanted to give it to the uncle in the wheelchair.

Grudgingly, the woman obliged with some loose change which the boy took and dropped into the man's biscuit tin. The act of generosity drew a nod of gratitude and a weak smile from him as the boy was quickly led away by his mother.

I left the pasar malam wondering how much the couple raised that night and how they had survived the nightly disappointment and possible humiliation thus far. They were fortunate for the small boy even though the coins could hardly be sufficient to pay for two glasses of plain water.

The boy's kindness -- whether he understood the merits of being charitable or was merely repeating something he had seen on TV -- was encouraging. The woman who sang the sad songs, too, was an inspiring sight. At a time when the sanctity of relationships is constantly being challenged, it is reassuring to see the woman standing by her man.

Events like the one which unfolded at the pasar malam that night renews our faith in human kindness. They help us rise above the pettiness and treachery we see unfold around us every day.