While we boycott some eating establishments for political or religious reasons, we hardly ever do it because some places are just downright filthy.
When I was growing up, my dad seldom took us out for makan. During special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries, my brothers and I would make a big fuss about eating at KFC, only to have dad buy one whole chicken from the morning market for mom to deep fry for dinner. Even when we travelled, which we did often enough, dad would get mom to prepare snacks like sandwiches, curry puffs and fried noodles that we were told to eat in the car.
“Why waste money buying expensive, unhygienic food outside when you can have better food coming from our own kitchen?” he’d always say.
Back then, we did not have R&R stops or highways for that matter, so travelling along old trunk roads often got me hungry, especially when passing through small towns with street stalls and restaurants to the right and left. Good thing I was a natural actor and would often pretend to have an urge to take a leak – forcing dad to stop at a restaurant for the use of their loo. But before we could do that, we had to order something, for fear the management would be annoyed at us if we didn’t.
I remember clearly my dad’s modus operandi during such occasions – after parking our car and getting our family seated inside the restaurant, he would head straight for the kitchen to conduct his public inspection. He’d scan the cooks, the floor, the stove before deciding if we’d dine in the place or head out – even if we were only having a cup of coffee.
I have lost count of all the times dad would have us hop from one restaurant to another simply because he was not satisfied with their level of cleanliness. In those days, not only would the waiters grumble when dad gathered his family and headed to the door, my brothers and I too thought it was such a hassle – we did not understand why dad was being so picky.
Growing up, moving out of our house to study in KL, I remember getting excited about all the street food I could consume without my dad’s inspections. However with all the food explorations I embarked on over the years, along came the never-ending bouts of diarrhoea and vomiting from food poisoning. Those were the days Eno and Ultracarbon pills became my best friends.
Today, having to manage my kids and work, I find myself eating out more often. But thanks to the training I received watching my dad in action, I myself have become quite picky about the places we dine in. I mean, my kids and I still enjoy food at the odd stall beside a busy street, under the trees and by the longkangs, but only after a thorough inspection conducted by yours truly.
Over the years, I have learned that deep-fried chicken and fish are the best choices in stalls serving rice – because whatever does not get sold the first day goes into curries or gets mixed with gravy for the next day’s business.
I have learned to always check on my food before consuming it especially after finding out a famous stall I used to frequent in Penang was found to be serving roti canai smelling of faeces – thanks to their cook who had no time to clean up after taking a dump in their run-down toilet.
I have learned that the best way to check out a stall’s water supply is to request to wash your hands in their kitchen. Mind you, many stalls only have a few buckets of water reserved for food preparation and tend to use the same water when washing the dishes later.
I have learned that big, expensive restaurants do not necessarily serve food prepared in hygienic conditions for I have been briefed by waiters I went out of my way to befriend that uncooked meat, chicken and fish are sometimes dumped into the same sink as dirty dishes – and while these dishes get washed, the uncooked meat gets soaked in soap water.
But among all the things I have learned throughout the years, the most important is never to judge a makan place based on the number of customers it has.
This is because, unlike the old days where people like my dad meticulously chose the best spots to makan at, Malaysians today have a very high tolerance for unhygienically-prepared food. Even places infested with rats are not a problem for them as long as the food is palatable and excites their taste buds.
While I find Malaysians easily boycotting makan places for a variety of reasons – for supporting Israel, for traces of pork DNA found in their food, for making scathing racial remarks and for allowing only halal certified cakes into their premises – surprisingly, not many are bothered to stop frequenting makan places because they are filthy. Be it flies, rats, stray cats or dogs scavenging for food under the tables, expired food, sticky table tops or dark and dank kitchens, Malaysians still patiently stand in zigzag queues for their next meal.
I guess as long as we have people who tolerate filthy makan places, no stall owner or restaurateur would bother to upgrade their services – and people like my dad and I will have to continue conducting our routine inspections before we can even think of satisfying our growling hunger.
Fa Abdul is an FMT columnist.
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