Won’t somebody please think of the buffets?

June 20, 2024 - 07:50
Consider it a civic duty to keep your local spots in business or be doomed to a future of dystopian food-halls and shiny wok’s clean of char in permanency.
Check out rate my Cơm Bình Dân on Facebook and share your favourite. Photo courtesy of Andrew King (photographer and group founder)

Alex Reeves - @afreeves23

Travel is our greatest leveller, it dispels our fear of the other and levels playing fields of status, confidence and opportunity. Whether you drive a few hours up the road for a weekend away or hit the tarmac expulsion button to jetset yourself into another culture. Why do we do it? To get away, to see how other people live, to experience something new. We all know the rest, and this isn't a piece on the virtues of travel, rather the opposite.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate when it comes to travel but two experiences in particular stand out and hang to my niggling fears for Việt Nam. By no means do I wish to become a conservative voice for the country I live and love now, but equally it pains me to see her most cherished local institutions taken for granted in exchange for pop fads and resulting inflation.

Migrants/expats (choose your pronoun) are as guilty, if not more so. Phở, Bún Chả etc. are all flavour of the month, or rather the month of arrival. We have a tendency to gravitate towards home comforts, drifting away from the food that made some of us move here in the first place. A combination of migrant integration apathy, coupled with a burgeoning youth inspired by foreign flavours - a tale that has already been told.

Take Hong Kong for example, the humble Dai Pai Dong, essentially an open air eatery with an exhaustive menu and the stools to match. At its peak a ubiquitous staple of everyday gastronomy, now only 25 exist. A lack of interest and government acts of hygiene-guised municipalisation now provide a city break of queuing and instashoots which must baffle and frustrate both locals and visitors in equal measure.

I write this after finding my recent options in Georgetown, Penang increasingly limited. Gentrified or Michelin approved versions of each local dish are hoovering up business and I’m not convinced they’re ‘better’. That said, what has survived is the popularity of the delectable and affordable Nasi Kandar, little buffets of heavily Indian and occasionally Chinese inspired bites accompanied by Asia’s eternal scoop of white rice. Long may they continue.

Next time you’re peckish and fancy a bite, drop by your local Cơm Bình Dân and no doubt you’ll enjoy what awaits you. Meat, veg, sauce, rice and specials. Each one is slightly different from the last and without sufficient patronage, one day there will be a ‘last’.

When you do so, join Rate My Cơm Bình Dân on Facebook to keep the classics going. Without trying to sound like I’m on the verge of advocating for national service, consider it a civic duty to keep your local spots in business or be doomed to a future of dystopian food-halls, free of wok hei in permanency. Make buffet great again! VNS