My heart plunges at 1pm. It’s lunch time and if you work in an open plan office you know what I’m talking about. Out come the plastic boxes of sandwiches, salads and soups that were lovingly prepared the night before, or hastily thrown together in the mad rush of the morning. The office comes alive with a jungle symphony of molars smashing crisp lettuce leaves, someone with a clicky jaw gumming at a gristly bit of meat, another person smacking down a disappointing soup. And of course the endless packets of crisps being crinkled open and crunched, salt crystals wet-sucked off oily fingers. My skin crawls, and I immediately pull out my earphones and get my spotify on – take me away Laura Mvula to your velvety Kipling-esque world.
I honestly don’t know why I have such a severe intolerance for bad eating etiquette, and I don’t think it’s to do with the food part, it’s to do with the human mechanic part. The liquids that get borne from within, that get slurped and swished about within the echoing chamber of the mouth, the teeth crunching and the gullet gulping to create fuel for the body. It’s all too… real.
So you might be led to believe that I’m an immaculate masticater, but I am also cursed. Sometimes when I am overcome by the sheer delicious-ness of something, or the sheer ravenous-ness of my stomach, I am guilty of a lot of the same faults that I harshly judge others of. But I was raised to be intolerant. My father was the strictest dinner time marshal, he’d make sure we never scraped a metal knife edge against the rippled milky white dinner plates, or bring our heads to our forks like dogs at their bowls, no teeth scraping on spoons, and definitely no sounds that gave it away that you were actually chewing and swallowing food – how pedestrian. Dinner time was a quiet tense affair, where my sister and I would try and escape without falling into the family drama that we were consistently teetering at the edge of.
That was dinner.
Lunch was a totally different affair, especially when I was on study break for GCSE’s and my sister was in college. It was a special time in my life, precious moments just mum and me. She’d come home from work to pick me up and we’d go to my favourite hawker centre. Hawker centres are an art form in Malaysia, a pitch of plastic tables and chairs bordered by street food stalls that cater to any palette, from Cantonese noodles, to barbecued sting ray, with shaved fruit ice on the way. You get rows of deeply golden and glistening whole ducks or chickens hanging from butchers hooks, you see steaming holes in stainless steel vats, with no idea what wonders and treasures will be pulled from within with a large wire net scoop. Magnificent displays of types of noodles, fresh seafood and vegetables to be chucked into a boiling broth for a flash, and of course a dessert island, where you can get all the drinks an Asian heart desires, like cold soya bean milk, grass jelly, the saccharine pink bandung, or a myriad of desserts made up of shaved ice, coconut milk and sugar cane syrup, plus your choice of fruit filling (my favourite is soursop and nata de coco).
Lunch at the hawker centre was a zoo of sounds and smells. You had the school children in navy or sky blue pinafores, all with black hair and white socks. The businessmen each one demanding to pay for the others, loudly patting each other on their back and shouting through their noodle soups and chicken rice on orange plastic plates. The quieter business ladies with their colleagues, fanning themselves in the still heat, with their high heels swinging lazily from their toes under the marble effect cheap plastic tables. It was almost a rule that the louder you ate the better the food, and you don’t bring your utensil to your face but you hold your bowl to your lips and shovel rice into your mouth with chopsticks. You slurped your drink through fast melting ice cubes, you loudly sucked your noodles, your spoke and laughed with your mouth full and you didn’t care. Well I didn’t care in this setting (don’t get me wrong, I was still careful about my own eating habits, but not so concerned about the others). Every day mum and I would go to the same centre and I would order the same thing every day, wantan noodle soup, and she would get yong tau fu. And we’d watch this cacophony unfold in front of us like a play.
These days I either sit with my earphones in, eyes glued to my computer, or I steal away to sit primly at a bench, in solitary silence of the British lunch hour. It’s strange that it’s in this stiff world that the sound of eating gets to me far more than the hawker centres of my childhood.
PS – I didn’t mention anything about mouth breathers but it made a good title in my head. Maybe next time.
Image copywright to AKA Elph.