Friday, August 04, 2006

Comparing Cafs

Me and the rest of my posse of jabronis are with jobs that allow us to roam the earth. For work, more than anything else, and not for holiday, but Im not complaining. I now seek to undertake a comparison of the different cafeteria whose fare I have been fortunate enough to partake. I call to mind three: the caf at the head office in Nanjing, the one at the then Thai Farmers Bank, now Kasikorn Thai in Bangkok, and this present one at Rabo in Utrecht. All three are subsidized, meaning the management pays for, in whole or in part, the cost of the food. All three have something else in common: in one way or another, they are inexorably linked to agriculture. Both Kasikorn and Rabo have established themselves as the bank of choice for agribusiness in their respective spheres, while the home office sits in the middle of a vast agricultural land teeming with vegetables and fruit, all organically grown with biodegrading organic matter, skillfully fashioned using ancient techniques, from various organic material ranging from kitchen waste and animal feces, with, I suspect, a healthy dose of shit whose provenance is decidedly human. Needless to say, the place stank. Stank. Past tense. For even as I write this, the farm lands surrounding the office are giving way to China's wildly galloping economy. The farmers have been relocated, after being compensated by the government, elsewhere. Rumor has it that the area will be transformed into some sort of park, probably industrial. The last holdout to this transformation being the head office which stands alone amid the rubble of newly demolished houses, til they find a more suitable place to relocate, and a more optimum deal with the government as to the compensation for such an undertaking. Digression over, let's have at it, the most recent one first.

Rabobank has 2 labyrinthine buildings right in the heart of Utrecht on opposite sides of the railroad track. The cafeteria in the building where I am is clean and spacious, though it does get crowded at times around lunch. Lunch fare is an assortment of cold meats, breads, and cheeses, and hot fare: soup, meat or fish, and vegetables. They have a salad bar, fruit, and various drinks from fresh fruit juices to sodas. You pay for this with a debit card. For employees of the bank, this is like their regular ATM. For us, we have to buy non-reloadable cards from the bank at 21.50 Euros a pop. An average meal hovers around 3.50, which is probably less than half of what youd pay for a similar meal outside. Milk is free and you can drink as much of it as you want. They serve two kinds: regular milk and karnemelk, which is I think some variation of drinkable yogurt. Like Yakult.

Lunch fare is limited but the hot meal changes everyday. Usually it's a variation of the usual protein, carb, and green vegetable combo: chicken, green beans, and boiled potatoes and gravy, that sort of thing, in portions that are too big for my tiny stomach, but not having grown up in a horn of plenty, I feel compelled to finish nevertheless. The food is usually bland and unimaginative, although once they served curried satay chicken and noodles called bami that looked exactly like the bami we have at home except that this (I suspect it's Indonesian, a former Dutch colony) didnt have two kinds of noodles in it. I was thankful for the spice. The rest of the week, it was pretty dull.

Next we go to Bangkok and to Kasikorn Thai's cafeteria. If the caf at Rabo is huge, this one's absolutely cavernous, with a huge variety of fare: western, Thai, Chinese. Again being subsidized, youll spend about half here than you would spend outside. Although I usually stuck to Thai food, sometimes I would mosey over to Manang's (I forgot her name) who serves Thai flavored Chinese food. Her roast duck in noodles and broth is absolutely superb. You have to get there early to avoid the long cue. She serves this once a week, usually on Thursdays. The food in that caf was never boring, especially the Thai food. Once I got what looked like noodles and vegetables. It looked like pancit canton until I put a forkful in my mouth. The noodles turned out to be ginger cut into long, thin strips. They also serve food with a variety of herbs like mint and basil and coriander which the Thais ate by plucking the leaves from the stalks and popping them in their mouths. Needless to say, I did the same. The caf is open all hours til around 7. You can go down there for a cup of coffee or a snack. I usually did that when Im bored or when I need a break from staring at my monitor all day.

Finally, we come to Nanjing. The food in the company caf is 100% subsidized. You get lunch and dinner for free. But, as they say, you deserve what you pay for. The caf is crude. You wouldnt walk in a place like that for a meal if you were hungry. The meals are served in metal trays, military style, with the cook with nicotine-stained teeth unloading the usualy four dishes together in the tray and it would look like something very similar to hogslop. Then you go get as much rice as you want. Then you get your chopsticks, some of them look like someone's been chewing on them in their spare time. Then you get your soup. Then you sit down to eat. THe caf is only open at lunch and dinner and it seems that the cooks there do nothing but cook the whole day. I think they cook the meals a couple of days in advance. Before the SARS outbreak, dinner was served family-style, with the food in the middle and we all had to share it. But since SARS, dinner is served military-style as well.

To be fair, even with the unelegant way of serving them, the food sometimes is interesting. The cooks I think are from the Szechuan school since they always put in a fair amount of chili peppers in their cuisine. And once in a while youll get a surprise. Once, a colleague of mine from London and I were sitting at lunch and we were eating a vegetable dish with a vaguely identifiable slices of protein in it. The meat was not fish, not pork, and was slightly slippery. I said to him, "How do you like your snake?" He turned to me wide-eyed, "Is this snake?" "No." I said, "probably eel." A Chinese colleague corrected me matter-of-factly: "It's frog." Sure enough, we later found a head. I dont mind frogs, but por dios por santo, those babies were slimy. The cooks offer variations of the same Szechuan-type theme on vegetables, pork, chicken, duck, and various unidentifiables. I dont think they ever served beef. We never see any cats in the streets.

If I had to judge all three, Kasikorn's caf would win hands down for variety. Rabo gets props for their waste disposal system where there are separate color coded bins for organic waste and non-organic waste. And the hot Dutch chicks at lunch dont hurt either. Nanjing is of course the most affordable--duh. And I like the seaweed soup. (Grifter likes the tomato egg-drop soup. And the 'spaghetti'.)

1 comment:

grifter said...

damn, if i didn't gain a couple of pounds because of that 'spaghetti'. if you're hungry, you gotta do what you gotta do. except i draw the line at human meat. and frogs.