Monday, 4 February 2013

The Perpetual Poppadom Puzzler

We’ve used the same Indian take-away for the last ten years.

The Mahbub is a brilliant little place. The food is always great and sometimes excellent. The prices are fair and Amir and the lads that run it are always friendly. You can see your food being prepared in the front-of-house kitchen and they’re even nice enough to offer you a coffee while you wait (though only for main courses, cautions the sign!).

I love my take-aways and I’m a creature of habit. Once I find the right one for my pocket and taste, my loyalty is steadfast. As well as the Mahbub, Mario’s Pizza (till it closed) and The China Garden earned my allegiance through the simple process of not charging too much, getting the order right and knocking out lovely food that requires no preparation or effort on my part.

I only have one problem with the Mahbub and it comes in the form of the occasional freebies they chuck in to my order – or don’t!

There’s absolutely no consistency to Amir deciding whether to drop a couple of extra poppadoms or bhajis into the bag when I come to collect. If I’m in luck, he tips me a quick wink and says,

“There’s a couple of extra bits in there for you, Charlie.”

I say ‘thank you’ in a way that tries to convey surprise rather than expectation. As soon as I’m in the car, I frantically check my booty, then do a quick air-punch because I’ve got 80p’s worth of big crisps for free. It is a scientifically proven fact that stuff you have to pay for does not taste as nice as stuff you get for free. I’m not going to dig out the research, just accept what I say.

But then I’ll go in on another day and get nothing.
All the circumstances are the same. The order is similarly priced, I’ve not done anything to offend him (I think), but the poppadoms are not forthcoming.

He’s still friendly, but there’s no wink. The reassuring weight increase of the bag is absent. I go to the car and check and sure enough, the order is exactly as dialled in. Nothing extra. I might not have even eaten them but I wish they were there. Anyone walking past the car would think i'd just had some really bad news.
They'd be forgiven for tapping on the window and asking if I was alright.

"Yeah... i'm ok. They never gave me any complimentary food in the take-away."

This is the trouble and I’ve spent a decade trying to work it out. There appears to be no rhyme or reason to my likelihood of getting a bit of free scran. None of the following factors seem to affect my chances:

Size of order.
Price of order.
Longevity of small-talk conversation with Amir.
How busy or empty the shop is.
Proximity to any of the National or Religious holidays.
Proximity to mine or Amir’s birthdays.
Day of the week.
Time of the evening.
Production of a sob story about recent utility bills.
Casual reference to how many kids I have.

The dispensing of the poppadoms seems to be an entirely random act, beyond my ability to predict or guess.

Purely in the interests of research, I’ve purchased take-aways from the Mahbub an average of once a month. In 120 visits I’ve failed to identify a pattern.

Maybe it’s a big game that the lads in the Mahbub play. Although the customers are always nice, it can’t be much fun working in a hot kitchen all evening, so anything that helps to entertain whilst time is passing has got to be a good thing.

I can imagine, just after I’ve left with my little heart broken, despondent at getting seen off and feeling that Amir might not be my friend anymore, that this conversation might well occur.

Bloke Who Works the Tandoori Oven – “Bloody hell, Amir, you’re really messing with his head.”

Amir (laughing) – “I know. Did you see his face? I thought he was going to start crying.”

BWWTO – “You’re a tight bastard. You should go after him and give him a free Chicken Chaat. I bet you’ve ruined his evening.”

Amir – “You know the rules. I have to get him to the point where he grabs me by my lapels and begs me to tell him the secret of what he has to do, to consistently be given those little extras he loves.”

BWWTO – “I know, mate. But I reckon you’ve gone too far. Most people cave in after a year or two. This bloke’s been coming back for gone ten years. I reckon you might send him over the edge.”

Amir – “No, I know what I’m going to do next time. When he comes in, I’m going to shake his hand and ask him all about his family. I’m going to congratulate him on being one of our nicest, regular customers. I’m going to talk wistfully about my plans for the future and share a cup of coffee with him. Then I’m not going to give him the free poppadoms. As well as that, I’m going to give him two of those shit bags of salad that nobody eats. If that doesn’t do it, I’ll give up and just tell him.”

BWWTO – You’re a cruel man, Amir, but I like your style.

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