Getting Food in the Middle East

This is not about how to get the best local delicacy. No, this is about getting a regular meal. Oh the stories I could tell about ordering decaf and getting super-leaded espressos and the “vegetarian” dishes made with a meat broth.

Two issues:

  • language barrier
  • waitstaff and clerks will never see you again, have no incentive to work hard and (rarely) are plain mean-spirited

1) Language barrier – normally wait-staff and clerks speak more languages than you do, so get off your high horse and learn the simplest way to say something in English or Arabic

  • don’t make long statements such as “I would like a chicken schwarma” – say “chicken schwarma.”
  • if you can, put the number at start and the end: “six falafel six”
  • waiters don’t understand the word “without”: don’t say “without tomatoes,” say “no tomatoes.”
  • think about the ways an order can go wrong and speak to rescue yourself. Don’t say “orange soda,” you will get orange juice. Ask “Fanta?” And if they say “no,” ask “Miranda?”
  • learn the Arabic for whatever you order a lot: chai halleb bedun sukur

2) That the waitstaff will never see you again, have no incentive to work hard and (rarely) are plain mean-spirited are all inter-related. The clerks are away from their own country (like you), are often lost and confused (like you), have little money, not much ability to move about and often live in crowded quarters. Their boss is NOT in, asking for a manager won’t help, yelling won’t work, threats are ineffective. You are a momentary unpleasantness is a life full of much greater difficulties.

Think of it like this: if you worked a service job at some time in your life, perhaps you were invested in doing a good job, but at the very least you were always aware you could be fired. Food workers are here on visas paid for by employer; an employer who is not going to fire someone and send them back to their country (with all the bureaucratic hurdles) because of you.

True story, the tea assistant for my floor never cleaned the kitchen and I got so mad, I brought the sugar dish crawling with ants to the head of HR and said, “this is the sugar used to make for you and everyone on this floor.” The tea assistant was not fired, not reassigned, perhaps scolded but the ants continued to enjoy their sugar for months.

Now, it’s true some wait-staff are deliberately unpleasant [you can see the look of disappointment as they realize that they can’t pretend that they don’t understand you] but, deep breathe, give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Several times waiters have not understood the word “water” – I say the word twice and if they don’t get it, I say the same of a company that sells water.

Deep breathe – do the work: open your order in the car if you do pick-up or when it arrives if you do delivery. Deal with the disaster of getting the wrong items then and there.

When it all goes wrong, ask yourself: Is this a hill I want to die on?

I went to dinner with a group and we ordered plain naan. We got buttered naan. One person complained. I said, “Look, just lean the piece against the side of the dish, see the butter runs off, and eat from the side of the bread.” Oh no, that was not acceptable. The waiter was yelled at and plain naan was ordered After twenty minutes, the waiter was yelled at again. The bread arrived after another ten minutes, when everyone else was done eating.

And pleasantly stick to your guns. I ordered a pizza to pick-up and when I arrived, I called the store to say I was in the parking lot.

The clerk said, “You must come inside.”

Now I could see workers from the restaurant walking through the parking lot bringing orders to people waiting in cars. So I repeated, “I am in the parking lot” and described my car.

The clerk repeated, “It is the rule, you must come inside.”

I said, “Parking lot” and hung up the phone. The clerk came out with my order about two minutes later.

Last and most importantly, tip. Ok, Auntie dispensation, you don’t have to tip if they were truly awful, but are you working in a foreign country and constantly confused? Yes. But are you working for minuscule wages, with no control over your (meager) free time or living conditions? No. So make it your goal to never have change or small bills at the end of the day.

Give a tip, pick the anchovies off your spaghetti carbonara, drown your flaming hot “I ordered NOT SPICY” chicken tikka in yogurt, drink your lime “I ordered WATERMELON” juice and dream of Fortnum and Mason. One day you will be eating Welsh rarebit. One day your salad will come.