COMMENTARY, Feb 25 — These days the very announcement that the standard operating procedures (SOPs) have been updated can be a cause for excitement or agony. Take dining in at our food establishments, for example.

We don’t see what a luxury entering a restaurant or café and being seated at a table is until we have had weeks of only takeaway orders and food deliveries.

There’s nothing quite like the aroma of just-baked bread from the oven. Sourdough and softer loaves, croissants and focaccia. It’s a fragrance that beats any bottled perfume.

The crackle of salt-encrusted fish as it’s gingerly lowered onto a hot grill, the heat of the charcoal, the embers glowing orange and red.

We savour beautiful latte art made by baristas who smile with their eyes. Even the barrier of a face mask cannot hide the untiring cheerfulness of our food heroes who continue to toil through the long months of this pandemic.

Beautiful latte art made by baristas who smile with their eyes.
Beautiful latte art made by baristas who smile with their eyes.

And soon, it will be a year, depending on when you start counting.

So count us extremely thankful when we can dine in at our favourite daichow again. During such a difficult time, dining out can be a playful... and healing experience.

The delight the entire group shares when every bowl of noodles you’ve ordered — be it the soup noodles or the dry version or the one with the extra helping of fried lard — arrives at the table at the same time.

And so, for the next five to 10 minutes there are no more conversations, only constant slurping and sighs of satisfaction. There are half-abashed glances into each other’s eyes, like gushing lovers; nodding slowly in silent consensus; and then ordering a second round: more bowls of the same, please.

With enough social distancing, we can still observe a sushi chef who slices raw fish just the right thickness, not so fine that it falls apart but not chunky that you have to work at chewing the flesh, but just enough so that it almost melts in your mouth.

There’s nothing quite like the aroma of just-baked bread from the oven.
There’s nothing quite like the aroma of just-baked bread from the oven.

The practised craft in assembling a perfect bowl of kani donburi (crab meat rice bowl) astounds us. A lifetime of hard training in the careful lifting of each morsel of uni (sea urchin) and placing it in the most aesthetically pleasing position on the platter.

Before you even taste any of this, before the bowl or platter is presented in front of you with pomp and pride, you are already hungrily devouring and anticipating with your eyes, with your imagination.

Yes, it is a performance and you are a very willing and eager audience.

But this all comes at a price.

I don’t envy the trials our food heroes face as they have to sometimes deal with disgruntled customers, especially when the latter arrive in large groups and wish to be seated together at the same table. How to explain to hungry patrons that if the eatery doesn’t follow the SOPs, it might be penalised and shuttered for a week?

The crackle of salt-encrusted fish on a hot grill.
The crackle of salt-encrusted fish on a hot grill.

It’s a challenge for the customers too to keep track of the SOPs as they are updated. We are weary and adherence fatigue becomes an increasingly pressing concern.

There is no helping it, after a fashion. This is the reality of a pandemic and everyone is doing what they can. The authorities and the frontliners are doing their best to save lives, and the rest of us are trying to live our lives the best we can, with minimal interruptions.

But there has been change, and has been for almost a year now. We are all still getting used to it. Perhaps it’s human to resist change but perhaps we can also embrace the epiphanies we get from such change.

For instance, I doubt many of us would take dining in for granted anymore. We have learned that it is a privilege and not a guarantee.

When every bowl of noodles you’ve ordered arrives at the table at the same time.
When every bowl of noodles you’ve ordered arrives at the table at the same time.

And we have it good; we are luckier than we realise.

I recall when I was stranded in Auckland last March, during New Zealand’s Level 4 Covid-19 Alert System, even takeaways and food deliveries weren’t allowed. You’d have to walk to the supermarket, queue up with appropriate social distancing, purchase your groceries and go home to cook your meals yourself.

Forget about dining in as luxury, even being able to walk to our local kopitiam and ordering a packet of char kway teow for takeaway is a boon. Certainly there weren’t entire fleets of food delivery riders — who are food heroes in their own right, let us remember that — as recent as a few years ago.

We ought to feel blessed.

The practised craft in assembling a perfect bowl of 'kani donburi' (crab meat rice bowl).
The practised craft in assembling a perfect bowl of 'kani donburi' (crab meat rice bowl).

Still, I’d be lying if I say I’m not exhilarated to be able to dine in again. See, I love nasi lemak bungkus but having a plate assembled right before your eyes — generous scoops of rice saturated with rich coconut milk, ladles of rendang, a spoonful of ikan bilis and another of groundnuts — is another level altogether.

Nasi lemak is at its best when freshly made. You see all the effort that has been put in, all the various components that have to be cooked and prepared, and the simple magic of just the right combination for the balance of flavours and textures...

It’s exactly the same ingredients, of course, if your nasi lemak is ordered to go or arrives thanks to a delivery app, but it’s also exactly different. Something is missing and though you may not have the words for it, you know precisely what it is.

'Nasi lemak' is at its best when freshly made.
'Nasi lemak' is at its best when freshly made.

Perhaps it’s the memory of being able to enjoy a meal however we want, and not worry about our safety. If we don’t succumb to adherence fatigue, if we keep following the SOPs, if we continue to #KitaJagaKita, then one day it won’t be a memory but the way things are once more.

For more slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.