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     Volume 7 Issue 39 | September 26, 2008 |

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Battle of the Bufftar

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

As Ramadan draws to a close, Iftar invitations come thick and fast. There used to be a time when people asked you over to their place to share the customary end-of-day meal of muri, dates, jelebis and sherbet. Of course, that custom went out with snail mail and the long kamiz. Nowadays it's all about the Iftar party at a trendy restaurant. Families and friends meet up at dusk and eat out at the restaurant of choice. Also, it's the Eid shop-fest and shoppers like to duck into the nearest eatery to grab a bite before continuing their “shop till you drop” mission. Never mind that they've been ducking in and out several times during the day. You simply can't miss the party! In this changed atmosphere, restaurateurs have been reaping the rewards. Their aim is simple: to feed as many customers as possible with as few staff as possible. Self service is therefore the order of the day.

Enter the Buffet Iftar or Bufftar as I like to call it. Now, to the feeble-minded, Bufftar is just a meal. Ignorance is bliss and far be it from me to take away their peace of mind. But I know what every red-blooded and right-thinking individual knows. The Bufftar is a classic ambush. The restaurant creates the illusion of consumer's nirvana (eat all you want out of a hundred delicacies for only Tk. 500!). The happy eater is lured into the trap, tries valiantly to get his money's worth but soon realizes that he is severely limited by the physiology of being human! The satiety centre in his hypothalamus screams at him to stop eating. Meanwhile, the Tk 500 that he has paid is a sunk cost it doesn't matter how little or how much he eats. He will probably only succeed in doing damage to his gastro-intestinal apparatus if he tries to force the issue. It is a classic conflict as basic as the struggle between the NBR and the taxpayer, the casino and the gambler, Pamela Anderson and clothes.

Most people who go to a Bufftar are oblivious to the issues at stake. They eat a little bit of this, taste a small helping of that. They wipe their mouths and come away thinking they've had a good meal. They don't consider the economics or the ethics of the whole thing. They don't appreciate the fact that they have just been the victims of an elaborate con!

Consider the seven-star restaurant Burstin in Gulshan. We know its bursting with all sorts of sumptuous cuisine. The restaurant boasts a magnificent Bufftar a stellar lineup of 1000 items for Tk. 2500 only. “That's only Tk. 2.50 per dish!” marvelled a friend. “It's a once in a lifetime opportunity.” I tried to explain to the poor gibbering fish that there was no way he would be able to sample a thousand dishes, but he wouldn't listen. He rushed off to make reservations. The evil, folks, is spreading.

Some of us have decided to fight back. The other day I went to a Bufftar at the Yan Tun Khai Jan restaurant in Dhanmondi. There was a banner across the main entrance, which yelled, “Traditional iftari from Old Dhaka. Iftar and dinner buffet. 100 items for only Taka 395.99” I had brought along a calculator, a pen and a notebook. I was in battle mode. Ignoring the warm smile of the waiter (subliminal message: “Relax. This is just another meal”) I walked down the buffet line making a mental note of the dishes on display. Returning to my table I jotted down the items that seemed to offer a better return on investment. Then I called the smiling waiter.

“Can I have a menu please?”
The waiter grinned widely, clasped his hands and leaned courteously towards me. “Sir, this is a buffet. You won't need a menu.”

I was having none of it. “I realize it's a buffet. I just want to have a look at the menu.”

The waiter leaned forward until his nose was a few inches from mine. “I beg your pardon sir? All the items are clearly marked and…”

“I want the menu. The menu please!” I said through clenched teeth.

The smile froze. “Certainly, if you say so sir!” He hurried away. Presently, he reappeared, accompanied by a majestic figure in a grey suit with a nose like a Roman emperor's.

The Emperor handed me a menu. “You wish to order from the menu, sir?”

“No, no. Oh no.” I said, exasperated. “I will have the buffet. I just wanted to see the menu.”
He looked at me, then nodded knowingly and turned away. Our eyes met for an instant. I had engaged the enemy, and defeated him in the first skirmish.

Using the menu, I quickly calculated the “a la carte” value of the dishes I had targeted. If I could eat 65% of my target volume, I would be breaking even. 75% and I would do real damage. When the Azan did sound, things didn't quite go according to plan. Maybe I was unnerved by the Emperor appearing a couple of times at my elbow and staring at me down his beaked nose. Maybe I was just having a bad day. But I had barely finished shovelling the chicken dopiaza when I felt a familiar queasiness in my stomach. I just couldn't eat any more. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. My sense of defeat was compounded by the Emperor asking me kindly if there was anything else I needed.

I went away licking my wounds and plotting vengeance. I decided it was time to call in the heavy artillery. I called Faisal and invited him to Bufftar. A word about Faisal -- this friend of mine is size-challenged (I will NOT use the f-word here). Suffice it to say small things like fitness and being able to see your own toes do not matter to him. He is 6 ft 1 and with a girth to match. Tipping the scale at 105 kilos… his look and demeanour is enough to strike fear into the heart of any buffet owner. He loves to eat, and treats food as a competitive sport.

Faisal and I decided to patronise the Yan Tun Khai Jan next Saturday. Meanwhile, Faisal gave me a few quick tips on how to win the battle of the buffet. “Don't treat it like a normal Iftar, Zain. No piaju or jelebi or beguni. Lay off all that cheap stuff. They are just diversions. Drink very little water. Avoid rice. Go for the heavy hitting stuff. Meat, fish, prawn. Lets bring the house down!”

The Emperor looked as if he had seen a ghost as we marched through his doorway. He could quite clearly sense the danger. Faisal and I took our seats like a couple of gladiators. The azan sounded and we were off. It was a joy to see Faisal operate. Chicken tikka, Chicken dopiaza, mutton jhal-frazee disappeared down the hatch in short order. We were in business!

The Emperor appeared now and again, looking pale but not saying anything. But the waiters took longer and longer to refill the food stations casting nervous glances towards us and muttering in low voices. If only looks could kill!

At 7.30 PM, I was starting to sweat. Faisal was still going strong. My calculator told me we were a whopping Tk 2500 in the black and I thought of telling Faisal to quit while we were winning. Just then, two things happened. Faisal wiped his mouth with a napkin, and gasped there was too much tasting salt and soya sauce in the food. At the same time, the emperor bore down on us, flanked by a couple of his trusted waiters.

“Sir, we close at 7.30. I must ask you to pay your bill and… Oh my God!”

I felt the world spin clockwise, and then stop and spin the other way. The last thing I remember was Faisal asking me if I was ok. The darkness closed around me. I fell to earth I knew not where.

To this day, Faisal swears it was the soya sauce. “But when you fainted, I seized the opportunity. I told them the food was to blame, and they would hear from our lawyers in the morning. They told me to forget about the bill. The food was on the house.”

It is a happy ending of sorts. But nowadays I avoid the Bufftar. I have had my fill.

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