Packed food

The art of ‘tapau’ in America

Tapau. What’s the English equivalent of it?

“Take away”? Not quite. That means placing an order beforehand and they pack all the food away for you so you can hurry home to devour it.

“To-go”? Similar to the above. Doesn’t quite cover leftovers.

“Can you please pack all this remaining food on my plate so I don’t feel like I’m betraying the lessons my mother taught me about wasting food?” Sounds about right but that’s really way too much information for the server.

In the land where everything is bigger, the most evident comes in the form of the food portions that Americans serve you, especially at sit-down restaurants. During one of my earlier trips here many years ago, I hung out with some colleagues over fancy steaks at a chophouse in Washington DC.

In my Malaysian head, I was converting dollars to ringgit so I knew I was going to spend about RM200 just on dinner and tips. I knew I had to get the best bang for my buck – no carbs, no fillers, only the good stuff.

After the complimentary cornbread, shared appetisers, shared salads and my filet mignon; the four of us were staring at a pile of leftovers. I knew the most responsible thing to do would be to take the excess food home.

That’s when I leaned over and asked my American buddy, “how does one tapau the food here?”

It’s a word we use often in Malaysia that encompasses all methods of removing food from the eatery after paying for it. That one word covers all takeaways, to-gos and packing up leftovers. However, in America, there is a word for everything. My bemused American colleague told me, “Just tell them to box it”.

Box it? It was my turn to be bemused. In Malaysia, that might mean, “go punch my leftovers”. But that’s just me being pun-ny in my head. Fast forward to today, I still can’t finish the food here and I am always asking servers for boxes.

However, they don’t always give you boxes – sometimes they are plastic round containers, sometimes they are plastic clamshell ones. I guess asking for a box for my leftover food encompasses all kinds of vessels. Ha.

So the next time you’re in America and you can’t finish your food, just box it.

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