Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Our National Pastime

"Gosh, I'd forgotten that eating is the national pastime over here," my sister Jackie remarked, glancing at the crowded stalls. It was 3.30 pm (not peak hour by anyone's standards) but we could not find a parking place. We went round and round, said a few prayers to St Jude (and some to St Antony for good measure) that someone would decide to leave, so I could park.

It doesn't matter what time of the day it is, if our eating places are open, they are full. If you have lived here for a while, you acquire the art of waiting for a table. You hang around, watch to see who has finished their food, test to see if you can make them uncomfortable by giving them bitch glares (my sister Julie is particularly good at these) and pounce on the tables as soon as they are free. Even before the desultory waiter has sauntered up to clear up the dirty dishes.

Jackie lives in England. She actually has to work for a living. She is on her feet the whole day, with a short lunch break and maybe another 15 minutes sometime during the day. She is forced to smile as nasty wankers unload their bile and vitriol over her head. Sometimes she sneaks off quietly to burst into tears. No, she doesn't work in a sweatshop. She's a pharmacist.

When she comes for a visit, she wants to eat. A lot. She makes up an elaborate list and gets on the phone with my sister Julie to discuss it. Just to see if there's anything she missed out.

As we circled around the shops hopelessly, she turned to my mother. "Hey Mom, you didn't make goreng pisang for me this time. What's the matter? I also want the pal appam, the Lucky Gardens one, and the curry puffs at Raju's and if we can fit it in Muthu's teh halia (ginger tea). Also the butter prawns at Kam Ying and the honey spare ribs at the Herbal Soup House."

I felt obliged to prick her balloon here. "It's no longer Kam Ying, they sold the place and the new cook can't make the creamy prawns to save his life. Sorrylar monkey. Oso I donno if Herbal Soup House is still open. Last time I went, the honey spare ribs were so tough I nearly broke my teeth."

Jackie sighed sadly. "Changes, changes, why can't everything stay the same?"

"I know. What to do. But anyway, Mom's rendang is the same. Still the best I've ever tasted anywhere. Even if she doesn't bother to use the asam gelugor. Haha. And I'll make my prawns, howzzat?"

Jackie nodded, happy.

I feel a little sad today as she goes back tomorrow. The feast is over. Back to real life.

We did manage a hell of a lot of food while she was here, though. There was satay. Char kueh teow. Nasi lemak. Roti canai. Lots of chicken rice. Rendang, rendang, rendang. Butter prawns. Black pepper prawns. Chicken vindaloo. Palak paneer. Beef pasandha. Tandoori chicken. Goreng pisang. Malay kuehs, such as seri muka. Indian sweets (jelebis, gulab jamuns, barfis, halwa). Hot plate noodles. Pandan chicken.

I guess we don't bother much with drink over here because we eat. And eat. And eat.

If eating is indeed our national pastime, it's because there's food in so much abundance and variety. We eat out all the time, we favour stall food (specially flavoured with body salt) because it's cheap. But bottom line, our food is just pretty damn good.

I was on the phone with Jackie while still in Australia.

"Excited about going back?" she wanted to know.

"No, not really. I don't fit in. And having to deal with Malaysian drivers again....oh God!"

"Think about the food....," she said.

So I did.

And I have the 10 extra kilos to show for it.


goldennib said...

I wanna come live with you, I luuuuuv food, yum!

Everything sounds so good. It sounds like eating appetizers, a taste of this and a taste of that, and I'm sure it's so much better than what we have here.

Jenn said...

Hey you can taste our food. When I was in New York a few years ago, there was this restaurant (actually there were seven in NY alone) called Penang. Everywhere I went in NY people would ask me where I'm from. I'd say Malaysia and get ready for the inevitable, "um....where exactly is that?" To which I would reply: "Above Malaysia, below Thailand".

Instead, they would say: "....oooooh I love your food." And I'd think "Huh?"

Seems that this new restaurant: "Penang" had opened in NY and it served authentic Malaysian cuisine. Really. I tried it myself.

I think there should be a few restaurants in New Jersey as well. Go ahead and try it. The nasi lemak. And the rojak. And the roti canai.