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Relayed in gorgeous, detailed prose, A Taste for Adventure includes almost forty selected recipes sure to make every reader run to the kitchen to re-create roti, a flaky Malaysian flatbread; Rosita's pozole from Mexico; or adzhapsandali, a luscious Georgian ratatouille.
I am on the local train, on the milk run from Bangkok to the Malaysian border, slipping south through slums in a post-dusk haze, the kind of landscape you only see from train windows. My brain has been numbed, stunned by the way Bangkok manages to function with seemingly great efficiency amid a perpetual traffic jam, the contrast of slums and penury amidst the shininess of purpose and economy and affluence. From what I have heard, Malaysia promises a simpler existence, and I settle onto a wooden bench on the train with a slower pace already making its way through me. Local travellers welcome me, offering a mouthful of rice, or a tiny finger banana, smiling when I accept.
The farther we get from Bangkok the more intense the parade of food. Officials walk up and down the length of the train (about twenty-five cars long) offering water, Coca-Cola, Mekong whisky, beer, soda, rice, eggs, chicken, soup, juice. Children appear out of nowhere at every stop. First I hear the sound of their feet pounding on gravel, running alongside the tracks, then I see a glint of their plastic-wrapped wares, held up to the train's open windows: almond cookies or eggs cooked in sweet dough, all wrapped in yellow cellophane and tied with thin red ribbons, looking gorgeous, or sweets folded into bags made of old computer printouts. The kids run along the tracks, holding their packages up to hands stretched out of windows, screaming prices up and down the length of the train, grabbing cashfrom one hand and pressing the goods into the other, almost as though it is illegal.
Women board the train tottering under the weight of huge wicker baskets mounded with stuffed chicken legs and wings, fresh fruit, sticky rice folded into pink banana flowers or wrapped in pandan leaves. They ride the train until their basket is half-empty or until everyone's appetite has not only been satiated but exhausted. They hop off the train to catch the next one back.
The amount of food increases with the lateness in the evening. By three in the morning, the whole train is famished, despite the fact that not a single hour has gone by when any of us have not put something into our mouths; it is the kind of ravenous hunger that comes from a day of constant grazing and a sudden late-night alertness. The flavour of an elegantly charred chicken leg at dawn cannot be put into words. Gradually, the sun's rays begin to lick the bottoms of low-lying clouds and sweep through the glistening rice paddies on either side of the train, and I fall asleep to the sounds of children clapping and smacking their lips.
* * *
At the border, I stand under the tin roof of a shack at customs and watch a wall of water descend from the sky. A sudden torrential storm has everyone pulled outside, mesmerized. Even the guards lose their scowls and smile at this spectacle of water. We are staring at nothing. The sheet of rain has blocked everything from our view, the red day road, the green palms lining it, the cinderblock building a few yards from us, the black clouds that gave birth to this, now heaving with thunder, all of it obliterated by this wall of water. The Malay woman standing beside me giggles as the ground shakes. Eyes widen and children squeeze themselves into the hollows of their parents' legs, grabbing fabric with tiny sticky fingers.
* * *
I make my way to Penang, where it is hard for me to imagine that this was once a bastion of R&R for American soldiers fighting in Vietnam. Remarkably, there is no trace of that left. The place reverberates with the multiculturism that is Malay, the result of a period of British administration, when East Indians and Chinese were brought over to work in mines and on plantations. Today, men wearing Indian smocks and sarongs walk down the street behind old, round women in Mao suits and straw peaked hats; a young woman wearing a chador and veil trips over young, blond children in Spanish T-shirts playing jacks. I feel strangely at home here.
I lean out of the window of my room above a bustling street, drinking in new colours made dusty by midday sunshine, and breathe in a labyrinth of smells: the salt of the Andaman Sea, whose whitecaps I glimpse over some low-roofed buildings; the exhaust of endless mopeds and buses; the stench of durian from the vendor below me who has been expelled from the lobby of the luxury hotel next door; the sharp heat of chilis fried in oil from the open restaurant across the street. I watch a young Sikh man wipe down all the tables in the restaurant, then stand in the breeze in the doorway, smoking and looking up and down the street for friends. He finishes his cigarette, flicks it out into the traffic, and ducks into the restaurant just in front of his first customer.
I walk downstairs, past the woman selling durian, and cross the road. I go into the restaurant and sit down. The young man approaches, bringing a glass of water and asking me in Malaysian what I'd like. I raise my palms up, looking helpless, and he laughs. He pats my shoulder and disappears into the kitchen. In a few moments he returns with a platter of buttery, flaky flatbread and a bowl of what looks like puréed yellow lentils. Sitting down across from me, he uses the delicate fingers of his right hand to show me how to tear pieces of the bread off, form them into a scoop, and use them to spoon the lentils into my mouth. He watches me as I eat, smiling at my reaction to the bread's simple, rich, dissolving texture, and laughing when the cumin, cardamom and onion seeds in the lentil stew explode on my tongue. Through the whole meal, he sits with me, quietly sketching long-plumed birds on the inside covers of my journal. He opens the book to the last page I have written on and begins to read words at random out loud: "landscape ... clear green sea ... wall of rain ... stands in the breeze in the doorway." He gives me back my journal, then gets up and brings over a menu, in Malaysian. From it I read words out loud: "rendang ... santen ... rempah ... asam ..." He points to something on the menu, dalcha, and grabs the bowl that the lentil stew was in. He runs his fingers along the words roti chanai and points to the few flakes of flatbread left on the plate. In my journal, he carefully writes the names in the space after my last entry. I ask him how much I can pay him and he closes his eyes. Nothing. He gets up and motions me to bring my journal and follow him.
Jagjit takes me into the kitchen where the cook is pounding some spices in a large mortar. The pestle he is using is the size of my forearm. The cook looks up at me and nods as Jagjit speaks to him. He keeps nodding and then motions for me to stand in front of the mortar. He hands me the pestle and asks me to keep pounding while he goes to the back corner of the kitchen, where he fetches a large stainless steel bowl Covered with a cloth. He pulls the cloth back to show me that the bowl is filled with small balls of well-oiled dough. After he removes two of them, he covers the bowl and again sets it aside. He throws one of the balls of dough to Jagjit and they both flatten them with their hands on a large table. When the dough is as large as a pancake, each of them takes his dough into his hands and flicks it out, hanging onto an edge, stretching it. They rotate and flick, rotate and flick, rotate and flick until each of the pieces has turned into a large, translucent sheet of pastry about two feet in diameter. Jagjit folds the edges of his piece into the centre, then takes the cook's piece and does the same, making two neat squares.
The cook splashes some water on a hot griddle, then brushes it with ghee, a clarified butter used in Indian cuisine. He throws both rotis on the griddle and turns them every thirty seconds or so until they are nicely browned. He brushes more ghee on top to crisp them up, then places them on a plate for us to eat.
We pull the hot bread away in strips, blow on it, and drop it in our mouths. It dissolves into nothing but a whisp of buttery flavour. As we eat, the cook looks at what I have done in the mortar. He pounds it a little more, then sets it aside. Tossing me a ball of dough, he tells me to make a roti. He jerks his fingers out, showing me the wrist flick motion and pushes my elbow, encouraging me to try it. I flatten the dough, then grab a side and flick it out. He nods approval and I keep flicking, but of course my roti is much lumpier and more oblong than theirs were. Nevertheless, he is very patient with me and watches me while he puts together other orders that Jagjit has taken. A couple of hours and a few more bails of dough later, I finally have something that he can serve. The cook calls Jagjit back and shows him. Jagjit laughs, claps me on the shoulder, and cheers while I wipe sweat from my forehead. In good humour, the cook points at the clock and tells me to show up for work tomorrow at 9 a.m.
Jagjit sends me back across the street with four rotis and tells me to come for a free dinner. I give two of the warm rotis to the woman selling durian in the doorway of the guesthouse I am staying at. She thanks me with a smile. I give the others to some kids playing in the street, who have inhaled them before I even turn away. I move slowly up the stairs to my perch above this bustling street on Penang.
* * *
I spend a few days exploring Penang, wandering through its alleys and streets, saturated with the saltiness of the ocean breeze, enveloped in Malaysia's relaxed, open character. I feel welcomed everywhere. No matter where I go, people greet me with smiling faces and affectionate touches. Still, there comes a time when I feel the need to move on, and as I consider my next move, I wonder if I will encounter the same friendliness in the more southern and eastern reaches of the country. On the morning of my departure, I go over to Jagjit's restaurant to say goodbye. The place is not open yet, but Jagjit is inside and when he sees me in the doorway he pulls me inside and offers me some tea. We talk via hand gestures for a while and then I tell him that I'm leaving, heading south. He takes my journal and writes his address inside the front cover, under one of the birds he has drawn. We stand, and he pats me on the shoulders and wishes me luck. I cross the street but turn when I hear him shout. He makes frantic hand movements for me to wait, as though he has just realized something, then rushes inside. He picks up the phone and speaks into it excitedly. I cross the street again and by the time I am back at the restaurant, he has hung up and is waving for me to come inside. He tells me to wait for a moment. The cook arrives and coaxes me into the back to help him make some rempah, or spice paste, the same paste he had me pound a few days ago. I pound garlic into a purée while he chops some shallots and red chilis, He adds the shallots, some thinly sliced lemongrass, candlenuts, the chilis, and galangal to my garlic and encourages me to keep going. After a lot of pounding and stirring! the mixture suddenly comes together and becomes smooth. The cook adds a bit of dried shrimp paste and some oil, motions for me to stir it all together and then tells me to stop. What will he use it for, I ask him, and he tells me that this is his rempah supply for the whole day, the spicy base for most of the curry dishes and soups on his menu.
Jagjit comes into the kitchen and brings me out to the front. A woman dressed in an Indian tunic and trousers stands at the entrance to the restaurant, sunglasses perched on top of her head. She holds out her hand. "Hello, I'm Surinder ..." she says. Jagjit stands beside us and grins and executes a series of quick bows. Surinder laughs. "Jagjit told me on the phone that you are leaving today." I nod. "Good. I can give you a ride as far as Marang. Is that all right?"
I am a little taken aback. "Yes, of course. I.... This is unexpected."
I dash back into the kitchen to say goodbye to the cook, run across the street to grab my bag, wave goodbye to the woman selling durian on the stoop, and shake Jagjit's hand. Surinder and I drive off in a flurry.
We drive south on the main road to Kuala Lumpur for a while, passing enormous clear-cut plots of red earth. Surinder tells me about her family, about how they came to Malaysia from India when she was ten, and how now she has relatives scattered across the whole country, which is why she is going to Marang. She tells me more about Jagjit, who is her cousin.
We leave the clear-cut and twist high into the hills, looking onto terraced fields of green cut into lush segments of jungle. I ask her if she ever goes back to India, and she shrugs. "Sometimes. Not so often. I consider myself Malaysian, even though my childhood memories are all Indian." She pauses. "I still have family there, in Bombay, but when I am there, I feel like I am an outsider. When I am here," she looks over at me, "I feel Indian and Malaysian at the same time. And that is a good feeling."
"The best of both worlds?" I ask.
"Mmmmm ..." She thinks. "Yes, in a way. I feel more accepted. No one on the street is judging me, looking at how much gold I am wearing or wondering what religion I am. I am assumed to be Malaysian, and I am Malaysian. But I still have my family here to remind me of my roots and the traditions we have brought from India. There are not so many countries where you can do that."
She asks me if it is like this in the West. More or less, I say; in cities. I tell her that I know the feeling she is talking about and that it is a wonderful one to have. "But," I say; "in the West, we seem to think that exporting our lifestyle is more important than celebrating culture."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, westerners seem to have this notion that the way we do things is the right way, and that everyone else should be so fortunate as to live the way we do. But to me, a lifestyle of heavy consumerism seems to come at the expense of spirituality and cultural divergence. We lose our identity. We simply become consumers, not Canadians or Malaysians or Smiths or Jagjits. As westerners, we don't take the time to explore our ancestry or our traditions, so we lose a sense of who we are, and come to define ourselves by what we own instead. And we're exporting that all over the world. Drink Coke. Wear Calvin Klein. Listen to Céline Dion. Why? Why not engage ourselves in the colours of other cultures instead of promoting ours as the best? ..." I look over at Surinder, who has her eyebrows raised.
"Sorry," I say. "My soapbox ..."
"No, no, it's okay. You're right. The West promotes itself as having all the answers. And we believe it. But if you ask me, consumerism just seems to complicate things. I like a simple life. I don't ask for much, I don't impose on this world much, out of respect for its delicacy." She glances out the window as we enter another cut-block of carved red earth. "We're kind of screwing things up, right now."
"Yes," I say, "and we seem to think we're entitled to do that. We seem to be beset with a kind of arrogance of entitlement that has been brought on by consumerism."
"So what do we do?" Surinder asks.
"I don't know yet." We fall silent.
We turn off the main road onto a side route that takes us down towards the ocean in stepping plateaus. At the coast, thin stretches of white sand bring the mountains carefully into the sea. A rainstorm approaches and we pull over at a roadside café. As we step out of the car, the clouds let loose their first big tears onto our cheeks. The heavy blue-black clouds turn the palms and mountainsides into a fierce, lusty, emerald colour. Sheets of water slam onto the ground. The restaurant, like most in Malaysia, has no wails or windows—it is simply a kitchen and a bunch of tables set up under a zinc roof. We sit under it and watch, the rain so loud that it prevents conversation.
Surinder shouts over to me and asks if I have had murtabak yet. I shake my head. She orders two and then pokes me, pointing at the man behind me who is making Malaysian-style coffee. He has a large metal mug in one hand and a small metal cup in the other. He holds them close together then separates them quickly, as far as his arm span will let him, pouring the liquid from one into the other with incredible accuracy. Without spilling a drop, he does this back and forth for a minute or two, until the coffee is frothy and rich. He brings the cup over to me and starts making one for Surinder. There is a sting of ginger and whiff of cardamom in it, creamy and smooth.
The murtabak arrives and Surinder tells me that it is essentially roti, stuffed with mutton or beef or eggs. It is even more delicious than the roti I had at Jagjit's. When I bite into it, the bread dissolves into the meat, which is minced and spiked with cinnamon and cloves and Vietnamese mint. I roll it all around in my mouth, loath to swallow, but Surinder tells me I must, because it should be eaten hot. We laugh and joke with the coffee man through the meal, watching the rain pounding on the road and ripping fronds from the palms, and lift our feet when streams of water push themselves along the dirt floor of the restaurant.
The rain stops suddenly, without warning, and within minutes the sky has cleared completely. Not a cloud. Surinder and I watch, mesmerized by nature's fickleness. "I love this," she says. "It's my favourite time of the day." On the beach by the restaurant, two men pull up in a fishing skiff and drag what look like two marlins across the sand towards a barbecue pit. The men are soaked to the bone, laughing at the fortune of sudden rain, chatting happily as they try to find dry wood to prepare a fire. A good day's catch.
* * *
After leaving Surinder I spend a few days basking in the slow-paced villages of Malaysia's east coast, eventually making my way down to Kuala Lumpur. Compared to Bangkok, it too feels sleepy, structured; the traffic is civil and moves at a pace visible to the naked eye. Kuala Lumpur's residents seem content, less rushed, more likely to stop and talk to friends on the street. I stay in a place that overlooks the night market, a stretch of pedestrian-only stalls where it's possible to buy anything and everything, but most importantly, some of the best food in Malaysia.
I start out early, an hour before sunset, meandering through the wet market, where fresh fish and vegetables are sold, and where a constant spray of water keeps everything alive and crisp. Rattan baskets overflow with live blue crabs, anchovies, prawns and squid, stacks and stacks of leafy greens, pyramids of herbs and roots as far as the eye can see.
In quiet alleyways, old women in smocks and bare feet waddle quickly and with purpose, gathering last-minute items before all of Kuala Lumpur comes out to feast under the market's lights. The stalls are quiet, filled with young girls preparing food for the evening, expertly chopping and hacking vegetables with machetes twice the length of their arms. Fires are lit on the ground in the stalls and fanned with stiff banana or pandan leaves, oil is added to woks and the girls sit hunched by their fires, waiting for customers.
And suddenly, as though a whistle has sounded or a bell has been rung, the stalls are crammed with people, squinting at wares under strings of bare lightbulbs, bargaining with the hawkers. Woks sizzle, and the air is filled with murmurs of conversation and the exchange of gossip. I pass a stall that has tiny wooden cages, each with an insect in it, cicadas, I think. One of them buzzes as I pass, and the hawker laughs and flaps his hand at me, asking me if I want to buy it.
I enter the T-shirt and bootleg tape section, where rip-offs of western brand names (Channel, Hard Rock Cat, Rollex) flutter in a breeze and where George Michael, Led Zeppelin, and Sting blare out of speakers all at once, all around me. I move back into the food section, where I see a man hacking the outside husk off a coconut. He chops the nut in half and throws it into a machine that lurches and clatters and spits out shredded flesh into a bowl below. He takes some of the flesh and some of the milk, places it in a steel cup, adds ice and water and hands it over to me, telling me I should drink it. Gorgeous. My mother always told me that I didn't like coconut milk, and I consider telephoning her to tell her that she was wrong. Really wrong.
* * *
Singapore is a slap in the face. The simpler life I saw in Malaysia is treated with disdain here. Commerce seems to be all that matters, and the city is a reminder of my soapbox, of western-style consumerism being sold overseas, in lieu of a respect for this country's now-distant culture. But squashed in between the glittery skyscrapers of Singapore are reminders of simplicity, seemingly kept underfoot by the power that money brings. Some of the world's oldest shacks still stand here, and these are where the best food in Singapore comes from.
It is a city of contrasts. If you stand on one street corner, you feel as though you could be in Dallas or Chicago, surrounded by nothing but glass and steel towers, pristine air-conditioned shopping centres full of boutiques beyond counting, billboards of the latest Hollywood films, exquisitely dressed office workers tripping across the street in Italian leather shoes, money, money, money. And if you turn and walk away from all that, peek around a corner, you realize that just a block away, the world changes. If you look under the perfectly woven carpet of glamorous Singapore, where all the unsightly things are swept, you find the occasional street of rubble, or hastily built shelters from which dusty, wrinkled women sell wares from another era—Brylcreem, thick iron woks and cleavers, bottles of India ink, curlers, steel washboards—and from which scents of sweat and steam and sewage rise up to meet you.
I decide to walk from one end of the city core to the other to find those places, from its fragrant Indian quarter to the stalls by the water that sell Hainanese hot pot chicken, noodle soups of all kinds, and fresh juice made from sugar cane and starfruit.
I begin in Little India, where I lose myself in the back alleys for a couple of hours. I walk past piles and piles of spices: of vicious yellow turmeric; of tiny, fragrant pods of cardamom; of curiously shaped fenugreek. I watch a woman in Indian dress crouching by a large wok set over a fire in the middle of an alleyway. She is deep-frying pakoras and has a pot of dalcha going on the side. I notice that the dalcha being made here is different than the one I had on Penang. The woman adds fresh curry leaves, cilantro, and cinnamon bark to it and hands me a spoon for a taste. In all this heat and humidity, it is the most refreshing thing I can imagine. It is spicy and hot, but I immediately feel cooled. She grins at me and waggles her head, delighted at my reaction.
A few alleyways over, I stand by an old Tamil man who is pounding a mixture of whole spices into a powder for a woman, her own personal masala. After she tells him how much of which spices she wants in the mixture, he places them first on a cradle of solid rock and crushes them with the pestle, then pours them into the mortar, where he pounds them into a fine powder: star anise, Szechuan peppercorns, cumin, cardamom, fennel, fenugreek, turmeric, coriander, dried chilis. The aroma is breathtaking and he gathers a bit on his finger and holds it out for me to take a deeper smell.
Excerpted from A TASTE FOR ADVENTURE by Anik See. Copyright © 2000 by Anik See. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Malaysia & Singapore||1|
|Turkey & Armenia||93|
|Suggested Readings and Viewings||231|