A week-long trip to marvellous Melbourne.

Okay. This post is not going to be for everyone because a) I took no photos of my week in Melbourne b) I saw only the taxman, 3 friends and a few family members c) covers mostly what returning residents to a city as marvellous as Melbourne do, when disinclined to see anyone.

Due to the many verbal sparring sessions I’ve had in leading up to my time away (I’d put it down to hormonal imbalance except one look at me will convince even the least observant person otherwise), I simply wanted and needed some time to myself to recharge my batteries. So I’m very sorry if I didn’t call you while in Melbourne. If it makes you feel any better, very few people even knew I was there.

Anyhow, HRH, Amanda and I took to the skies last Monday night, at the start of Amanda’s second week of school holidays. We arrived at the cock-crowing hour of 6am and by the time we made it to HRH’s bestie’s home in Balwyn, after first being conveyed to an off-site car rental company’s parking bay, then negotiating unfamiliar roads guided only by Google Maps on our half-dead mobile phones, it was close to 8.30am. Thoroughly jet-lagged, we had a quick breakfast with one of our gracious hosts and willed ourselves to catch-up on some much-needed shut eye. If there is anything I can say about flying budget, it’s this: don’t expect to get any sleep, especially if the person behind you is a giant whose knees keep kneading your back, but not in a good way.

I awoke mid-afternoon, showered and settled into a comfortable lump on one of the sofas with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for company. With HRH glued to his Iphone and Amanda still fast asleep, I remained utterly content in that semi-comatose position until one of hosts returned from work, and then another. We indulged in some chit chat, as old friends who’ve not seen each other in a long time do, then adjourned to the Straits Cafe in Doncaster where I managed to satisfy my long-held craving for fish head noodles. And that marked the end of day one.

On day 2, the 3 of us spent a good hour getting to the taxman’s office (yes, it does take forever to get anywhere in Melbourne) then another 2 hours holed up in his windowless room until our business with him was done. Leaving $2400 poorer (taxman has yet to bill us for his services but that’s the price he quoted beforehand), we made our way to Glen Waverley where we stumbled upon an ol’ haunt, The Grand Tofu, famed for Malaysian hawker fare, which with the on-going construction of the apartments above the railway station, is now housed a stone’s throw from the library along Kingsway. There, in place of the second bowl of fish head noodles I was hoping to eat (I told you I have a craving), had Penang assam laksa with extra “hae koh” (shrimp paste) as my first choice was sold out. HRH had curry noodles with 6 pieces of yong tau fu while Amanda had her regular wanton noodle soup. You can click on any of the highlighted links to see pictures and reviews of the restaurants I frequented.

We returned to our hosts’ home after that to enjoy the last of the sun’s rays. Fine weather such as what we had last Wednesday is so rare in Melbourne that when you do have it, the way to make the most of it is to do absolutely nothing – which is what we did. Changing back into my PJs, I went for a stroll around the garden and sat by the pool contemplating the many people who in one way or another, make up the fabric of my existence. Why do some irritate me more than others? Do I make extraneous allowances for those that don’t, therefore they don’t, or is there simply such a thing as an animal-knowing of incompatibility?

That night, our hosts treated us to a Thai restaurant called Jinda in Richmond where we feasted on crispy pork belly stir fried with chinese kale, green paw paw salad, fish with the traditional namjin sauce, massaman curry and shared two scrumptious desserts at the end. Walking back to their car, we came across a Thai grocer next door. Since none of us had ever been in one, or one completely dedicated to Thai food, we all went for a look see. If you love Thai food and are the lazy sort like I am, you’ll appreciate the wide variety of freshly cooked, boxed, curries, stir fries, snacks and refrigerated desserts on offer. Not only that but I spied quite a number of the road-side snacks I’d bought as a kid in Malaysia, such as fish satay and tamarind candy.

Since we were in Melbourne to essentially decompress, we spent day 3 snoozing until midday, then went to Box Hill’s Ramen King for lunch, followed by a spot of shopping at Chadstone, just to show Amanda “Australia’s biggest shopping mall.” She wasn’t as impressed as HRH and I were, nostalgic at the sight of Chaddy, an old friend that has grown into this sprawling capitalistic behemoth in our absence. We walked around pointing out the new additions to the the building to her, the way proud parents say, “Do you remember when our baby was just this high?”

That evening our host took us to  Tien Dat Vietnamese restaurant in Box Hill where we shared plates of broken rice, vermicelli salad, and crispy stir-fried noodles. As I’d picked up a jar of marinated goat’s cheese and rosemary flavoured Byron Bay-made crackers from Simon Johnson at Chaddy and HRH a 24 piece box of Lindor balls from Sweet As, we decided to have dessert in the quiet of our hosts’ home instead of competing for shouting space with the other diners there.

Day 4 was much like day 3, in that we also slept until midday; I, having risen earlier than the other two, took a break from Cloud Atlas to check out Jeff Mcmullen’s “A Life of Extremes”, which came highly recommended by one of our hosts; part travelogue, part memoir of a life lived out documenting many of this centuries’ worst wars, A Life of Extremes will make even the most restless first world dweller thankful for the relative peace and affluence we enjoy here. It is a read that will open your eyes to what it means to live and be alive like no other. Flipping through it’s pages, I was grateful to my maker not to have been born a South American or African child soldier, or any soldier for that matter, as a horrific death is almost a certainty in many of the encounters cited.

When the other two cared to join me after their shower, we went to Springvale for lunch. HRH and Amanda, hankering after mud crab, had that sea meat Melbourne is so well-known for, braised with noodles at an establishment named Hue Hue, where it’s currently going for $26 per pound. Meanwhile I walked to the neighbouring market and back, where I picked up a roast pork roll and a undiluted glass of freshly pressed sugarcane juice laced with tangy kumquats for a tiny $11. In the evening, we drove over to my brother’s place to sort out some stuff and take him and his wife to dinner.

Endeavouring to show Amanda what Papa and Mama got up to before we had her, back in the days when the two of us called Melbourne home, HRH ferried us to Kansai in Huntingdale, an old favourite, only to find the shop no longer there. So I got my first choice, which was a visit to another old favourite, an unpretentious little Thai place in Springvale called Papaya Pog Pog where we had 2 plates of fragrant crab fried rice, tolerably hot Thai paw paw salad, fermented crab Lao paw paw salad and thai chicken mince salad.

A word of warning: if you like 5 star establishments or silver service, most of the diners in Springvale will not be for you. Spingvale is one of those what-you-see-is-what-you-get type suburbs. Food is cheap for the simple reason that eateries are typically no-frills affairs. Having said that, produce used is fresh and of good quality, which is what I’d prefer to zen-out establishments featuring over-priced “Asian-inspired”, bastardised fare any given day. But that’s just me. You can’t eat the wallpaper anyway.

On day 5 we had to pull ourselves out of bed a little earlier as we had a date with HRH’s cousin, who lives in the same suburb as our hosts’ but 10 minutes by car away. It was good to see that he had relocated from Brisbane to Melbourne successfully and is by all accounts, very happy there. After a cup of tea or two at his place, we all left for Papa Rich, a franchise familiar to all Malaysians, synonymous with upmarket Kopitiam (coffee shop) fare. I suppose that for all our oft-proclaimed desires that society be flat and everyone equal, everyone wishes for a rich Papa, hence the popularity of the chain.

At the urging of HRH’s cousin’s wife, I tried their biryani and ayam masak merak set, which was surprisingly authentic. HRH had their nasi lemak, which he too was only too pleased with to extol the virtues of, and Amanda a couple of sticks of satay and some of my biryani.

After yet more sofa-warming back at our hosts’ home, we were taken to Kenji in Camberwell for one final good feed ahead of our flight back to Perth. There we had so many delectable Japanese dishes that for me to recall them all, I wouldn’t have been paying much attention to the food. After dinner, we went home for tea and one last yakking session because who knows when we’ll get to do this again? My last visit to Melbourne was a year and a half before this. With Amanda in school, we’re restricted to the school holidays when flights are most expensive and reasonably-priced accommodation scarce.

As all good things must come to an end, we enjoyed one last breakfast with our hosts, then  retraced our steps to the car rental company, from which we were spirited away to the Tiger terminal for our flight home. FYI, even flying Tiger cost $1000 + for the 3 of us. But reemerging in Perth, feeling utterly rested and refreshed, I can say it was money very well spent.

 

Why roll up your sleeves when you can always hire someone?

Despite growing up in a house filled with the smells of freshly baked goods, lunches that were never the same as dinners, no less than 3 dishes of meat and vegetables at every meal, accompanied by soup that takes donkey-years to boil, I had scant appreciation for home-cooking until I left home. In the ignorance of my youth, my most oft-spouted response to being asked to help out in the kitchen was, “I don’t want to spend all my time slaving over the hot stove.”

After all, apart from having the physical dexterity of a chicken with duck feet, I was going to become a career woman. What need did I have for cooking when all the working women I knew had catered food delivered to the home or bought family dinners from the economy rice stalls?

When my extremely hygienic mother (she’s a former nurse, if you must know) asked me to help her clean for the umpteenth time, I’d grumble, “Why do I need to know how to mop and clean when I can pay someone to do all that for me in the future?

Oooh…the things you say that come back to haunt you. Little did I know that my future involved living in a land where cleaners command upwards of $25 an hour (about the same as or more than entry-level professionals) and economy rice stalls do not exist. Ha! And guess who I had to crawl back to for easy recipes on not-so-humble home-cooking?

After living more than half of my life away from home, I’ve come to see the wisdom of what my mother said earlier, in response to my many protestations: “When you can cook, you can make food taste EXACTLY THE WAY YOU WANT, instead of the way someone else wants.

When you can clean, you won’t be held to ransom by maids and cleaners.

Back then I had no idea what my mother was on about. Who would quit on me if I pay them? Why wouldn’t the chef make food the way I want it to be made?

Obviously I had to learn the hard way. This morning for instance, I discovered that although big fry-ups are a staple at most breakfast cafes, not all know how to make a proper one. Sure, the eggs were poached as I requested and there was a sausage, which I was looking forward to, but the eggs tasted of the vinegar put into the water to poach the eggs.

Now, I’m no master chef, but I can tell you that if the eggs were very fresh, the vinegar would not have been necessary. At any rate, they should have been rinsed and drained well enough after the poaching so I wouldn’t taste the vinegar. Meanwhile, I swear that the sausage came straight out of a microwave: it was split right down the middle from over-cooking and the ends where it had been cut from the other links had oozed out to form crusty “muffin tops.” On top of which, the sausage was as dry and chewy as a piece of bark. The other elements of the fry-up were all right, but as I said, fry-ups form the bulk of business for most breakfast cafes so they should know how to serve up a decent one.

Having said that, my taste buds are simply spoilt from all those years of home-cooking. My mother wasn’t just one to cook and bake, she’d go over the one recipe until it was perfected, totally convinced that the author of the recipe had left ingredients out or given erroneous measurements on purpose. Until today, many of her cookies, cakes, tarts and whatnot are still the best I’ve ever had (and I’ve eaten heaps) but please don’t think of asking me to ask her what she puts in them because I haven’t the slightest interest in baking and the only people she’d tell are family.

Nowadays, the one who preaches the benefits of DIY is me. My mother practically rolled her eyes when a couple of years back I showed her Shannon Lush’s “Spotless.” That’s probably because, with few exceptions, I have someone clean my house for me. Nonetheless I do know how to roll up my metaphorical sleeves and dig in, should I need to. Since her accident, my mother has been having catered dinners. My father usually hops out at midday to buy lunch from the coffee shops near their house. Since we kids left home, she only makes the cakes, cookies, tarts and whatnot for church bake sales or when she comes to visit me, at Amanda’s request.

Amanda’s most recent request has been for her to make apple pie and apple crumble when she passes this way again in December. Last December when we went home, the two of them made 2 batches of walnut-topped, blueberry muffins together. I was chuffed to see grandmother and granddaughter working side by side, the two of them bonding over flour and butter, even as I sat there with my legs up, surfing the telly.

I suppose, regardless of where you live and what your means are, it all boils down to how badly you want something done. Because I had to have “keropok lekor” and no market stocks that over here, I scoured the internet for recipes, then using the amalgam of several, attempted to make my own. I’ve also made my own Chinese pasta from scratch, which I wouldn’t have thought to do if I could have just bought it ready-made, cooked and flavoured from a shop.

True, you can buy whatever it is I make in Malaysia or Singapore, but do you really know what goes into your food? Rumour has it that fried foods bought from the stalls stay crispy for hours because plastic is melted into the oil to form a coating on the food. I’ve also heard that tissue paper is routinely mixed in with flaked fish to bring down the cost of each bowl of Assam Laksa. And just yesterday, I read of the link between maternal nutrition and autism. While the author of the article didn’t say autism is caused by food per se, the only thing to have changed between 1990 and 2000, accounting for a 870% increase in the incidence autism, is our diet and the food chain. If that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice, I don’t know what will. Perhaps it’s time to dust down that apron.

Best places to eat in Brisbane.

My cousin Peggy, visiting Brisbane from Malaysia, asked me late last week if I have any good eating places to recommend. Off the top of my head, all I could think of was Thai Wi Rat in the Valley, where I used to go often for grilled cat fish (Pla Dook Yang) and while they still had it on the menu, cat fish floss salad (Pla Dook Fu).

Then I remembered Pho Hoang Gia on the corner of Wickham St and Kemp Place, where I went for savoury pancakes filled with seafood and served with raw vegetables (Banh Xeo) and had some of the best beef stew (Bo Kho) and I realised that I have to, just have to, compile a list so as to do  justice to all the fabulous eating places I’ve frequented.

Okay, this list is going to come across as biased since most of these eating places (apart from those in the Valley) are either in the 4101 (where I lived for 3 years) or in Sunnybank (where I shopped most weekends), but I wouldn’t be true to my palate if I excluded them.

Price range is indicated by $ for cheap, $$ moderate and $$$ for please bring more cash. In the order of cuisine, here they are:

Malaysian

1) Malaya Corner – good Hainanese Chicken Rice, fried radish cake (Char Kueh Kak), herbal  pork soup (Bah Kut Teh) and complimentary soup (which you can buy for $2 a bowl, if like me, you like soup). $

2) Dapur Dahlia – best satay in whole of Brisbane and possibly Australia. They run a stall at the West End Riverside market on Saturdays but if you need your fix of authentic Malay food on other days, you can check out their take away shop in Upper Mount Gravatt. $$

3) Singapore Corner – despite the name, they have very good Malaysian food. $

A picture of me in Malaya Corner having Chicken Rice and $2 soup.

A picture of me in Malaya Corner having Chicken Rice and $2 soup.

Chinese

1) Parkland – for yum cha and dinner. You can find gigantic tanks filled with sea critters right out the front. $$

2) Landmark – also for yum cha and dinner. The “sister shop” of Parkland, this is the old favourite of yum cha devotees. $$

3) The shop next to KFC in Sunnybank for Szechuan food. $

4) Little Hong Kong for roast meats, congee and noodles. I also like their complimentary Chinese tea which washes away the oil very well and eases that heavy feeling at the end of a meal. $

5) Bamboo Basket for dumplings, buns and Shanghainese favourites made-to-order. $$

Indian

1) Bombay Dhaba – excellent South Indian thali every Sunday, good North Indian food at all other times. $$

2) Riverside Malaysian Restaurant – fantastic goat curry and South Indian fare. $$

 A picture of me and Amanda at Riverside Malaysian restaurant in Highgate Hill.

A picture of me and Amanda at Riverside Malaysian restaurant in Highgate Hill.

A picture of Masala Chaat at Bombay Dhaba in Brisbane.

A picture of Masala Chaat at Bombay Dhaba in Brisbane.

Korean

1) Madtongsan 1 & 2 – good one-bowl specials and dumplings. Madtongsan 2 has a loyalty card that gives you free dumplings whenever you visit, or so it appeared to me. $

2) Hong Depot – beautifully marbled cuts of wagyu for the BBQ, lunch specials from $10. $$

3) The shop on the first floor of Diana Plaza in the Gabba – specials like Korean steak tartare (Beef Yukke) for 50% less if dining between 5 and 6 pm, Monday to Friday. $$

4) O-Bal-tan – if you like your meats cut into finger-sized chunks, as opposed to sliced. $$

Japanese

1) Sono – everything is delicious and service is exemplary, however be prepared to pay up to $100 per head for dinner, especially if having sake with food. $$$

2) Sakura – Amanda loves the steak tartare (known in Japanese as Beef Yukhoe), HRH and I like the sashimi and the raw squid with fermented soy beans (Ika Nato). $$$

3) Hakataya Ramen – with 2 outlets in Sunnybank and 1 on the Gold Coast, their ramen is number 1 in all of Brisbane. Be sure to go early to avoid long queues. $

 A picture of Ika Natto at Sakura Restaurant in Brisbane.

A picture of Ika Natto at Sakura Restaurant in Brisbane.

Vegetarian

1) Kuan Yin in the Valley – it’s a no-frills diner but the Taiwanese-style vegetarian food is great. $

2) Tea Master in the Valley – also a no-frills, offering Malaysian-style vegetarian food. $

3) The Forest Cafe and Bar – wholesome vegan cuisine, the highlight of which for me is their cheesecake. Biting into it, you won’t know it’s stuffed full of tofu. $

4) SOL Breads – they make yummy soups in winter and have quiches and salads the whole year round. $

 Is it real or is it fake? A picture of vegetarian chicken rice at Tea Master in Fortitude Valley.

Is it real or is it fake? A picture of vegetarian chicken rice at Tea Master in Fortitude Valley.

Vietnamese

1) Viet Hoa – I used to go there so often they even made me porridge when I was sick. They even had a pet name for me, since they couldn’t pronounce or remember Estella – “Malai Mui”. All I can say is their wanton soup is the best in Brisbane, as is the pho, and best of all, they don’t use MSG in their cooking. $

2) Pho Hoang Gia – for Viet pancakes (Banh Xeo) and beef stew (Bo Kho). $

3) Trang Restaurant – pho comes in baby size, regular, large and X-large. X large is enough for 2 adults to share. $

4) Kim Thanh Hot Bread – not theoretically a restaurant, this bakery sells mouth-watering pork and salad rolls. If you are vego, you can ask them to leave out the pork and the pate. $

A picture of Banh Xeo from Pho Hoang Gia in Fortitude Valley.

A picture of Banh Xeo from Pho Hoang Gia in Fortitude Valley.

Indonesian

1) Makanan Indonesia – the beef rendang cooked by the owner’s sister melts in the mouth, and the rice sets are good value, offering you a sample of some of their dishes. I am particularly fond of their sambal gila; made with chilli padi, it is so hot it’ll burn the roof off your mouth. $$

2) This one is in Upper Mount Gravatt, whose name I’ve now forgotten, but served real good fried cat fish with sambal (Pecel Lele). I was recommended there by a Malay friend. $$

 

A picture of the vegetarian set at Makanan Indonesia in Brisbane.

A picture of the vegetarian set at Makanan Indonesia in Brisbane.

Fish & Chips

1) Swampdog – fish is locally caught and the chips are cooked only in canola oil, which makes them the best in Brisbane, however be prepared to pay around $90 for 4. $$$

2) George’s Seafood – now this is the place to go to if you are on a budget. A serve of fish and chips with some calamari will set you back at the most $10. $

Breakfast Fry Ups

1) Roundabout Cafe – opens from very early until midday, serves are huge. $$

2) Five Sisters Cafe – tucked away at the back of a brick house converted into an office on Melbourne St, apart from fry-ups, they make great coffee and shortbread biscuits too. $$

Italian

1) Pasta-al-dente – they’ve been making pasta for over 30 years and it shows in the food they put out. Amanda’s favourite are the spirals with cheeseballs and mine is the Vegetarian lasagne. They also make and sell fresh pasta and sauces on-site. $

 A picture of Vegetarian Lasagne at Pasta Al Dente in South Brisbane.

A picture of Meat Lasagne at Pasta Al Dente in South Brisbane.

French

1) C’est Bon – this award-winning place requires an advance reservation, so if you are keen to try it out, remember to call first. Amanda loves the garlic snails. $$$

South American

1) Granada Cafe Tapas Bar – offers delightful little South American morsels to try but go on Tuesday nights, when they have paella, and you’ll thank me. $$$

2) The Sardine Tin – fabulous ambience at night and also great tapas. The standout dish for me has to be their grilled sardines. $$

3) Red and White Peruvian Restaurant – their marinated raw-fish (Cebiche Pescado) is a must-try. Service is good, size of mains is on the small side. $$

 A picture of seafood paella at Granada Tapas Bar in South Brisbane.

A picture of seafood paella at Granada Tapas Bar in South Brisbane.

High End

1) Aria – I went here after HRH got his FRACS results. Celebrity chef Matt Moran’s baby, Aria offers quality fine dining coupled with five-star service. $$$

2) Alchemy – my vegetarian friends weren’t particularly impressed by their mains, or the level of service (they forgot about our request for more water), but I thought the food was well-presented enough for an establishment of their standing. $$$

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A picture of me and my fellow surgeons’ wives at Aria in Brisbane last May.

Now you probably know why I have to be on a diet half the time. I’ve eaten at many, many, many more places, but these are the ones that stick out in my mind. Bon Apetit!

My personal philosophy: Love Food, Love Life. A picture of signboard I saw in a hawker centre in Penang, Malaysia.

My personal philosophy: Love Food, Love Life. A picture of signboard I saw in a hawker centre in Penang, Malaysia.

Freezing in Perth (aka my first winter in Perth).

It’s officially winter down under and for the life of me, I can’t explain why I thought Perth would be as warm as, if not warmer than, Brisbane this time of the year. Sure, we do crank up the heater once in a way in ol’ Brisvegas during winter, but Brisvegas has nothing on Perth when it comes to mercury plummeting.

On paper, the temperature difference between one coast and another is a minuscule couple of degrees. In reality, it’s the difference between wearing a light jumper in the day (Brisbane) and full winter gear (Perth). So if you are headed this way, consider it a friendly piece of advice from your not-so-local weather bureau to pack as if going to Melbourne – the cold is usually more of the dry variety here, as opposed to Melbourne’s wet, but after a characteristic seasonal downpour, you might think it is one and the same.

I certainly did this past week, taking refuge under the covers the whole of the long WA weekend with the heater turned on high enough for Amanda to have a nose bleed and myself, a very dry throat. On the upside, this presented me with the perfect opportunity to teach Amanda a new word: hibernation.

Doesn’t that only apply to animals?” she asked, rather miffed we were going to spend 3 seemingly good days (by her standards anyway) in bed.

“Yes, but it should also apply to humans. After all, we would save a lot of food and water if we all just plugged up our bums, the way bears do, before nodding off to a 3-month-long sleep.”

Amanda was not convince of these benefits of hibernation so HRH promised to take her to K-mart in exchange for 2 days of holing up with us in the heated bedroom.

“K-mart!” she squealed, her eyes brightening.

I swear K-mart should pay me for all the free promotion Amanda gives them. She told the owner of our regular Chinese restaurant, Lisa, about the promised trip, when we ventured out of our burrow for dinner (alas, human hibernation has to be punctuated by meal and toilet times), and the way she said it, it was as if we were taking her to Disneyland! But at least that ensured her co-operation as we spent yet another day buried under our IKEA-bought, mid-weight, King size doona.

“Do you know you slept 20 out of 24 hours yesterday?” asked HRH when I opened my eyes yesterday morning.

I’m practising to be a bear,” I said to him.

Last week I was practising to be a cat (read: took fewer baths). Now, having experienced the difficulty of sleeping on an empty stomach for extended periods of time, I have new respect for hibernating animals. Rather than view them as lethargic, defeatist, elements in nature, I’ve come to see that getting oneself to doze off to a fiercely growling stomach takes incredible will power and forbearance. As for why I would have to endure the discomfort of an empty stomach, let me just  remind you that mine refuses (and has refused for weeks on end) any food offered to it after 6 pm, thereby leaving me no choice but to fast until 7 am the next morning.

To console myself, I’ve marked all 2 months and 26 days until the end of winter; in the way that only humans seem capable of, I’ve also deluded myself into thinking it’s not that long a spell  and it could be worse if I was living in Siberia. Oh, and if there is one thing to be cheery about deep in the throes of winter, it’s Heston Blumenthal’s slated visit to Margaret River for the Margaret River Gourmet Escape, to be held between 22nd and 24th November, mid-spring. Be sure to mark that down in your diary, gourmet enthusiasts. You want to be booking accommodation NOW if you hope to score anywhere for less than $450 a night.

In the meantime, to keeping my frozen bottom warm, I’ve dug out the possum-wool poncho I bought a year ago in New Zealand, especially for dismally cold days like these. I’ve stocked up on the essentials – instant sachets of warm drinks, cream biscuits, what I’ve been told are “toxic” instant noodles – to stop myself from traipsing out more than necessary in the cold and paid up my utility bills – to make sure no one turns off the heat, even if I have to once in a while with Amanda’s bloody nose and me croaking up balls of greenish phlegm. If you feel for me (as you must since I am famished and cold), do send food parcels, knitted jumpers and sunshine my way. PM me for a send-to address. My frozen bottom and I humbly thank you.

 

Food on the Chinese mind at Perth Zoo.

Next to the French, Chinese are probably the most food-obsessed. We start out our days thinking about dinner, feasts to be had at the weekend and closest holiday, and in many cases, plan road trips and holidays entirely around the sampling of various foods. In fact, if you were to tell a Chinese there’s NO food at an event – like in Australia, where most event organisers only serve tea and coffee – it’s unlikely you’ll see him or her. Even when there is no food to be hand, our minds still conjure up images of juicy roasts, succulent braise meats and other delectable morsels a long history of hunger and deprivation has inspired.

Case in point: moi, strolling through Perth’s Zoo with the family, thinking of all the wonderful meals I could have from the various creatures on display. This constant thinking of food I assure you, has nothing to do with me being on a diet. It springs itself on me even when full, at the most inconvenient of times – this being one of them.

Surveying God's generous bounty at Perth Zoo.

Surveying God’s generous bounty at Perth Zoo.

“Aren’t those birds lovely?” observes Amanda aloud.

“Yes, most certainly. Especially covered in BBQ sauce,” I say. “Or pan-fried with a bit of salt and pepper.”

“Mama! How can you look at the birds and think of food? ” she says in mock disgust.

Us with dinner, maybe? A picture of Amanda and I with Ibises at the Perth Zoo.

Us with dinner, maybe? A picture of Amanda and I with Ibises at the Perth Zoo.

How can I not? Aren’t the crispy pigeons served in Chinese restaurants birds too? Or have they morphed into plants since they no longer flap their wings? Amanda has never liked chicken or eggs so she can’t make the mental connection. She has the Aussie affliction of liking chicken breasts, the driest and most tasteless of meat. To get her to eat some meat (only monks, the poor and enlightened individuals are vegetarian), I’ve to resort to cooking chicken breast, and so, have to consume it myself. O’ the sacrifices of motherhood.

“How about that turtle?” says Amanda, pointing to a great big shelled thing.

How old do you think this thing is? I'm guessing 100!

How old do you think this thing is? I’m guessing 100!

“Delicious too,” I say, ribbing her, although I can distinctly remember having turtle soup in childhood. It tastes much like beef, only stringy.

In Malaysia, there are forest shacks you visit to have your fill of game without any hunting. I’ve heard of someone dying after consuming deer cooked in herbs or some other wild animal. Some of those are spirits and NOT really animals, they say. Or the human victim must have offended one of the local deities guarding the forests.

"What's the giraffe doing, mama?" asked Amanda. "Testing the female's giraffe's urine to know if they should make baby giraffes." EEEWWWW, was her answer.

“What’s the giraffe doing, mama?” asked Amanda. “Testing the female’s giraffe’s urine to know if they should make baby giraffes.” EEEWWWW, was Amanda’s answer.

“And how about the Tiger?” asks Amanda. “Don’t tell me you want to eat it too!”

“Tigers eat people so people eat tigers,” I say, teasing her, which is unfortunately true.

Tigers hunt humans when they are no longer able to hunt other animals. Don’t be offended but, unless they’ve developed a taste for humans, we aren’t their first choice of meat. A fit, healthy tiger in the wild much prefers to kill fit, healthy deer or antelope than a fat, sluggish human being, although I don’t suggest you court one to test my theory. Due to the Chinese practise of using tiger parts as cures for an assortment of ailments, they’ve since become a critically endangered speciesEven though we lack in-built, physical weaponry, we, humans, are still the greatest predators to walk the earth.

Aren't they juicy, erm, I mean docile?

Aren’t they juicy, erm, I mean docile?

“Ok, now don’t tell me you want to eat the lizard,” says Amanda, pointing to a close relative of the iguana.

“Actually, I’ve eaten one of those,” I say, not joking.

The statue looked so real, my mouth was watering. Just kidding! I didn't want to go near the thing.

The statue looked so real, my mouth was watering. Just kidding! I didn’t want to go near the thing.

Again, in Malaysia, where iguanas are commonly found, some motorists just stop their cars to abduct these creatures for their pot. They definitely take home those run over by vehicles instead of leaving them roadside to rot. Many years ago, my mother’s friend gave her some iguana soup to try and so that evening, she fed us a chunk each for dinner. It also tasted like beef. As a matter of fact, and I don’t know if it’s God’s joke on us eat-everything buggers, but all wild meat tastes like beef.

A  picture of a grumpy orang utan at the Perth Zoo.

Enjoying quite time alone. A picture of a grumpy orang utan at the Perth Zoo.

“How about the snake?” asks Amanda, pointing to one in the dim-light of the night-animals enclosure.

“What about it? Chinese eat snakes too. It must taste a lot like eel.”

Eel tastes like fatty fish. I once saw this documentary about soldiers in the Singapore army, gutting and skinning a python to make a BBQ. What can I say? I’ve eclectic viewing habits. At least I know what I’ll be eating if I find myself lost in the jungle.

“How about the otters?” says Amanda, by now eyeing me with the same level of suspicion Aussies regard many of the foods originating from animals identified here.

“Don’t know. Never had one. Although I imagine sauce makes everything edible.”

This elephant tries and tries, to avail, to get what's in the hanging basket.

This elephant tries and tries, to no avail, to get what’s in the hanging basket.

Her "promo board" says: sorry but Tricia cannot stop for photographs.

Her “promo board” says: sorry but Tricia cannot stop for photographs.

Now you needn’t worry for the animals of Perth Zoo for they are protected by high walls, high fences, and if that were not enough, security cameras on the outside to deter any would-be Chinese hot-pot enthusiast. I suggest the administrators of Perth Zoo pass out celery sticks and other vegetable crudites to Chinese visitors to help us stave off (and perhaps rewire our brains to not think of all animals as food) our meat-cravings while there. Jokes aside, Chinese do love animals and have a deep appreciation for animal conservation which is why HRH and I brought Amanda to see those big and small, furry, scaly and grizzly things that live lazy, snooze-filled days at the Perth Zoo.

Another critically endangered animal.  A picture of HRH's beloved Red Panda at Perth's Zoo. We spent 20 minutes at its enclosure just to snap this photo since the thing wouldn't sit still.

Another critically endangered animal. A picture of HRH’s beloved Red Panda at Perth’s Zoo. We spent 20 minutes at its enclosure just to snap this photo since the thing wouldn’t sit still.

Best diet secrets from around the world.

We’re so lucky nowadays because there’s a smorgasbord of food choices in most major cities around the world. Even in country towns, the effects of human migration are slowly making themselves felt, if at times inauthentically, across menus. My quest to lose 10 to 15 kilos and live healthier has led to me to examine the different dietary practices of some of the healthiest people on earth. Here are some of my favourite, which I’ve used to formulate a do-able eating philosophy:

China (the traditional Chinese diet, not the modern one with many “experimental” dishes)

  • Eat like the typical peasant of yore, as opposed to an Emperor all the time.

    Peasant-eating. Picture courtesy of http://www.npr.org

    Peasant-eating: mostly vegetables and soupy dishes. Picture courtesy of http://www.npr.org

  • Eat several traditional stir fries (eg. saute garlic with leafy greens, bean sprouts with salted fish) in the one meal. Dark leafy greens such as Chinese kale don’t just provide plenty of fibre but are also high in calcium – great for vegans.
  • Eat less meat, less often, bulked up with non-starchy vegetables (refer below)
  • Incorporate traditional ingredients such as lotus roots, gingko nuts, black fungus, black moss hair, glass noodles, bamboo shoots and assortment of herbs (eg. ginseng, dong guai, dragon eyes, wolfberry, red dates, honey dates, north and south almonds) to enhance nutritional profile of dishes.
  • Have broth-type soup with most meals, at least 1 plate of green vegetables at ALL meals. Sweets and sugary foods MUST be eaten very rarely.

Japan

 

French

  • No foods are forbidden. We can eat all foods in moderation. However, by “eating in moderation” they mean single serves in small amounts. As my French friend says, “You can have fried chicken, Estella. Just the one piece is okay.”
  • Small serves of indulgent food spaced throughout the week is less damaging to the waistline than 1 huge serve once.
  • Enjoy “the moment” when dining out. Don’t rush through meals. Instead, savour them. If dining at home, use nice China to liven up the dining experience.
  • You can have a glass of wine with meals. Remember, just 1.
  • End meals with a small leafy salad. Here’s a video on French salads from my favourite French Canadian Chef, Laura Calder.

Indian

Korean

  • Koreans place a great emphasis on eating healthily. Even their junk food caters to the health-concscious consumer with benefits of the ingredients used listed on the front or side of the package.
  • Most Korean meals come with many vegetable-based side dishes, adding to the variety of foods eaten at each meal. This means that we have a higher chance of getting the nutrients we need throughout the day.
  • Instead of regular polished white rice, Koreans frequently consume a boiled blend of grains to up their intake of minerals and fibre.
  • Foods are seldom fried; most often foods are boiled, BBQ-ed in such a way as to allow excess fat to run off. Fatty meats are cut into very thin slivers so the average diner doesn’t really eat much of it.
  • Pound for pound, Koreans eat their weight in Kimchee a year. Kimchee’s been found to be one of the world’s healthiest foods, providing the gut with a dose of good bacteria, often found in other fermented foods like yogurt and miso.

South American

  • You’ve probably already heard of Quinoa, Chia seeds and Acai berry. But did you know they, along with Cacao, the purest form of chocolate (yes, chocolate!) are South American superfoods?
  • Their cuisine, while varied across the vast region, typically features tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic, onions and black beans. Tomatoes are known to protect men against prostate cancer, while bell peppers are high in Vitamin C. Garlic and onions are antibacterial, while black beans very high in fibre.

Australia

Living in a country with a mostly Anglo-diet, which I too enjoy from time to time, I’ve found ingredient substitution key to enjoying many foods. For instance, did you know you can make creamy Cabonara sauces and soups using (unsweetened) condensed milk? To thicken the consistency of these sauces or soups, simply add a heaped tablespoon of cornflour to the mix. I guarantee you, your taste buds won’t know the difference.

Instead of starting off the cooking process with butter or oils, use it at the end to flavour food. You will taste the ingredient, certainly smell it, but use far less than you would with conventional cooking practices.

And there you have it: some of my “thin-spirations” (inspirations for being thin and healthy) from around the world. Although non-exhaustive, it will provide you with a spring-board to launch into healthful eating. Bon Apetit!

The forced road to skinniness.

You must be thinking I’ve a couple of screws loose in my head to want to be thinner than what I already am. For the record, I was quite happy about my body, even if I denied the existence of tuck-shop lady arms (yes, thin people have those too), a cute little roll of abdominal fat (I put that down to having Amanda), and other wobbly bits best left to your imagination. Not that I’d want you to imagine me naked, but you get what I’m saying.

When I did a straw poll among friends, no one voted me as needing to shed weight. The common consensus was, and still is, I have a pretty decent bod for my age, what more being a mother. We, child-bearers, can’t hope to compare our bodies with our fruitless sisters because anyone who’s birthed and nursed a child will know the toll that takes on your body: the stretch marks, the loose bits…okay, enough of scaring you.

Well, as you might have gathered from reading my other posts, my mother is fat-phobic. Even when I was less than 45 kilos, she’d say, “Of course you MUST be thin. You CANNOT be fatter than your mother. I’ve had 4 children, you’ve only had 1.”

And yes, I’ve heard too many times the story of her emerging, post-delivery, wearing her pre-pregnancy jeans home. I must have my father’s genes because I went home fat, swollen and oozy after having Amanda – proof Asian girls are not naturally thin.

You can only imagine what she said when I went home the December just past, weighing a very hefty (for my height and bone structure anyway) 56.5 kilos! Actually, you don’t have to imagine that either because I’m just going to tell you.

You’re obese,” she declared, right in front of Amanda.

“What’s obese?” asked Amanda, who’d only ever heard me refer to myself, jokingly, as “fat.”

“That’s whale-sized,” I told Amanda, who responded theatrically with enlarged eyes, raised eyebrows and gaping mouth. “Sumo wrestler size.”

What’s a Sumo wrestler?

“Ssshhh…I’ll tell you another day.” To her grandmother, I said, “What do you mean by obese? In Australia, the average woman is a size 14.”

Of course, the average woman in Australia is also supposedly 5 feet 7 inches tall. At 5 feet 3 inches, I shouldn’t be more than a size 10. But I was only wearing a size 8 to 10, so how could I possibly be obese?

“Think of all the illness you’ll be getting,” she said. “You have to be responsible for your health, especially since you are someone’s mother. If something happens to you, no one will love Amanda like you do.”

Ignoring my protestations about being healthy and curvaceous, sort of like Salma Hayek but yellower, my mother had my father, who colludes in all her schemes, take me for a COMPREHENSIVE blood test, where I was duly informed, I have HIGH cholesterol. Wait, it gets worse. You can have HIGH cholesterol even if you eat plenty of Avocados, but my BAD CHOLESTEROL was very, very HIGH. Good cholesterol, very, very low.

You know what that means, don’t you? I was on the fast track to getting a heart attack, a stroke, Type 2 diabetes… It was hard denying the numbers in front of me, even if by Australian standards and the increasing waistlines of many Asians – due to our growing portion sizes and burgeoning love affair with Western food – I was rather slim; my BMI an acceptable 22.7.

As you may recall, when I returned to Malaysia in December, I was greeted at the airport by my sister-in-law who’s now in direct sales, that is, apart from working full time as a tax consultant. To support her growing business, her brother, my husband, HRH, reluctantly agreed to buy me Nuskin’s The Right Approach (TRA) programme. Even at cost price, it is roughly AUD 1505 (RM 4800) for 3 months worth of shakes, supplements, and other odds and ends.

I was skeptical because I had tried Herbalife more than 10 years ago, and within a year, had put back on the 5 kg I’d lost. But since HRH had agreed to buy the whole package for me…

While waiting for my package to arrive, with my sister-in-law’s first entry into Australia as a permanent resident, I devised my own weight loss programme using everything I know about nutrition. Here’s what I did:

  1. Limit daily calorie consumption to 1200. Why 1200? It’s based on my OMRON-machine reading courtesy of sister-in-law. It’s the amount of calories I need a day to sustain my activities. Any less and I lose weight. 
  2. Make meals more flavourful, less fatty. I said goodbye to my beloved fish crackers, which I’ve been indulging in almost from birth. Also sayonara to pig innards, all other obviously greasy foods. Making over favourite foods became a new hobby.
  3. Eat vegetables at EVERY meal time. It’s a no-brainer, but we don’t eat nearly as many vegetables as we should. I recommend you find a tasty low-fat dressing (Sushi Su, balsamic vinegrette etc) and eat that giant salad tonight. Skip the croutons. If having a decadent dressing like Caesar, put it on the side and use it to “flavour” the odd bite or so.
  4. Control portion sizes. Up until the last 20 years, we used to have big feeds only on celebratory occasions. With improved standard of living, we’re celebrating all the time, hence eating more than ever. A quick trick to getting yourself used to eating less is using smaller plates. Research also shows that the more people you dine with, the more you tend to eat. Try dining alone.
  5. Make eating better a game. It’s a fun one too. You’ll be standing in the food aisle thinking, “What can I put in place of fatty ingredient X, to make it taste just as good, if not better?” With this way of thinking, I’ve turn out creamy pies with less than 400 calories, bangers and mash with less than 400 calories…It doesn’t have to be rabbit food all the way, but being thin does require meal-planning and/or an acute awareness of what you put into your mouth.

When my sister-in-law turned up with my Nuskin TRA package 2 months later, I had already lost 2.4 kilos. It wasn’t a whole lot but I was very proud of my efforts since I had identified some of my dietary weaknesses and was able to partake in family dinners as usual. With her help, using the OMRON machine, I found that my muscles had increased by 0.7%, visceral fat (abdominal fat) decrease by 1, total percentage of body fat decrease by close to 2%. That may not seem like a lot to some, but if you are more than 1/3 fat like me (yes, it’s truly mind-boggling how someone seemingly thin can have so much fat), every little bit counts. It should be noted that for long-term weight-loss, healthy-eating habits have to be established and maintained. As for exercise, it  can make you feel good, but undertaken at the amount needed to loose weight, will make you age a lot faster, due to the extra free-radicals generated by the body during exercise. Perhaps, with exercise alone, you will gain back the weight once you stop.

1 month later, on Nuskin’s TRA programme, incorporating my own method of healthy-eating, I lost 3 kilos (4 kilos if you take my measurements first thing in the morning), 3 cm on my tuck-shop lady arms, 7 cm from my waist, 5 cm from my post-baby pouch aka abdomen, 6.5 cm from my hips, 3.5 cm from my thighs, 6.5 from my calves. I don’t have the OMRON machine so I can’t tell you what my visceral fat, percentage of fat or percentage of muscles are, but I can definitely say that I feel a lot better; much lighter.

PLEASE NOTE: I am NOT selling Nuskin or any other product. This is neither a paid endorsement, nor is it a recommendation for the product.

Obliging Asian daughter that I am, I’m simply chronicling my journey to become the thin person my mother has always wanted for a daughter, and perhaps inspiring a few of you, with a few extra pounds of pudge, to embark on health-finding journeys of your own. If my story has taught you anything, it should be that even seemingly thin people can be fat inside. As for visceral fat and the OMRON machine, here’s a snippet on Youtube about it:

May you find your inner thin person!

Our first month in Perth.

Since a picture paints a thousand words, I’ve decided to allow a selection of photos I’ve taken this month do the talking. Do enjoy!

Amanda's swimming teacher would be so proud of her. She can now swim 25m freestyle and backstroke, do tumble turns and recently mastered survival backstroke too.

Amanda’s swimming teacher would be so proud of her. She can now swim 25m freestyle and backstroke, do tumble turns and recently mastered survival backstroke too.

A picture of the noodles I prepared in our Fraser Suites kitchen in Perth, Western Australia.

Who says tasty can’t be healthy? This bowl of noodles captures the essence of summer with of punnet of grapes tomatoes, 1 yellow capsicum and 200 gms of spinach. It’s low in fat but high in flavour.

My little Aussie has a sausage roll to start the first school day of the year.

My little Aussie has a sausage roll to start the first school day of the year.

Here come the dragons! Please welcome the snake year!

Here come the dragons! Please welcome the snake year!

T'was 42 degrees on the day but we were glad we braved the heat to be part of the festivities.

T’was 42 degrees on the day but we were glad we braved the heat to be part of the festivities.

Picture of the crowd taken by HRH, who seemed to be the tallest one there.

Picture of the crowd taken by HRH, who seemed to be the tallest one there.

You can tell how much sun there was by how tan I am. Since I bought Amanda a sam fu in Singapore, she could dress up for this year's Chinese New Year with me.

You can tell how much sun there was by how tan I am. Since I bought Amanda a sam fu in Singapore, she could dress up for this year’s Chinese New Year with me.

It was the Chinese New Year but we had every race known to man at that street fair.

It was the Chinese New Year but we had every race known to man at that street fair.

What Chinese New Year is complete without Choy San, God of Prosperity? Here he comes to give out red packets with gold-colored tokens to children.

What Chinese New Year is complete without Choy San, God of Prosperity? Here he comes to give out red packets with gold-colored tokens to children.

You wouldn't believe it but the lion dancers were Latin Americans!

You wouldn’t believe it but the lion dancers were Latin Americans!

Bite-sized pieces of Nyonya kueh were real good.

Bite-sized pieces of Nyonya kueh were real good.

To escape the 42 degree heat, we ducked into a desert shop along the main street in Northbridge, Perth.

To escape the 42 degree heat, we ducked into a desert shop along the main street in Northbridge, Perth.

Amanda enjoying a ride on her new two-legged scooter.

Amanda enjoying a ride on her new two-legged scooter.

Another lovely evening in Perth. You can always admire the yatches even if they don't belong to you.

Another lovely evening in Perth.  You can always admire the yatches even if they don’t belong to you.

 A picture of the crabs in a tank in a restaurant in Northbridge, Perth.

Snow crabs look better than they taste. These babies here were destined for someone’s Chinese New Year feast.

Having a light moment in a regular shopping centre.

Having a light moment in a regular shopping centre.

Such lush grass at the Nedland's Esplanade.

Such lush grass at the Nedland’s Esplanade.

If only I could cart that tree home. I reckon it'd look marvellous in my lounge.

If only I could cart that tree home. I reckon it’d look marvellous in my lounge.

That building in the background is a hotel.

That building in the background is a hotel.

Capitalising on the Chinese's love of gold and money, this restaurant has both as part of its decor.

Capitalising on the Chinese’s love of gold and money, this restaurant has both as part of its decor. Not sure about the spiral josticks hanging from the ceiling.

10 out of 10 for presentation and taste.  A picture of the Sunomono we had at Kido Japanese restaurant in Nedlands, Perth.

10 out of 10 for presentation and taste. A picture of the Sunomono we had at Kido Japanese restaurant in Nedlands, Perth.

"If I don't learnt to skateboard now, then when?" asked HRH before buying that hazardous contraption.

“If I don’t learnt to skateboard now, then when?” asked HRH before buying that hazardous contraption.

A picture of HRH and Amanda in Perth City.

Enroute to buying me a new handphone. A picture of HRH and Amanda in Perth City.

 

 A picture of the all at Gino's in Fremantle, Perth.

A picture of the wall at Gino’s in Fremantle, Perth.

Gino's is a gastronomic institution in Fremantle, Perth, that started long, long, long ago when a Italian tailor dreamt of opening a coffee shop selling good coffee. Today the place has coffee, a wide selection of cakes and perfectly-cooked main meals.

Gino’s is a gastronomic institution in Fremantle, Perth, that started long, long, long ago when a Italian tailor dreamt of opening a coffee shop selling good coffee. Today the place has coffee, a wide selection of cakes and perfectly-cooked main meals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Farewell my fish.

7 plus years ago, on our inaugural visit to Perth, HRH and I had the best grilled barramundi ever; the fish tasted of the ocean and was crisp on the outside but still moist on the inside. Since then, HRH and I have been eating the length and breadth of Australia and New Zealand, trying to find a whole cooked barramundi that equals – just equals, I’m not asking for too much – the flavour and freshness of this Perth barramundi.

So yesterday, after scoping out the area beyond Nedland’s Esplanade, we decided to go for a drive to Fremantle, in the hope we’d stumble across the same hotel or motel we stayed at all those years ago that served us the divine barramundi. It was such a long time between then and now that neither of us remembered the name of the place or where it was; only that the hotel or motel was out of the city, about 5 or 6 storeys high, white and rectangular on the outside.

“I remember it being somewhere along Caning Highway, on this side of the road,” said HRH, pointing to the left. By now, darkness had fallen.

“I remember there being no other buildings around. I had to push Amanda (then 4 months old) in her stroller two blocks downhill, past houses to get to a coffee shop for a bite.”

We drove on, following Canning Highway until we had no choice but to turn Tom Tom on and loop back via Como to the city, where we might grab some dinner.

“It can’t be here,” said HRH, taking a swift look at Tom Tom. “We’re only 4.5 km from the city. I remember it being 7 km away from the city.”

Of course, in our combined memory banks, that barramundi is still the best ever whole grilled fish we have ever eaten, and we have eaten an innumerable quantity since. Sure enough, a building very similar to the one we were looking for loomed ahead, on the left side of the road.

Eureka! We’d struck gold! We drove the car up the driveway and parking it went, “Yes, yes, yes, this IS the right place!!!”

As a bewildered Amanda shot us questions about this barramundi eaten well before her days of solid food began, we congratulated ourselves on the find. Led by our bellies, we went inside, swept past the counter, straight to the restaurant. We were going to eat this fish again, regardless of the cost.

Back in the day, the restaurant was this dimly lit, non-air-conditioned affair. We were pleasantly surprised to find it had undergone a metamorphosis since; there was now more than adequate lighting, air-conditioning, even wall-mounted flat screen TVs to entertain diners. All that remained of the restaurant we remembered was the hole in the wall by which food is taken out by wait staff. All that’s fine; we were only there for the barramundi. We couldn’t cared less if they had left the restaurant alone or painted the whole room bright pink. All we wanted was that delectably succulent barramundi.

But for a heart-stopping moment, we found it was no longer on the menu.

“We can still grill you barramundi,” assured the waitress when we told her the story.

I suppose a returning customer is still a returning customer, even if the return took 7 odd years. Restaurateurs like to know that their food is worth coming back for. So we ordered 2 grilled barramundi with chips and salad on the side for $34.90 each, noting that inflation has well and truly set in since our last visit.

We waited with bated breath for our barramundi, anticipating a glorious gastronomic reunion. What came out looked nothing like what we’d remembered it to be. How could this be? Where was the whole fish? Take all these stupid chips and salad away. We wanted a whole grilled barramundi! It was doubtless palatable, but not the sort of fish I’d spend 7 years thinking about, between thoughts of Nasi Kandar at the stall down the road from KLCC.

But in true Aussie fashion, when asked by the waitress how everything was, I smiled and said, “Lovely. Just lovely.”

Well, it wasn’t like she cooked the fish. Telling her the truth would just have hurt her feelings. Driving away from the place after dinner, HRH said, “And how did we find the motel again?”

“I think you found it.”

“How did I find it?”

“Good question. I was wondering how you’d settled on such a dingy motel.”

“I don’t remember what it looked like inside.”

“It was early 80s, worn carpet, poor lighting, 2 queen beds in a room. Very stuffy.”

“You remember because you enjoy the rooms while I have to go to work. I remember now. I booked that place because it was the cheapest then. Nowadays you don’t even look twice at such places. Now I only ever search for 5 star accomodation.”

“Like I always say, human beings must progress.”

While not everyone’s ides of progress is resort-style lodgings and Michelin-starred chef-prepared meals, most people can appreciate the need to improve in life. After all, if one is not going forward, then one is at the very least stagnating. Which probably explains why the chef who prepared the best ever barramundi is no longer working at the restaurant. If you can turn out a dish, or a song or any random piece of work that someone remembers and uses as a benchmark for all future reference, then you have surpassed yourself. That being the case, the time is ripe for you to progress on to something else. Sadly, this too means HRH and I will never eat another Barramundi like the one we had 7 years ago, ever again. If you or anyone you know knows where we can find finger-licking whole grilled barramundi in Perth, do drop me a line in the comments section on By Estella Dot Com’s facebook page or append a comment to this post.

P/s It has to be very, very, very good Barra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Malaysia: meeting the locals.

HRH’s sister takes us to her regular coffee shop, a place like countless other coffee shops throughout Malaysia. There are blue Terrazzo tiles on the floor, large framed mirrors facing each other on walls for good feng shui, old marble tables with 4 or so fragile-looking wooden chairs each.

The sign that greets me before I enter says, “Beware of snatch thieves.” I ask HRH to take a commemorative shot, my face oozing enough oil to fry Indian roti.

We take a seat at one of the square tables.

“What is this place?” asks Amanda, her eyes as wide as they can be for small peepers.

“A coffee shop,” answers HRH. “Your mum and I grew up visiting places like this.”

Our coffee shops in Oz sell Continental cakes and babycinos. This place, according to a board on the opposing wall, advertising specials, sells wanton mee with soup or tossed in black sauce, all sorts of roti, nasi lemak to be sure, and to my amazement Roti Babi.

Roti Babi is a Nyonya dish. My mother says it’s made by stuffing a thick slice of bread with a mixture of cooked onions, pork meat (hence the name, “Babi”), crab meat and spices, dunking that bread into egg wash and then frying it.

Since I’m on holiday I ignore her admonishments to stay away from it because it’s unhealthy, and order myself a serve from the Cantonese-speaking Malay waiter. I discover that even the other Malay waiter understands Cantonese; phrases pertaining to food anyway. HRH, now eating less post-surgery, has a wanton mee to share with Amanda, HRH’s sister 2 half boil eggs with coconut jam on toast. We order an assortment of local beverages.

Returning to HRH sister’s car, I notice a rojak stall directly behind the restaurant. Closer inspection reveals a whole back lane full of hawkers. How delightful! I must have some rojak! So even though already full, I order a portion to go along with HRH’s order of sliced jackfruit and watermelon. HRH has suddenly become very health conscious, constantly insisting on fruit.

The stall holder, a granny with surprisingly good teeth (or could they be dentures?) asks us to take a seat at one of the tables while her husband, an old man with gnarly hands to match hers, whips up my sweet, sour, hot and spicy Malaysian fruit salad.

Perched at the table, we have an uninterrupted view of the kitchen to the restaurant we frequented previously, plus their wet, squatting loo. A swarm of fat house flies hover around us as the granny brings us our fruit and Rojak.

“Eeewwww…this place is disgusting,” announces Amanda, sitting on HRH’s lap.

I tuck into my Rojak, unperturbed by the flies or Amanda comments, as long-forgotten conditioning takes over. I want to point out to Amanda the mee seller in the corner, frying up plates of noodles without lighting or running water, but am caught up in the realization of being home, even if I am in a back alley teeming with vermin and a view of a wet, squatting loo.

Upon hearing that we’re back from Oz, the granny, who will never visit such parts in her life, banters with us as though we are her most loyal of customers. She waves to us later, as we drive off to head back to the Intercontinental Hotel.

On our walk to the car, Amanda stops her father with another wrinkled-nose look of disgust and says, “Why is there so much rubbish there?”

She points to a row of derelict single storey houses strewn with rubbish-filled plastic bags and empty drink bottles. In my Malaysian mode, I had not noticed any of this, alighting from the car. Now I can see it as clearly as she can.

“People are not as civic-minded in Malaysia,” HRH explains to her. “Almost everyone has to earn a living, many have hard lives. When people have hard lives, they don’t have the chance to think about things like public cleanliness or the impact their lifestyles have on the environment. Here, the rich are very, very rich and the poor are very, very poor.”

He left out the pretend rich and the pretend poor. I’ve been accused by HRH numerous times of trying to pass off for the latter.

“What about in the middle?” asks Amanda.

I’m glad that they teach her to question in school. We were encouraged to be quiet when I was growing up in Malaysia. From what I hear, little has changed.

There is very little middle here, Amanda,” I say. “You can either be very, very rich or very, very poor. Those are your 2 options living here.”

“That’s why you must study hard,” says HRH.

“Mummy and daddy studied hard, that’s why you have the life you have. Nothing comes without sacrifice, Amanda,” I say. “Nothing.”

Reaching the hotel, we choose to sample the couches nearest to the hotel gardens. Thanks to a huge glass wall, we can see man-made waterfall, sculptured gardens and all, in air-conditioned, mosquito-free comfort. A hotel staff comes up to ask us if we’d like any drinks. Juice is priced at RM17 per glass. At the coffee shop we were at, it was only RM2.50. As before, I’m referred to as ma’am.

“See, this is how the rich live,” I tell Amanda, waving the hotel staff away. “When you are rich in this country (actually any country in Asia), people treat you like a king.”

Unless your surname is Packer or Rinehart, your riches won’t buy you the sort of life you can have in Asia down under. Sure, your life will be comfortable, but only in select 5 star hotels will you ever be called “ma’am” or “sir.” The average Aussie establishment is too egalitarian to accord you any special titles or treatment. We’re all mates, loves and darlings, in Oz.

At the prompting of HRH, I go to check on our room. Front desk staff, different from that which greeted me at 6 am, claim to not have our booking. While polite, the man delivering the news has a decidedly frosty demeanour. I go to fetch HRH who irons out the matter. When I next see the man to get out key-cards, he is all warm and welcoming.

“Oh I’m sorry. It was our mistake,” he coos. “You will find the new rooms utterly lovely. The bed sleeps 4, the bathroom has a view of the bedroom.”

Suddenly we are best friends, eh? HRH, his sister, Amanda and I take the lifts up to find a uniformed hotel staff outside our door.

“I brought you your bag,” he says in Malay.

I open my wallet to fish out a RM5 note. Passing it to him, I instruct him to bring my bag inside.
He brings it in and places it on the platform for luggage so that I have easy access to it. He thanks me and takes his leave.

Amanda marvels at the room, perhaps not expecting to see anything like it outside of Oz. The tub is huge, the toilet has a bum-washing function, all surfaces gleam so brightly I think I might go blind from the light reflecting off surfaces. Minutes later, house keeping comes by to check if I have adequate bottles of water. Unlike Oz, we can’t drink from the taps.

Housekeeping passes me 3 bottles to add to the 3 we already have, thanks me and leaves. While HRH and his sister catch up, I give Amanda and myself a shower.

“We’ll try out the bath tonight,” I promise her.

When I come out, the door bell rings. It’s a different man from housekeeping. Without me inviting him in, he comes to fold up the excess bedding and places that in the wardrobe. Then he proceeds to pick up my discarded towels. Without any explanation, he zips out of my room with them and returns with 3 new fluffy towels.

Holding the door open for him to leave, I can see him giving me a once-over (actually many times over) with his eyes, as his hands go about hanging up the new towels. After what feels like forever, he comes out and standing before me asks, “You Malay?”

“No.”

“Thai?”

“No,” I say, wishing he’d just leave me alone. I have been on a very long flight, am dog tired. What I am is tired.

“What are you?”

“Cheena.”

“Oooh…you lawa,” he says. Lawa is Malay for beautiful. Then he looks me up and down again.

I feel ill.

“Thank you. I’d like to rest now,” I say, excusing him.

“Do you have enough water?”

“Yes, thank you.”

He steps out of the room and I close the door. Minutes later, my door bell rings yet again. The same house keeper returns bearing 3 bottles of water and several small packets.

“For you,” he says with a sheepish smile, handing me small packets containing cotton pads and nail files. “This,” he says pointing to the nail file, “will make you more lawa.” Then he disappears into my bathroom.

Oh? What now? I am left holding the door open, waiting for this person who clearly doesn’t know a guest is a guest is a guest, to leave.

When he returns from an extended tour of my bathroom he holds out his hand. Unable to comprehend what this is about, since his Malay is broken at best, and I can’t speak whatever he speaks, I hold out his small packets to him.

“Shake hands,” he says, looking at his extended hand.

I reluctantly shake his hand. He looks like he is about to die of rapture.

“I have to rest now,” I insist.

He steps out of my room and I close the door. I settle between HRH and Amanda on our super-sized King bed and recount to HRH what just happened. HRH’s sister has long left. HRH is mildly amused. I am on my way to beddy bye land with thoughts of all the delicious food yet to come when our door bell rings again.

I look up at HRH. No words are necessarily. He gets up to answer the door. He returns bearing another 2 bottles of water, grumbling about “my new admirer.”

I am once more off to beddy bye land when the door bell rings yet again. HRH looks annoyed, gets up to check it and returns with yet 2 more bottles of water.

“Same guy?” I say to him with sleep-heavy eyes.

“Yes,” fumes HRH. “He better not bother you or I will speak to management downstairs.”

I fall into a deep sleep to the sounds of our wall-mounted 40 inch flat screen TV.

TBC