I'm leaving for Logan Airport in thirty minutes. After all the waiting, finally the day has arrived. I won't be log on here until Saturday or Sunday. This is my first time I'm taking a non-stop flight. Boston-JFK-Singapore-Penang.
I would like to wish Happy Deepavali to all my Indian friends: Vasantha, Meenakumari, Saraswathi, Anjali, Visithra, Gustiadipati, Puspa, Tonya, Rani and everybody else who celebrates Deepavali.
Iza was one of my three closest friends back in Malaysia. I met her in early 80's when I joined Seagate. She got married and moved to New Zealand three years after I came here. Three years ago they moved to Australia.
All this time we keep in touch by phone calls and emails, but mostly by emails.
Soemetimes, we don't hear from each other for months, but we know we are always on the same page, on the same wavelength.
"This year I'm going home for Hari Raya," she e-mailed me.
"So am I," I e-mailed her back.
Her plane landed at Changi Airport on Wednesday. She must be home with her family in Bayan Baru by now.
It has been twelve years since we saw each other. All these times I never sent her my pictures and neither did she. Physically we must have changed, but she is still Iza I remember 12 years ago. I can't wait to see you, Iza.
I was so busy picking up macadamia nuts from brazilnuts, almonds, pecans, cashewnuts, peanuts and every single nuts that came in a can of mixed nuts I didn't hear the voice asking me about the shuttle bus.
When she asked me for a second time, I was ready to toss a fat macadamia nut into my mouth. Embarassed, I closed my mouth minus the fat nut.
"Sorry, come again?"
"You are waiting for a bus to tren station? " She carefully mouthed a questions as it was a delicate porcelain tea cup. And she pronounced station as we say Nasution.
I kicked my antenna from her nap.
"Kamu dari Indonesia? And yes, I'm waiting for a shuttle to a train station" Are you from Indonesia?
She gasped and quickly brought her hand to her mouth. She giggled. I could see the both corners of her mouth turned upward. Her eyes smiled along with her mouth.
"Mana kamu tau aku dari Indonesia?" How do you know I'm from Indonesia?
"Oh saya ni nenek tua, lihat....." I pointed to my head "hampir separuh rambut saya sudah bertukar warna." I'm and old lady, almost half of my hair has turned to white.
She laughed louder, and pressed her hand harder to her mouth.
Even if she didn't ask me about the shuttle bus, I would've guessed about her originality. It has nothing to do with stereotype, but after two years working closely with young Indonesian girls, I trusted my instinct this time.
When the company I used to work with back in Penang, Malaysia began to hire Indonesian girls, 80%-85% of the assemblers in my production lines were Indonesian girls.
Their small, slender bodies, their sense of humor, their adorable unconscious act when they laugh: they quickly covered their mouth and bend down their upper bodies to suppress their laughters, the way they had their head scarves on their heads. The way they walked, cautious because they didn't know what would they see on the next corner, but they put the brave faces and moved forward. They had no choice because they were the breadwinners............
She has it all.
As we waited for the shuttle bus, I learned about here: Her name: Let me call her, Sri. She has been here for five years. Her husband and her daughter are coming next week for good. She hasn't seen her daughter nor her husband for the last five years.
She asked me if I could talk to her in English, but slowly, as she is in ESL and GED classes at International Institute in DonTon (Downtown).
The II is assisting her to get her husband and her daughter here as they've been helping her since she got here.
When I told her I'm going home for Hari Raya next month, she told me she's meeting her mother in Kuala Lumpur in December.
"Your mother lives in Malaysia?"
"No, no, my mother in Indonesia."
"Why are you meeting her in Malaysia?"
She answered my question with a nervous laugh. She played the ring that held the tips of her blue head scarf and looked away.
"Too bad I won't be there until December."
"Yes, I can visit you with my mother."
"Well, we can always find time to get together if you like when I come back."
"Kamu betul-betul sirios?" Are you really serious? She looked at me as I was pulling her legs.
"Why not?" I took out my card from my purse and wrote down my home phone number at the back of the card.
"This is where I work. Call me if you need anything other than money okay?" She laughed. This time she forgot to cover her mouth.
My stupidity working out like a maniac over my microminivacation last week finally got to my falling apart body. As I bent down to pick some mails shoved halfway under my office door, I felt a sharp pain stabbed between my shoulder blades. For days I've felt the knots here and there on my back, the sign I would've not ignored.
The pain systematically spread on my back. I could've taken a pain reliever, but I never took any pain reliever before except when I had my root canal fixed last year. Last month I calledChi Wellnessto ask about their service. I picked up the phone and dialed their number praying they had available slot. I told Mr Miles Chong Cheng, the Director of the center I was interested to get a tuina massage. When he asked me If I were available for 5 pm appointment, I almost jumped out of my chair.
By 4:30 pm I was at their door. Lulu, a cheerful and friendly masseuse introduced herself and handed me a clipboard and consenting /personal info forms. When she learned that I experienced a low blood pressure in the past she asked me what time I had my lunch. She suggested me to have some light snack, some crackers or a banana. I walked up to a corner store near Brigham Women Hospital train stop. The Ethiopian kid at the cash register asked me if I were an Indian when he saw my bangles.
I heard a gasp behind me. I turned around and came face to face with a beautiful smiling face, grinning ear to ear.
"You're Malaysian?" She put her right hand over her chest.
"Are you? Which part of Malaysia?"
"Yes!!! I was born in Penang."
It was my turn. "Get out of here!!! Me too!!! But my family moved to Taiping in 1968." We laughed and talked at the same time. So many things to talk about.
"Oh my god. I could not believe it. My family moved to Taiping when I was younger ." She put her hands on both of her cheeks.
"Ladies, ladies, I did a wonderful job today, right? I bring two Malaysians together." We forgot all about the kid at the cash register.
We thanked him. Both of us had to be somewhere else. I dug out my pocket book and handed her my card and she did hers.
Before we parted she held my hands and said, "Please keep in touch, okay? Selamat jalan."
"I will. Jumpa lagi." I walked back to Chi Wellness Center with bright smile as bright as a full moon.
When I got home I added Cheng Ai Kwok's name in my address book.
I've learned to trust my instinct when I come face to face to another Malay since I've been living here. Out of 11 times I've been right 10 times. I don't know what it is, but I think we have a universal antenna among anak dagang -wanderers and travelers. There is a quick as a lightning moment when you exchange the look with that person you know right away s/he has tasted belacan- shrimp paste.
I had that moment the other day when I was in the subway. I got on the Park Street station and sat near the door. The woman's behind who sat next to me was bigger than the seat, her left hip squeezed me. As I inched away to the left I had a feeling somebody was watching me. When I looked up, the woman sat opposite me diverted her eyes away abnormally quick. But we already exchanged that knowingly look. I think she wore baju kurung, but I'm not sure because she had a light jacket on. But I remember she also wore a blue denims jeans, black pump shoes and a light blue head scarf. When she looked at me again, I smiled at her and leaned forward and greeted her. She looked at me without an expression, not even smile, a kind of smile you gave to a stranger when you're mistaken for somebody else. I leaned forward again. "Excuse me, are you Malaysian? Are you from Malaysia?
"I don't understand you."
Not even a hint of smile, but her accent gave her away.
"I'm sorry. My bad."
When the train pulled into Downtown Crossing, she got up before the train stopped.
I found this beautiful postcard in my mailbox today. My sister KN mailed it from Langkawiduring her three days trip with her daughter recently. The last time they were in legend island was five months before Mak died. Mak bought me a small bottle of minyak gamat (sea cucumber extract) and sent it to me along with a packet of roasted cashew nuts. She knew that I could easily get cashew nuts here, but she sent it anyway, and I treasured it.
From my sister and my niece description of their trip, I know there are so many changes since the last I time I set my foot on Langkawi soil thirteen years ago. Wow..that long, and yet I don't feel it. Is the earth rotates on its axis faster than it did when I was eight years young? I'd probably been sleeping for a long time. When I opened my eyes again it's already 2005.
I found a rare treasure from Malaysia at Ming Supermarket a couple of days ago. I said rare treasure because that's what it is. I can get almost anything: banana leaves, pandan leaves, lemon grass, budu, tempoyak, all kinds of tropical fruits, either in a jar or fresh, buah nipah, ciku, jantung pisang (banana flower), kesum leaves, fresh tamarind, tamarind juice even durian. They are all imported from Thailand, Vietnam or Indonesia.
So, when I saw a packet of salted red snapper, I grabbed it even though I didn't plan to have salted fish curry. I put it away in a food pantry for two days. Two days was enough for salted fish to terrorize all the Mediterranean, American, Italian and Mexican food in my food pantry. I could hear the pasta screaming at couscous, "Oh my gawdddd,I can't take this anymore. Take that ugly fishy thing outta here.....!!!" With her nose sticking up in the air, couscous snorted, "I can't see how could she put that disgusting smelly thing in her mouth."
On the way home from work, I stopped at the one and only fruit/veggies stall at the corner of Filene's in downtown. I bought two green plantain. When I got home I boiled two cups of hot water and soaked the fish in hot water for about an hour to get rid of excess salt and to soften down (or up) the fish. I skinned off the plantains, and red potatoes.
I made a paste of three tablespoons of curry powder. Then I added salted fish which I cut into a smaller pieces, plantains and potatoes into the paste. I put on medium heat and leave on the stove until the potatoes turned soft but not mushy. I added two tablespoons of tamarind juice and two cups of light coconut milk.
As the salted-fish curry slowly simmering on the stove, I heat an olive oil in a small pan. I fried thinly slice ginger, crushed garlic, shallots and curry leaves and anise seed. When the aroma began to float up in the air, I pour everything into the curry. I put on the lid immediately to trap the aroma. Turn off the heat.
I didn't plan to cook Nasi Lemak for dinner tonight, but somehow when you're away from home either your senses become more sensitive or you're hallucinating. It all started when B reminded me about the two pounds of prawns in a freezer. Out of nowhere I could smell a dreamy fragrant of hot Nasi Lemak wrapped in banana leaf. We know smell depends of sensory receptors cells that respond to airborne particles, and as far as I know I'm the only Malay lives in this hood'. So, I must be hallucinating.
"How about sambaa toomes udeng and nasi laymak?"
"Boo, you're freaking me out. I'm thinking about nasik lemak too."
"Am I fine and good or am I fine and good?"
I rolled my eyes.
I pulled out the veggie compartment to look for lemongrass. The lemongrass I had planted in a terracotta pot in the kitchen all wittered when were away visiting in-laws in Harlem, Brooklyn and Queen.
"We are out of lemongrass, and sambal(cooked chillies paste)tumis udang without isn't a sambal tumis udang without lemongrass."
We had a short conference and came to a conclusion. B would do the dishes and clean the kitchen and I'll go and get a few stalks of lemongrass at Super88Market.
Back home, I ate nasi lemak three or four times a week for breakfast. My favorite warung (stall) was at Taman Selera Tun Sardon. For RM1 I could get a scoop(which was plenty) of nasi lemak with sambal of my choice. Either sambal ikan bilis (anchovy)or chicken, shrimp. Sometimes they had cuttlefish sambal too. The stall was always full. Tak cukup kaki tangan. One person scooped the rice in medium bowl, pressed the rice to the rim and smacked down on banana leaves, the next person scooped the lauk and gravy, added two or three slices of cucumber and pushed it to the last assembler which was to wrap the nasi lemak with banana leaves layered on top of piece of newspaper cut. When it was ready, the nasi lemak presented to a customer in neat wrap resembled a pyramid.
When I got home from the store, B already thawed, shelled and cleaned the prawns, julienned the fresh ginger, sliced the shallots and washed two cups of jasmine rice. I prefer to steam the rice rather than cook it in a traditional way. I put the rice in a transparent bowl, added a cinnamon stick, three cloves, a stalk of lemon grass, ginger, a pinch of salt and shallots. I poured 3 and 1/2 cups of coconut milk diluted with water. The only ingredient I was lack of was daun pandan(screw pine leaves)
While the rice on the stove, I pureed lemongrass, garlic and onion and added to chillies paste. I didn't add belacan (shrimp paste) because B would sneezing all day.When the oil was hot in a wok, I poured the ingredients in a hot oil. I lowered the heat to medium. Mak always said, tried not to cook in a hurry because I would forget to berdoa (pray). Pray for the food to be nourished. I stirred chillies paste now and then to make sure it cooked evenly. I added a half cup of water and stirred again and waited until the paste was pecah minyak- I could see the oil surfaced and the smell of raw chillies in the air was completely gone. I added the prawns and covered the pot. After 10 minutes I split the sambal into two halves. One half I added orange juice and a teaspoon of sugar. It was for B. I improvised it as his taste buds isn't develop to take Malay hot food. And the other half I added tamarind juice. I let them simmered on medium heat for another 30 minutes. By this time the Nasi Lemak was ready, scooped in each plate. I forgot to get a cucumber, I used lettuce as a condiment.
It has been a while since I had mackerel curry. I was putting away some frozen strawberry and blueberry for my smoothie when I saw two stiffed mackerels in a ziploc hiding at the far corner in a freezer.
I bought them two weeks ago when I was at Super88Market and I forgot all about it. B likes them broiled and with salsa mangoes on top. Except for curry leaves, I have all the ingredients for fish curry. I still have one big packet of curry powder Mak sent me last year. I keep them in veggies section in a refrigerator. I prefer to use Malaysian made curry powder as it has different mixture from Indian or Carribean curry powder. B thinks it's not that they have different ingredients, but it's more toward my loyalty to Malaysian made food. He knows how excited I am when ever I come across Malaysian made food.
I was thrilled to learn that I don't need to do the gutting and the cleaning the first time I bought the small fish here. I was about eight or nine years old when Mak showed me how to clean the fish. I'd watched her did it many times before. Between stirring the boiling rice in a pot, grated the coconut, Mak gutted and cleaned two or three katis of fishes effortlessly.
"Make sure you have a handful of coarse salt and limes (can substitute to tamarind juice) nearbybefore you clean the fish" Mak told me, "You don't want your whole kitchen smell like fish."
While she was washing the vegetables, I clumsily trying to hold the slippery and slimy bugger. I was glad they were dead; Holding the sharp, pointed knife in my right hand, I squeezed the poor fish's head so hard I almost crushed its skull.
Tail went first, followed by pectoral fins on both sides. If the fish has scales, they had to be scraped. Scraping the scales fish was one of many steps of cleaning fish that I hated. The scales fly all over the place, they landed on my face, hair and shirt. Usually by the time I was done cleaning the fish, I almost looked like a mergirl (if not a mermaid). Scrape the scales from way up to the head. Turn it over and scrape the other side too.
With a steady move, make an incision from the gills down to the vent. Remove the guts from the cavity. Without damaging the fish head, remove gills by nipping a small piece of its throat. Clean the fish under running water. Make sure all the dark red-brown kidney are out.
When all the fishes gutted, clean the fish, soak in salt and lime juice water for a few minutes. This is the ultimate step to make sure the fish doesn't smell too fishy.
The second cleaning need to be done under the running water. Clean inside out.
It wasn't that hard to clean the fish when I did three or four times a week under Mak's sharp eyes. Cleaning fish is like doing everything else, it becomes natural with practice.
The first time I prepared fish curry it was all watery and bland. After many times of trials and errors, I'd learned how much cooking oil and how hot should it be before I throw in a pinch halba (fenugreek seeds), slice shallots and crushed garlic. I'd learned once the curry powder is added to it, it should be stirred constantly, other wise it'll burn.
We had the curry with jasmine rice, and baby spinach salad sprinkled with toasted almonds.
After the dinner, B took out oblaten, a delicate and crispy wafer cookies. This time he got vanilla flavor. It's said oblaten was introduced to Roman emperor in 1349. (please correct me if this wrong). Back home, we call it Kuih Sepit. It's popular during Chinese New Year. It was so good, kruup, kruup, kruup , half of the container was gone in no time and a lot of crumbs left behind.
The last time I bought it, I only ate a few pieces. Then I had to leave due to some crisis at work. When I returned a couple of hours later, the golden round container wasn't on the coffee table. I went to the kitchen, there he was stuffing his face with the last four pieces of oblaten, all at once into his mouth while stirring the pasta sauce on the stove. I was ready to pout my mouth when he turned around and said as nothing has happened, "Hi babe, you're're back.." The corner of his left mouth and his mouthache were laced with oblaten crumbs. I burst out laughing like a langsuir.
When you're far, far away from home, seeing, hearing, or smelling something that ties to your homeland is like a medicine to your homesickness. Little things that you overlook before, suddenly have their significant. You develop your sensitivity that you didn't know you have it all along. It's like when you learn rollerblading. Once you learn to balance yourself on the wheels, you learn to stop, move forward and backward and sides, you're forced to use the muscles that you never knew you had them. Once you get hang to it, you can't stop, but wait until a few months you'll start to notice your legs have develop some muscles here and there at the right place.
That's how I see it I've been living here far from home. I've become more observance and sensitive.
Everytime I go to Supermarket 88, I walk up to every aisle they have looking for products made in Malaysia even though I know the possibility of seeing canned, bottled, wrapped, rolled and packed food that made in Malaysia is very low. So, far I've seen two types of food that manufactured in Malaysia.
Kuih Bakar (Coconut cookies) comes in a clear plastic bag.
Mee Maggie (Instant nodules)
So, when I spotted a yellow shining wrap package with the word Belacan, Made in Malaysia, I wished I could grab the Vietnamese lady who was scolding her young son in a shattered glass voice, dragged her from her cart and showed her what I had found. "Shut the hell up lady and let me show you this." So, I kept the giddiness I felt to myself.
A key ingredient, in many classic dishes of Malaysia, is a dried shrimp paste called Belacan, also spelt Belachan or Blacan. It's usually in the form of a small pressed brick or cake. Not overly 'fishy', a tiny amount of this paste adds sweetness to meats, intensity to fish & seafood and a 'kick' to vegetables like Kangkung Belacan. Belacan makes a flavorful base for sauces and gravies, adding depth and an intriguing taste that you can't quite decipher. The pressed cake has a powerful scent when uncooked, like "stinky cheese". But don't be put off - it mellows out & harmonizes in the cooking, leaving behind an understated richness that cannot be reproduced. Best described as a natural flavor enhancer, belacan is what gives many of the foods from Southeast Asia - Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam - that authentic zest and flavor underlying the dense fabric of spice and herbs!
Belacan is a must have ingredient in Malays household. Sambal Belacan is incomplete without belacan. Sambal Belacan is made of red chillies, roasted shrimp paste,concentrate tamarind juice, a pinch of sugar and a pinch of salt.I remember the first time I grounded the chillies I was about 10 years old. I was too eager to help Mak in the kitchen I ignored Rule #2 Mak told me. Never look directly at the chilies in the mortar when the chillies started to break into small pieces. Rule #1 which also I broke was to bring pestle not higher than the edge of mortar. The next thing I knew a small piece of chillie splat into my right eye. Waaaaaaaaaaaaa........I ran into the bathroom.
When a blender invaded Mak's kitchen, Mak still refused to use the blender to make sambal belacan. She preferred to use an old fashion way to prepare sambal belacan.
I don't know how many women or girls out there have been mistaken for a salesgirl. I have my share. I didn't give much thought about it, but after more than half a dozen times some white ladies in their sixties, assume me as a sales girl, I started to wonder, is this a genuine mistake? Since then I don't answer them, "I'm not a sales girl, maam," anymore.
If I'm not out running, I've always have a Root backpack or Nike sport bag that I sling across my shoulder. I usually carry my backpack to classroom, work or to the gym. I like to carry Nike sport bag when I go out to the movies, shopping or out with friends. The bag has enough room for my journal and camera. So, when these ladies approach me asking about their bras size, or they want to return their merchandize or just simply ask me, "Are you a salesgirl?", are they so oblivious to anything other than themselves?
This morning I was at Filene's on the second floor. I was holding a couple of Jockey yoga pants in my left hand. I had a yellow rain jacket on, and the strap of the backpack kept sliding down off my shoulder. While trying to adjust my backpack I heard a woman's voice behind me. "Are you a sales person?" I ignored the voice. The voice came closer. "Are you a sales person?" I turned around, a tall white lady in peach silk sweater and peach pants, standing about two feet away from me . Her silver, fluffy hair matched her pearl necklace and earrings. "Ohhh....I was going to ask you the same question, do you have a Medium size of this pants?" I held up the yoga pants in my hand. Without a word she turned around and walked away.
I doubt that any of those ladies would read my blog, but I'm sure you are not retarded, nor you are senile. I hear you Nathan McCall when you said, Makes Me Wanna Holler.