Gandaria City, Jakarta
Gandaria City, Jakarta
Escape. The drudgery that is Chinese New Year, that is. I don’t mean to sound like such an ingrate – I should be thankful that I have a large, happy extended family that I do not dislike visiting and all its members are hale and hearty. I just do not enjoy small talk. Every CNY is the same – we talk about rather superficial things like work, rave about movies you have no idea why you are even talking about them, argue about where to eat the best xiao long bao and other mundane things like that. These conversations never fail to make my eyes roll backwards. After the session is done, they leave only to return next year to do it all over again. Sometimes, rarely, you get a good conversation with a long-lost cousin. But gosh, it is an eternal wait.
So this year, we ran off to Taiwan with our parents/parents-in-law in tow. Although we are not visiting, we still keep our closest ties with us in a way. Our parents are openly happy that they do not need to cook and host visits too. Hehe. Good for us.
We were in Taipei and Taichung over the short break. It is pretty lively over there considering that the population is almost entirely Chinese and are on holiday too. Most of the touristic shops and attractions are open for business, and other stores during selective hours. While not fully open, their famous nights markets don’t rest on the eve of CNY nor on the first day. This makes the cities viable options for those who are looking for places to travel to during the CNY.
Cherry blossoms lined certain sections of the roads in Taichung. We were also lucky enough to see peach blossoms in a farm we visited. Other than the very agreeable weather, Taiwan is a foodie paradise. Food is made fun there and the concoctions are innovative. Who would have thought ice-cream tasted good when paired with coriander and shaved peanuts rolled together in a Pohpiah (like tortilla) skin? Stinky tofu, fried chicken, grilled squid, bittergourd juice, papaya milk, taro desserts, pineapple pastry, pepper buns, braised meat rice, stewed beef noodles, bubble tea, eat-all-you-can hot pots! I could go on. All these with an unbelievable number of people who throng the markets each day we were literally in the midst of a flood at any one time. The crowd was sometimes off-putting but it created an atmosphere that is synonymous with festivities. The Taiwanese were generally polite and we did not meet thugs who push, shove and step on feet on purpose. If we do meet them, they were from elsewhere and we steer clear as much as humanly possible.
Transport facilities were up and fully running so everything was accessible. We hired a driver to take us to Taichung and back, running up to Jiufen and Shifen where the old Qing dynasty streets were quite a sight and the experience of releasing sky lanterns was as exhilarating as it was a blur due to crowds. For NT$200 to write wishes with a chinese brush on a large paper lantern and have your picture/video professionally taken by the storekeeper was worth every penny. We had so much fun.
We spent some time planning for this since we had to figure out who to ask to bring us around, discuss with them where we could go in Chinese (revising the language for use was a bit hellish) and arrange something that worked for all of us. But the result was worth the trouble. Our parents said they were tired but happy. I think to know that was enough.
SJ and I are very light travellers. We bring what we need and wear sensible clothes because travelling isn’t a fashion show. We gallavant to see the country after all and not to match scarves and bags. Even when we run around with others, we hardly care if we are not coordinated. Of course, hygiene is placed high above all other considerations where clothes and malodorous smells are concerned. Otherwise, we are quite happy to just put on jeans and tees then trundle out.
But, we wear only a single pair of pants no matter how long the trip in winter. We don’t sweat a whole lot, so as long as we keep clean, we are good to go. We see bug eyes and thinly-veiled looks of horrorwhen we share that fact with others. Heh. So far, we haven’t had a single person who has said the same thing back to us.
There is, however, a difference between packing light and taking things lightly while packing. This was too keenly felt on the recent trip to KL.
We had discovered in our hotel room on the first night that we had, much to our amusement, exactly one pair of underwear each for the whole darn trip. Good Lordy, I had totally forgotten to pack them into the luggage! I really don’t like Murphy much.
It is not a wretched situation we were in because the disposable ones we usually wear can be easily procured in one of the many malls in KL. But dang it. Did I have to go commando to get them? I have never done that before. Was this what YOLO at 41 years of age is about? Gosh. Life would be made immeasurably more secure if we had them with us.
We decided thatwe must do laundry. We cannot let SJ’s buddies hang out. It is a good thing we were not wearing disposables that day (unusually so) because washing them means I might be missing some vital parts afterwards. I guess the grogginess of waking up for a 6am flight ensured the body auto-piloted our usual routine of wearing proper clothing while the mind was struggling to make sense of what was happening at the break of dawn.
So we laundered our knickers and hung them where the air-conditioning was blowing the hardest, crossed our fingers and went to bed thanking the heavens for soap and water,and prayed that we would not need to wait till tea to don them again.
Malacca. One of the few places that I will include in the chart capturing the hyperbolic growth of my interest in spices.
The very first place was in a school bus. I ate up my social studies project as a snack on the boring trip home.
Thirty years ago, my teacher had us do a presentation on the East India Company and the spice trade. I was in primary school – I didn’t understand the significance of the EIC, but I knew how to eat. So the focus then was more on the spices than the trade. My parents got me a bag of spices from the mamak store (local provision store run usually by a burly but friendly Indian man) which I happily poured out and carefully sorted, bagged, labelled and stuck on a piece of vanguard sheet, rather wildly illustrated to help prove that I knew what I was talking about. I was already OCD then.
After the exhilaration of telling my friends about what a star anise was, I proceeded to lick one on the bus on the way home because it looked so pretty. Ick. Didn’t like it much. Which is probably why I don’t care for licorice. Then, I decided to try another and another and another till I had uncooked dried shrimp. Boredom sure made me do odd things.
I am unsure why they were there since prawns are strictly not a spice but they were. I loved it and fished out all the orange bits I could find and gobbled them up before I arrived home. There, my love for Hae Bi (dried shrimp, cooked) began.
You make a lot of things with Hae Bi. Peranakan cuisine is one whose dishes are liberally doused with them. I discovered the true blue taste of the Nonya while in Malacca many years back. I learnt what a rempah (spice paste, like pesto but spicier) was and what ingredients went into making one. Of course, there isn’t just one way to make it. The composition, that affects taste and flavour, is totally dependent on where the cook is from, his preferences and what the paste is for. It seems the amount of time spent manually pounding, not machine-blending, spices together makes a great difference. Therein lies the space for creativity and innovation not for the weak of heart nor short of stamina!
When I think Peranakan, I think of Malacca and all the wonderful bowls of Ayam Buah Keluak, Babi Pongteh, Ikan Assam, Jiu Hu Char, Kueh Pie Ti,Belacan and Chendol.
In fact, I am on my way there now on yet another boring bus trip. My Hae Bi beckons and I must comply. In an hour or two, I will whisper I do to my beautiful goggly prawn eyes.
There are new things to see every time we head this way. The highlight of this trip was the excursion to Chinatown where smells assail and costs are brought down by wholesale goodness at Sampheng Market.
Shark’s fin and bird’s nest soups are advertised as a must-have, pungent-smelling raw shrimp await the next tourist with guts and a strong stomach, street stalls pedaling somewhat suspect offal soup. Fried bugs? No worries! There is always a pharmacy two doors away to help with loose bowels.
The best thing about travelling for me is the sense of freedom to roam both physically and mentally. Stroll, shop, wander. Observe, note and question.
One of my favourite things to do is to collect bits of wisdom I see and hear. On this trip, I have quite the variety; from cafe tabletops to napkins to random things being typed by strangers using an old typewriter on demo.
Some of my favourites: