It’s not over yet…

Kek Lok Si wooden fan

You didn’t really believe I was done writing about Malaysia, did you?

You did? What, and not even one long, raving, ecstatic post about all the fabulous Penang street food—the primary purpose of my visit—that I tried? Are you kidding?

I’ve only been so quiet about it because I’ve been sorting through my notes—doing  a bit of backstory research, tracking down the origins of some of the dishes, the recipes for others—but I am almost ready to publish a monster post or two about my gustatory pilgrimage to Pulau Pinang. In the meantime, these are a couple more postcards I stitched during the trip…

Kuala Lumpur

Teh Tarik

Now that I’m home again, my wild foodie excesses have been reined in; I am back on my Low GI diet of soaked rolled oats, cracked wheat, simple salads, and temperate-climate fruit (tropical fruits being rich in high GI sugars). Sigh. It’s better for me, and I have to confess that I’m glad I don’t live where the food is exciting…or I’d have a hard time keeping the diabetes that’s been programmed into my genes, away.

Darwin‘s everyday food scene is no temptation: the blandness, the priggishness, the uninspired phantom of WASP cooking still haunts its flavours and methods (around these parts, ‘deep-fried’ is a flavour, and covering things in breadcrumbs is a favorite method.) I wander around the malls, oppressed by slab-like, drowned things  called uninspired names like “Veggie Bake” or “Meat Pie”. Most ‘ethnic’ cuisines are represented, of course…more often than not, though, by Chinese cooks. And these places seem to have altered the flavours to suit the Aussie palate (i.e. no heat, no subtle perfumes of herbs or spices, lots of salt and LOTS of sugar.)

Don’t get me wrong, I like living here, and there’s much more to life than food. It just isn’t (nor will it ever be) a destination for food lovers. Because cuisine is such an important part of cultural identity, not having the one can easily make the place feel like it hasn’t got the other, either. Some days it can seem more tragic than on others. 🙂

Darwin’s a great place for crocodiles, for camping and wilderness adventures, for going pig hunting in a pickup truck, with a cooler full of beer, some ugly murderous dogs in the back, and some ugly murderous friend in the passenger’s seat. I met a Canadian who said she came to Darwin because she wanted to “visit the tropics, without having to visit the Third World.” Well, there you go, a catchy line for our tourism campaign, if we run out of crocs and want to attract the sort of people who travel around the world in search of the same things they left back home: friendly white faces, McDonald’s, and the English language.

Is it any wonder that I escape into my memories of Malaysian food, and threaten to write long, wistful posts about them? I miss Asia…the buzzing, swelling, engulfing, “if-you-are-here-then-you-are-part-of-it” liveliness of its streets. The urgency and passion with which people celebrate and pursue their cultural signposts. The way people are pushed up against one another, both physically and emotionally…brushing barriers aside, and thinning the psychological walls between individuals.

Surprisingly, it makes for higher public levels of courtesy, tolerance and equanimity than you’d find in the neat and less crowded streets of Darwin. Strangers don’t abuse each other over brief encroachments upon personal space, or snap at each other over small mistakes. An outburst of self-righteous rage or an adult tantrum in public is a rare sight, and the one who loses his cool loses his status in everyone’s eyes (even if he does get what he wants in the end.)

Being impassive and watchful is probably what earned Asians (the Chinese in particular) the label ‘inscrutable’. All it means is that they’ve managed to move past the emotional intelligence of five-year-olds, and they won’t waste time or demean themselves by slobbering insincere friendliness over a perfect stranger…which, until they get to know you, is what you are.


3 thoughts on “It’s not over yet…

  1. I’m not a foodie, but I think it may be because here in the US “home cooking” or “country style” cooking is a lot like that you describe as Darwin’s style. I grew up with it and love my mom’s cooking, but I can’t cook that way and I’ll take good Chinese, Indian or Mexican over it any day. Now, I’m looking forward your your gastronomic post.


  2. Love your blog – have a distant thread to Mayasia ( Penang ) – love your prose inserts, keep up the good work.


  3. Every place we go leaves its own impression. I love the experience of other cultures and often wonder what visitors think about the one in which I live. Your photos are a joy.


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