Friday 29 December 2006

A Wan off experience, Selamat Hari Raya ...................and A Happy New Year

Apart from baulu, the other unknown territory in my culinary adventures and misadventures is the rendang. I have never felt the need or the desire to slave over a hot stove to make rendang. Well, not until my experience recently with none other than the ubiquitous and extremely hilarious Wan and only Wan, our celebrity Chef.

In one of his numerous text messages to me recently he told me that he was coming to London to do a cooking demonstration at a local university. I have been to numerous occasions where Wan had food demonstrations and to me he is not just entertaining but also informative. Full of anecdotes, family history and asides which can leave you in stitches.

So during this last meeting with Wan, I was unwittingly roped in to help him with the preparation in the vast kitchen area of the university. The scene, I can assure you was not unlike that of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen. For someone who prefers to work alone in the kitchen, I think I coped well with two other helpers and Wan himself shouting out the orders. I was, ehem, the kerisik chef, the kupas kulit udang chef, and the kupas bawang chef, shouting out ‘Kerisik ready chef!”, "bawang goreng ready, chef!” and feeling quite important actually.

The demonstration itself went very well. Local chefs and catering students present were very impressed with his cooking and stories that go with Malaysian cooking. He does it with taste, smell and humour. They were treated to the horrendous smell of belacan and petai, and the sweet smelling aroma of the bunga kantan. He told them of the world pharmacy which is the Malaysian jungle full of herbs that can cure any illnesses and pain.

Anyway, one of the dishes that he cooked then was the Rendang Ayam Pedas. I have tried this and it is Simply Sedap so much so that I didnt have time to snap any photos. But I will try this recipe again for this hari raya which I will have with pulut. Now, pulut is another unknown and uncharted territory. Someone please help.

Wan has given me permission to reproduce this recipe here. Give it a try!

15 shallots
3 cloves garlic
6 stalks of lemon grass, slice
½ cm fresh ginger
½ cm galangal
½ cm fresh tumeric
5 chilli burung
8 candel nuts
10 fresh red chillies
2 lime leaves

Blend the above ingredients to make a paste.

½ cup desiccated coconut for kerisik.

1 ½ kg whole chicken cut into small pieces
3 cups coconut milk
2 cups water
1 tumeric leaf – sliced thinly
salt and sugar to taste.

1. To make the kerisik, toast the desiccated coconut in the oven or fry until it is brown.
2. Grind or pound the coconut until it becomes a smooth paste.
3. Mix the chicken pieces with the ground ingredients – (not the kerisik) add coconut milk and simmer for about thirty minutes until the chicken is almost dry.
4. Reduce the heat and add the kerisik, salt and sugar.
5. Add the finely sliced tumeric leaf , give a final stir and turn off the heat.

Selamat Hari Raya
a Happy New Year!

UPDATE on Missing My Sayang Mama:
Here's the story in Bernama

Tuesday 26 December 2006

Missing my sayang mama

My daughter had to practically drag me away from the screen. “Mama, you can’t watch the plane taking off from that screen,” she said, half exasperated, half amused. The MH7 due for take off at 1805 had already registered that Gate 26 was already closed and my Taufiq had long disappeared behind the screen, past the passport and ticket checks, carrying just one rucksack. I drowned my sorrows in a plate of pasta. My husband sipped his tea in silence. He had tried to delay Taufiq going in for as long as he could, with last minute reminders and small talks.

Anyway, that moment came and went and suffice to say, the fog had lifted but there were flash floods at Terminal 3 Heathrow.

It must have been about a month ago when the organiser of the Youth Exchange Programme rang me up and asked whether any of our children would be interested. I had suggested Taufiq. He is sixteen and it would really do him good to join a group of Malay youths born and bred around the world, to take part in an exchange programme that would make him get to know his country and culture better. He was apprehensive. “I don’t know the host family, mama. I don’t know anyone,” he said. “That’s the very reason why you should go, “ I cajoled. And three weeks later, the excitement got to him while I felt apprehension setting in. “It is too late to change my mind, mama,” he said cheekily.

Yes, I must let him go, I told myself as I ironed his boxer shorts and folded them neatly in the bag. It must have been only yesterday that I was ironing his Thomas the Tank Engine undies and Batman pyjamas and now he only wears M&S boxer shorts and Calvin Klein pyjama bottom!

He has brought with him his favourite Barcelona stripes in case he has to play football there. As I ironed his black baju Melayu, I felt a lump rising in my throat. This raya, who is going to help him with the sampin? He may be 16, but every morning, I still tie his neck tie before he goes to school. And this raya, I will miss him doing the takbir in that voice that signals he is already an adult. I miss him most during subuh prayers when he does the iqamah, standing there beside his father, the imam.

I hope by sending him back in this exchange programme, I am not only letting him explore and learn more about the country and the culture that is his and ours but also to let people there know that being born and bred away from the homeland does not necessarily make one forget one’s root, culture, identity and religion.

Taufiq will be living with a host family in Rembau and till today, I still do not know who the host family is. The week long programme starts on 29th December and he will spend Hari Raya Haji with them.

It is every parent’s hopes that a child’s behaviour reflects his upbringing.
“Don’t forget to salam with everyone you meet, say thank you and be respectful of the elders,” And even as I uttered these I knew it was unnecessary for I knew he would do so. As for prayers, it was he who reminded me most of the time. “It’s nearly asar mama,” or “Let me do the dishes, maghrib is nearly over.”

It is these little things that I will miss during the next three weeks. The conversation that we have during our shopping trips, the laughter, the whispers and teasing as we watch our favourite tv programmes. All these years, the chubby toddler who used to sit with me as I typed my work, had grown up to be a friend that I can confide in.

“Yes, I will miss him too,” said the father as we were shopping for biscuits and chocolates to send home. "he is a good friend." And suddenly the dam burst right there, between the chocolate and dairy shelves at Tesco. Although, he didn’t say much, I know that the father will be missing the discussion of world events with him. Just before he left, they were discussing the developments in Somalia.

Both of us kept reminding ourselves that this programme will certainly do him good.

This year had seen him more matured beyond his years, not least because of the responsibilities he had been given at school. Being elected Deputy Head Boy, I am proud to say that I have seen changes in him. He played no small part during Remembrance Day and just recently, was in the panel interviewing candidates for Head Teacher for his school. While he tried hard to promote a positive image of Muslims in his school, the behaviour of some boys who played truant after Friday prayers, meant that the privilege of going for prayers at the mosque outside the school was withdrawn. He fought for the small group of Muslim students to be given a room for prayers and then led the prayers. I remember him preparing the sermon for his first khutbah. In his first message, he reminded his fellow Muslims the importance of tolerance and patience. I think he did quite well. In fact I think he did very well.

Since his arrival he has already met his uncles and aunts, cousins and Tok. He is having a crash course in Nogori speak from his Pak Ngah who hails from Pilah. We told him, when he goes to Rembau he must ‘sopeak proporly’. And yes, he has already gone shopping, with a generous angpow from his uncle JC and his older brother. Tomorrow he meets Malay youths from saudi and together they will travel to Rembau.

Take care sayang mama. And we have you in our doas everyday. See you next year!

Sunday 24 December 2006

Merry Christmas!!!

The Christmas atmosphere in Oxford Street. (do excuse the poor quality!)

Thursday 21 December 2006


It was a cold foggy morning when we started our journey to put him in his final resting place. The fog did not lift making our drive difficult and at times dangerous along the A41. We lost our way several times to a destination unfamiliar to all of us in the car but we made it there just in time as the hearse made its way into the multi-faith cemetery. It was serene and calm, with the fir trees bordering the cemetery, standing quite still as if to respect the arrival of the new resident.

Several friends, people from the mosque carried the coffin from the hearse to the newly dug grave. The serenity was only broken by the sound of the bulldozer making its way to do its final task of piling in soil ensuring whatever picture we have of him remains in our minds and our hearts. When the work was done, we stood around to say our prayers and doas. Ustaz’s talkin and his last message and reminders to him, who had gone to the other side, brought more hot tears stinging our cold cheeks. We stayed rooted to the frozen ground long after ustaz made his seven steps away leaving him in his final resting place, our feet feeling numb, our hearts feeling empty, yet thankful that he no longer feel any pain.

I remember breaking the silence, saying to a friend; “It is strange that we never thought or fathom who we would bury and who would bury us.” When I met him five years ago, I never thought I would be standing there that cold autumn afternoon, watching him being lowered down into his final resting place. Apart from the people from the mosque and his close relatives, there were other friends of his who came to say goodbye. This was the first time that we all met – none of us knew who belong to which chapter in his life. But I am grateful that I belong to a phase when he was ready to share his fear and anxiety which he then turned into great hopes and expectations at the thought of one day turning that experience into something useful for others. I feel almost privileged to share with him his journal that he wrote in fine handwriting, detailing his fear and loneliness and pain, at times exasperation and despair marked by lots of question marks and exclamation marks.

We walked away, leaving him and made the journey home to London, again enveloped by thick fog all along the way. I felt emotionally drained. Wonda wrote to me to say don’t try to carry too much a burden on my shoulder. He wasnt a burden, he was a brother. Sort of.
Al Fatehah.

Tuesday 19 December 2006

She is back!

It was three weeks ago that I sat before three excited girls on the 1715 to Gatwick. They were leaving for Malaysia, with plans to pack in everything possible in the three weeks they were going to be there. They even had a crash course in pronunciation in Malay.

“Mak Ngah” said my daughter who was supposed to be the guide for the other two.

“Mak Nah,” repeated one friend. ”Mak Nyah,” said the other, practising how to address my older sister they were going to meet on arrival.

Oh, well, whatever, I thought, feeling a tinge of envy at the spirit of adventure, freedom and excitement. When I was their age, Mak took me everywhere, even to my first job as a temporary teacher at Air Hitam Secondary School, and even waited at the bus stop! Such a sheltered and boring life. So, no faraway trips that required visas and certainly no school rombongans.

They arrived home yesterday, Alhamdulillah, lugging heavy suitcases full of souvenirs and goodies and stories about the holiday that took them to Kuala Lumpur, Pangkor, Penang and Kedah. They had a lot to show – photographs, new clothes, cosmetics and toiletries (they are dirt cheap!), mosquito bites and marks left by leeches when they did jungle trekking. I sighed a sigh of relief that everything went well – no tummy ache, no accidents and most of all – no youtube visuals of them doing things that usually appear in youtubes!

Anyway, according to the card that the two friends gave my daughter, thanking her for bringing them to our beautiful and friendly Malaysia, they also thanked her for the opportunity to see her as a real Malay!

Indeed, they saw the best side of Malaysia; they enjoyed the scenery, the friendly people, the cheap but quality goods, the wonderful and delicious food and the list is endless. They had a taste of the city, dining at Crown Plaza, Hard Rock cafe, entertained by Chef Ismail himself at his restaurant Rebung, treated to a massage and being chauffered around, courtesy of a strong cable that I still maintain. They also experienced, briefly, kampung life, when they visited my sister in Bukit Pinang, the hustle bustle of Chow Kit Road and the tranquil and serene atmosphere of Masjid Negara where they stopped for prayers.

And how Malay has she become? Oh well, how about loads of kain batik sarongs, the umbrella like thingie to cover food, and....a congkak! So we played congkak while she talked about her holiday and believe me, I have not forgotten how to play!

Although I was apprehensive about letting her go, I now know that it was a good decision. Family holidays is fine, but being able to explore the country, the culture by themselves without us telling them what we want them to know, showing them what we want them to see, is quite different and has its advantages.

Sure I worried about how she was going to communicate with Mak, her grandmother. But I needn’t have. Both hugged and cried when they met and Mak, talked and talked animatedly in her pekat Kedah Malay, hands in action to convey whatever she wanted to convey to the granddaughter she had not seen for a while. Even both her friends fell in love with Mak who kept hugging them. “How did they communicate?” I asked my siblings in one of my numerous sms’es to them.

“With lots of tears and laughter” came a reply.

Communication was indeed not a problem. But I did receive this urgent sms saying, “Mama, pls call me back and speak to this person,” I did and true enough, I myself couldn’t quite understand the person I was speaking to. My daughter wanted to know where the bus they were taking, would stop and the time of arrival in Alor Star. They were then at a bus terminal in Butterworth. The guy I was talking to had a very strong Utaghra accent.

I am glad that they spent time with their relatives, met up with cousins and did what young people on holiday do, without their over-protective parents around.

BUT sending them alone to be with your siblings, without you being there to defend yourself is certainly not a very good idea. THE SIBLINGS ganged up on me and told her how I love to pinch, how I cut Kak Cik’s hair and left her in tears and how I virtually got everything I wanted because I was utterly spoilt. Well, whatever!

Next week, another sayang mama is leaving for Malaysia – to discover Malaysia and what she has to offer on his own. Taufiq is joining 20 other Malay youths born and bred overseas in a Youth Exchange programme. He will be with a host family in Rembau. I am stocking up phone cards and I suspect my siblings will have their phones permanently switched off.

Friday 15 December 2006

An annual review of sorts

In just two weeks we will say goodbye to 2006. I know its a cliche, but time really flies and one can’t help but look at what life has offered us this past year. How much have I achieved and how much of what I dreamt of in 2005 is still a dream ? I know it is so easy to focus on just the downside and not look at the wonderful things that have made life worth living. That was what I was doing – fretting on lost opportunities, sighing on unachievable dreams. Then you realise that others have a far worst deal thrown at them.

Just look at the plight of 3 year old Syazwan Johari who has already lost one eye because of retinablastoma – a genetic condition he inherited from his mother who is already blind. He is in danger of losing the one good eye that now affords him the view of this world, of his mother, of the people around him. The ray of hope that a surgery in the US could save his eyesight was dashed recently when the family was told that his case does not merit aid from the ministry. How sad. I wish it is cases like this that is raised in our corridors of power rather than trivial issues like attacking working mums and ridiculous polygamy awards.

Dr Bubbles, who is involved in clown therapy and fund raising, has been a close friend of mine for a long, long time and I know of his tireless efforts to help children like Syazwan. It takes a lot to despair him but I know that being THAT close to the subject and yet knowing that his efforts and that of his friends from MAKNA might be too late, is taking its toll on this selfless clown. As an old member of he knew that we could support him, for we had supported him when he went to his clown workshop in US some years ago. And true to the spirit of many have pledged to help, not just financially but also physically. With members around the world and in Philladephia, where Syazwan is scheduled to be treated, we can count on their support. But what is more important now is that, Syazwan needs help to get him there. Go to DrBubbles to see how you can help.

The last few days have been quite taxing emotionally. I thank God Almighty that my childhood friend had a successful operation. And thank you for your doas and well wishes.

Last night, I sat in the train homeward bound, reading a journal that took me into the private life of someone I used to know. There were times I had to stifle a sob. I went through years of his life in that short train ride while my friend lies in a morgue in west London, awaiting burial.

It must have been about five years ago that I cultivated his friendship. He used to sit alone enjoying his meal in the canteen of the old Malaysia Hall in Bryanston Square and I chatted him up. I am quite notorious that way. I tend to be drawn to people with interesting stories. And I tend to have a way of drawing out those interesting stories from them. My newfound friend said he designed restaurants. Restaurants with concept. Interesting, I thought. And later, during our subsequent meetings over coffee or teh tarik, he would confide to me that he had had heart transplant. This man sitting opposite me had a woman’s heart beating in him. Now, the story was getting more interesting. And he confided in me that he jotted down his fears, his apprehensions before and after the transplant. He said, one day, we should sit down and write this book together so that it would benefit those with heart problems. By this time, the conversation got really interesting. And we met up here and there. Sms’ed this and that. But what he didn’t tell me was he had been ill with liver cancer and was in hospital these last few months. He left us last week.

His sister is here to arrange for the burial and to pack his things. I told her about the journal. I am borrowing it for a while. My friend, I didn’t know your fear, your loneliness and your longing for your homeland that is Malaysia. I didn’t know you were scared and had no one around you. And I am so sorry for failing you. We had tahlil for him last night. Al Fatehah.

This failure to do something before he went reminded me of my failure to bring Pak Cik Hamzah home. Pak Cik wanted to go home to see his homeland after more than 50 years away, he had packed his bags – he asked whether three suitcases were enough and I had said yes, as we stood in his bare flat in Cardiff. Again, Pak Cik Hamzah left and I got to know about it quite late. What kind of a friend am I????

ButI shouldn't lament further, because I have friends such as Dr Bubbles working tirelessly, another friend like this helping another friend with a very serious disease. And as I type this entry of mine, lamenting things I had not done, yming DrBubbles with updates on Syazwan, another kind soul sent both of us an email with a very encouraging news. Yes, there are wonderful and kind friends around. Alhamdulillah!

Monday 11 December 2006

This autumn of our lives

Shoppers choosing their goods must have thought that there was a bunch of silly kids in the changing room nearby. There were shrieks and screams and laughter. Well, the truth is, there were four of us mak and tok budaks trying on clothes. What brought on the squeals of laughter was what L had chosen from the racks. A pair of trousers that reminded us of our goo goo ga aga days – the flower power days with flares that could break a fall from the highest building.

L actually bought it for something to sleep in and I bet her dreams were full of psychedelic colours as well.

When we are together, L, M, A and I, it doesn’t need to take much to make us burst into laughter. And it has always been like that since we were in primary school. We go back a long way together. And we are now in what I choose to use, the autumn stage in our lives.

We met in primary one. I was the tearful one as Mak had left me at the classroom door. A came to hold my hand and sat with me. From that day onwards, A has been the strong one for us, for all of us. We were separated during most of the primary school years when Pak was posted to Yan, but we met up again, this time as rivals as I went to the St. Nicholas Covent – an arch rival of Sultanah Asma School. But we met up and renewed our friendships, a stronger one, until this day.

We eyed the same boys from SAHC, we danced at the same parties, but we married different men from different chapters of our lives. But we kept in touch, even when fate decided that I make London my home. I’d receive sms’es from them holidaying together in Bali, or in Australia or even when they are doing a pocho pocho somewhere.

We meet up everytime I am home and spend days and nights with each other, being sixteen all over again. With news of my homecoming, A would start contacting others. Husbands dread my homecoming as they usually have to find their own dinners. But almost always, they’d indugle us and join us for dinner and certainly at the karaoke lounge till quite late. The last time we finished off our day with a 3 am roti bakar and coffee in One Utama. Even Mak understands that when I go out with them, it will be the next day before she sees me again.

I remember once, L had picked me up, called up M at work. She had to make some excuses to leave. A phoned in sick. We all met up at KLCC, giggling like naughty kids playing truant. We bought some new clothes for dinner, did our prayers at KLCC and proceeded to have tea and then dinner and then, yes...we had fun. We’d start a conversation at tea, continue the chat in the carpark, holler over songs from yesteryears as we drive along the highway to nowhere and even enjoy getting lost as it means having more time to be with each other.

Last year, after L bought that outrageous pair of trousers, we went to do some shopping for my umrah. The three of them bought me a pair of very comfortable sandles. I promised them that I would step into the sacred city of Mecca in that pair of sandles. And I did. And I said jokingly, that, with each step that I take, I’d mention, one step for L, one step for M, one step for A and one step for me. And we burst into laughter again in that shoe shop in Midvalley as we did the steps together. But really, no matter what path our journey takes us, we have always been instep with each other.

Last week, I received an email from A. That was quite unusual because A doesn’t do emails. anything that has to be said, she sms’ed or she’d post them in our personal website. But the email brought grim news. M is to be operated tomorrow. She has the dreaded C that has taken two of our close friends already. Even when I phoned A, the strong one, the one who said, we have to be strong for each other, her voice cracked under the strain. I had to compose myself before I could phone M. But it was no good. We just sobbed.

Alhamdulillah, they have caught it at a very early stage. And Insyaallah, M will be ok. She must be, because, we have to do that steps again, together. Even in the autumn of our lives.

12th Dec. 2006 London
couldn't sleep. so - went online and found A - another lost soul. We chatted abt this and that and about M, who was then already on the operating table. It was a three hr op. Then A got ready to go to the hospital.
10am - Fadz - another childhood friend and one of the 'Special Angels' sms'ed to say M already out. A couldnt sms cos she forgot her glasses. Fadz was on the way there with several other childhood friends.
10.30 am- M sms'ed from hospital bed to say she is well. Alhamdulillah.
1500 - L sent picture message of the whole gang surrounding M in her hospital bed. I just burst into tears. These are some of my dearest friends from primary school. Love you all.

Friday 8 December 2006

Thank you for another year

The letter was dated some time between Dec. ‘78 and Jan. '79. Postmarked London. And that must be one of the hundreds of letters that I received from the same address that I must have read hundreds of times. And today I took out the old dusty bag containing the letters and read them again but that particular one is the most significant because it has in writing what transpired over the phone in December 78.

It is also significant because it ended weeks of agony and tears in the bathroom. It confirmed that the conversation across the ocean wasn’t an imagination. And more importantly, he had not changed his mind or gone cold feet. He did ask me to marry him. The reason for the delay in the arrival of THE letter was Britain was going through what has now gone down in history as The Winter of Discontent. Rubbish were left rotting and not collected, hospital services were disrupted and so was the postal services – my life line in the absence of the now can’t-live-without sms, ym and emails.

Danny Boy had walked up the creaky steps of the old office in Light Street, Penang, with that cheeky smile on his face. He had in his hands lots of letters and documents which he had collected from the post office, and I could see that one bulky one in the all too familiar light blue envelope was meant for me. But he took his time, enjoying the look of anxiety on my face and intent on prolonging my misery, went round the office distributing the letters, leaving mine to the last.

When I did get my hands on it, I left the intro of my story for the day hanging in mid sentence, in the old Remington and locked myself up in the bathroom to digest the contents of the letter. I read it again several times during lunch under the big tree in front of Ho Peng (or fashionably known as Cafe de Paris), with Olivia Newton John belting out Hopelessly Devoted To You from the old jukebox, and again during a trishaw ride to the bus stand with the sound of Junglee blaring from the old transistor of the trishaw puller. True love is never meant to be straightforward and as for me, it was one merry-go-round.

That phone call and that letter brought our relationship a step nearer, though not any steps easier. For one, Mak couldn’t pronounce his name. And two of many others, He didn’t want an elaborate hoohaa of a wedding, preferring a simple ceremony at the mosque while my side of the family was already on page four of the guest lists (negotiations with TV3 must have been in the pipeline) .

And another big issue – I love babies, he loves cats. I wanted ten children, he wanted none.

All these pre-nup negotiations were conducted via airmails which took ages to arrive but the man himself turned up unannounced at my rented accommodation in Green Garden. And the rest is history. On the 9th of December 1979, there was a compromise of sorts. No big hoohaa, just a handful from the office – even Kak Adib who suspected that there was something between us, was not invited. Fati (of the now famed Cinta and AF) was there as she was instrumental in making me go out on that first date with him. Her words which rang clear to this day were: ‘You change you mind, you jaga!’, she said threateningly as I was getting ready in our dorm waiting for him to fetch me.

We bersandinged on two cushions in Abang’s front room in Jalan Telawi, Bangsar. No big buffalos died for our kenduri. After two weeks of visiting relatives, we said goodbye at Changi airport and flew into cold, gloomy London.

Its a good way to start married life, if you ask me. No relatives to poke their noses where it is not wanted and no mother’s house to run back to when you have a tiff. Any misunderstandings or harsh words, I took myself to the bathroom and the kitchen and scrubbed them clean. And love and honeymoon in a cold climate is most recommended. Never ask for promises. I never did. And I treat every extra year that we are together as a bonus from HIM.

Living in each other’s letters is one thing, but living with each other is another, no matter how hot your words of undying love was in those blue single lined letter pads. Adjustments had to be made, compromises to be sorted out. But isn’t that what marriage is all about? We didn’t have ten children, but not for lack of trying, of course. We have four now. Alhamdulillah. But I lost three more after that. He changed his mind about children and wanted more. I couldn’t, so we have six cats instead. Four children and six cats in 27 years. Alhamdulillah.

And guess what? Mak can now pronounce his name.


Last night, he wanted to take me to Iceland, but it was freezing cold. So, we took a cab to Beirut, instead. We had a lovely walk, the cold night air was quite refreshing and that was enough to whet our appetite for the mixed kebab we had bought from Beirut in Shepherd's Bush.