10.48pm - Food Glorious Food
Trip Start Jan 07, 2010
77Trip End Dec 13, 2010
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Where I stayed
And so to Penang, one of the northern states of Peninsular Malaysia. I can't tell if it’s a lot colder up here or if it’s just that my cold seems to be turning into full-on flu, but I am so fricking chilly that layering vest tops and t-shirts is no longer enough. I have been forced to break out my cold weather sweater for the first time since I left the UK. Just in case you were wondering, I look damn sexy. It has a hood and one of those big muff/pocket things* and everything. My ambition to be Allie Brosh takes another step forward.
Shit, it’s just occurred to me. This better not be H1N1. That would make further travelling complex if they catch me snuffling at immigration, and nice as Malaysia is (and it is nice – I like it a lot, actually), I intend to be long gone before my 90 day visa even comes close to running out. Oh, and also I don’t especially want swine flu when the only person to take care of me is me. Chris and Kirsty didn’t make it sound like much of a picnic. Either way, I better write now
I was sad to leave Kuala Lumpur. Between being coldy and being cooped up inside from the endless rain, I didn’t see nearly as much of it as I would have liked. Of course, that’s just a good excuse to come again one day (perhaps whilst on a trip to Singapore!), but it would have been nice to feel I’d earned the tick next to its name in my mental Rolodex. I am trying, illness or no illness, to make up for it here in Georgetown though, which is another of the Malaysian tourist hotspots. There’ve been big cruise ships here nearly every day, and I can see why. The multicultural island state of Penang is a good mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian families, and has a pleasantly relaxed atmosphere of tolerance as a result. As the name might indicate, the capital of Georgetown is another site that my ancestors merrily steamrollered, resulting in a nice dollop of guilt at the Penang Museum but some neat colonial architecture to take in. But I still feel like crap, so pretty much all I’ve done since I got here is open my window (the aircon won’t turn off, for some reason, so global warming be damned, I’m letting as much cold air out and warm air in as possible), wrap myself up in my covers like a caterpillar (my sexy cold weather sweater is pretty much ever-present, even when I’m outdoors in the heat – it’s the nearest thing I have to a cuddle. God, I’m so pathetic now I’m even depressing myself), and stuff my face. This place backs onto a hawker centre called Red Garden, and if I thought hawker stalls were fun, it’s nothing compared to a proper hawker centre.
Imagine, if you will, that a restaurant and a food court had a baby, and that baby grew up, discovered cigarettes, started hanging out with a bad crowd, and eventually ran off with a burger van. The offspring from that illicit union would be a hawker centre. Some are open 24 hours;
So the hawker centres are great fun, to be sure. But as I said, it’s pretty much entirely Asian food, and since all I’ve eaten since I left Singapore is noodles and Oreos, I’ve spent the last few days hungry for something Western. Something that must be eaten with a knife and fork, not chopsticks. Something that I could make myself, if that makes any sense at all. It’s odd, because two years ago, I could barely boil water – now, one of the things I miss the most about home is that I can’t cook anything. I’ve been collecting recipes from everywhere and keep going in bookshops to look covetously at cookbooks, to stroke their shiny pages and make yummy noises over the pictures.
Do you ever get a craving for a certain food, and nothing else will do? And more specifically, a certain type of that certain food? You know exactly what you want and exactly how you want it cooking. I suppose that’s another way the cooking for yourself comes in – if I’m hungry for pulled pork, I make it myself with my own homemade barbecue sauce, and I know exactly how tangy or vinegary or peppery it will taste, because I made it. I've told the following story before, but I'm going to tell it again now, because it's vaguely relevant: when I spent a night in Buenos Aires on my way to Antarctica, I was hot and tired and sticky from travelling, I had another day and night of voyaging ahead of me before I got to the boat, and all I wanted was a steak. Not a hard thing to find in Argentina, I’ll grant you, but I wanted a very specific steak. I wanted it to be big (but not too big), juicy, nicely browned but pink enough to bleed in the centre, with a bit of fat running along the side that would sizzle in the pan but could be easily sliced off on the plate. I wanted it with thick cut chips. I wanted to douse the chips in vinegar and the steak in a creamy mushroom sauce, and I wanted to wash it all down with a big glass of full-bodied red wine. In short, I wanted steak how I make it at home. I remember texting Louise as I sat in a random café I’d found, my head and feet both aching from an afternoon of pounding around BA, exhausted but determined not to waste my few hours in this city. I remember saying I’d just ordered a steak and a half bottle of Malbec, and if my steak didn’t taste good, it was more than likely that I was going to cry, because I was so hungry and so eager to eat the steak in my head that the disappointment of a crap one might be more than I could bear.
Sometimes, you get yourself all worked up for something, and then when it happens, it’s not nearly as good as you thought it would be, and you are sad. Fortunately, my steak that night was not one of those things.
It was big (boy was it, it was nearly as long as my arm), it was smothered in a delicious creamy mushroom sauce, and the chips were more fried potato slices, but they tasted like chips no matter how they were cut, so that was fine by me. Vinegar was lacking, but the bread they had was so nice I ate all of it (and I NEVER eat bread – I’d only tried half a roll because I was starving, ended up eating all three),
What does that have to do with being here? Well, at home, I regularly eat steak. (Again, the part of me that desires to live past 27 loses out against the part that goes “COWS ARE STUPID AND TRUSTING AND DELICIOUS”.) So it’s not entirely shocking that I could desire such a thing when I’m abroad, particularly when I’m in the land of steak, so it’s on my mind anyway. At home, I also regularly eat Asian food. I enjoy noodles, and I have subsequently enjoyed my time out here. But the one thing I very, very rarely eat is pizza. And why? Because pizzas traditionally contain cheese. And I don’t like cheese. Cheese and I parted company at a young age, and have maintained a respectful distance ever since. Periodically, I eat cheese, either by accident or design, but am always sadly forced to conclude that the cheese embargo must go on.
There is one small exception to this rule. That exception is pizza.
When I was a youth, I didn’t eat pizza at all, because of the aforementioned cheese issue. I used to make pizzas, oh yes, and glorious pizzas they were too. In Food Tech, if we had to make whatever we wanted, I always made a pizza, because making pizzas is fun, with the layering and different ingredients and whatnot. (This continued until year 11, when I realised if I quietly slipped off to the other side of the classroom when Mrs Buxton was at our desk, and busied myself helping my friends Lynzee and Saőirse the rest of the time, I could get away with never bringing any ingredients or making anything at all. My friend Sean helped with the marking and dutifully gave me 18/20 every week for imaginary food, and that is why I love him still and would vote for him to be County Councillor again if I lived in his constituency.) The eating of pizzas, however, was most assuredly not my bag, and the fact that I also happen to dislike things like olives and pepperoni didn’t help matters.
I’m not sure at what point I relented and started eating the odd pizza. I think it was somewhere in my teen years, and almost certainly either to impress a boy, or because I was very drunk and the only food in the house was DA’s legion of Chicago Town mini-pizzas. The discovery of things like tomato garlic bread (pizza without the cheese) and Pizza Ristorante frozen pizzas continued to break down my resistance; indeed, the latter are the only frozen food I will still serve with pride at a party since my cooking revolution (waffles don’t count. That’s breakfast.) (Jane – before we head off into another pancake debacle, waffles aren’t what you’re thinking of. YouTube Birdseye Potato Waffles, and you will understand. You will also understand why, if the phrase “Birdseye Potato Waffles” is mentioned, it is statistically impossible for anyone born between 1980 and 1990 in the UK not to immediately say “They’re waffly versatile”.) It’s also very difficult if you’re the only one that wants to go to the chicken place when everyone else wants pizza or a kebab after a session, because the chicken place is miles away and you’d have to go on your own and your ankles are hurting because you kept dancing even after you fell over and everyone else is smashed so if you leave there’s a good chance they’ll forget about you and they’ll end up going home without you and you’ll have to pay for a cab back from Rawtenstall on your own, and you’ve only got three quid left because you spent all your money on an Aftershock slamming competition with Noj, and besides, you want to stay in Mimi’s because that’s where everyone goes after chucking out time so you might end up hooking up with that guy you’ve been eye-fucking all night after all.
Anyway. Somewhere along the line, pizzas stopped being part of the “ugh, cheese” family, and something that every now and again, I could calmly face if that’s what everybody else wanted. It
All of which random wanderings through my debauched teenage years brings us to this evening. I’ve been reading Dara O Briain’s book the past few days, and he keeps talking about ordering pizza to the stage door. (Again, for the non-Brits in the audience – Dara O Briain is a fantastic Irish comedian, known mostly for hosting comedy topical panel show Mock The Week, but he’s also a phenomenal standup who actually does large amounts of improvisational comedy, unlike most stand-ups of note today who just recite their material and leave. McIntyre, you utter penis, I’m looking at you. I should probably be looking at Dave Spikey, but I hate you a lot more, so I’m looking at you instead.)
The seed is planted.
Then as mentioned earlier, whether it’s when I’m scoffing cake or huddling in my sexy cold weather sweater with naught but my eyes and forehead peeping out from my covers, I have recently been indulging in a little Desperate Housewives. In which Tom and Lynette Scavo own a pizzeria, the imaginatively-titled Scavo’s.
The seed grows.
Finally, an episode of DH comes up where they don’t just talk about pizzas, they show one. A big, gooey, tomatoey, delicious looking thing.
The seed flowers, and I am suddenly filled with an overwhelming urge for pizza. But not just any pizza. Just like with the steak, I am fixating on a certain type of pizza, and as detailed above, my margin for error when it comes to pizza is pretty thin. I never want pizza until I do, and then when I do, it’s all I can think about. And then after I eat some, I won’t want any again for months or years. But right now I want some. And I am in the middle of fucking Asia. Italy is thousands of miles away. Italian food is about as far. And if I could find a pizza joint, it would be something in the Pizza Marzano family, the Pizza Express knock off I ran across in Jakarta. I don’t want crappy chain pizza. I want proper pizza, fresh made pizza, with proper tomato and proper mozzarella and proper herbs and a thin yet doughy base. I want the pizza in my head, in short, which I think is Mario’s margarita pizza, from Mario’s Italian restaurant in Bacup, which is where we all used to go at the drop of a hat in my teen years because even though Nino’s had better food, Mario’s had Mario, who was brilliant and funny and nice and always remembered us and used to tease me for being cheeky and then one night sang my praises when I came in with my family instead of my friends, and said I was always bubbly and cheerful and he was always glad to see me, and I went all red and shy. Mario’s is also where I discovered tomato garlic bread, and I think if Louise Cook and I could have the perfect meal, it would consist of nothing but Mario’s tomato garlic bread and a big plate of poppadoms with all the stuff.
Since Mario and his pizzas are thousands of miles away, I was resigned to this desire going unfulfilled before I’d even started to dream, but out of idle curiosity, since Penang is famed for its food (chiefly Indian, Chinese and Nyonya though), I began flicking through the Western section of the old LP. And once again, the old LP came through, with the mention of a tiny café called Ecco that wasn’t too far from my hotel and served what they assured me was very good pizza. So earlier this evening, I headed out and about thirty minutes later arrived at their door (it’s only actually about ten minutes away, but no day would be complete if I didn’t get lost at least once). I timidly ordered a beer and a margarita, then sat and waited nervously, necking my beer and trying to concentrate on Dara. The fact that it was taking a while was a good sign; it implied that they were making it from scratch. Eventually, my pizza arrived, and I almost burst into tears.
Tears of relief.
It was perfect.
Proper tomato. Proper mozzarella (and not too much of it). Proper herbs. And a thin yet doughy base.
I burnt my mouth on it because I was so eager to scarf it down. My only regret it that they only make 10 inch ones. I wasn’t even hungry anymore but I seriously considered ordering another one just because it was so damn good.
Of course, now I’m feeling I maybe shouldn’t have washed it down with three bottles of Tiger, because was an awful lot of nonsense about food, particularly when you consider I have something far more interesting to end on. Maybe the flu has hit my head and I am now delirious. It’s possible. I marched around the streets in my sexy cold weather sweater again tonight and I was still too cold for most of it. Then I was all of a sudden too hot, which was sad – my religious pizza experience was slightly marred by the fact that I was all sweaty. Now as I write this I’m fucking freezing again, but my sexy cold weather sweater isn’t nearly as warm as it usually is, because I sweated in it, then left it in my bag, and now it’s a bit damp. (Saucy, right? I know.)
My interesting thing, which I’ve now probably oversold, is that I was in my very first earthquake today. True, it involved no death, destruction, or even toppling china (not here in Georgetown, anyway), but it was my first earthquake, and you never forget your first. It hit a 5.1 on the Richter Scale off the west coast of Sumatra (look at the map at the top if you can’t imagine where that is in relation to me; Medan was Sumatra), so it was about a thousand kilometres from here. I woke up at about 6.35am because the bed was shaking – if like me, you live in a crap new build Barrett House, you may have experienced something similar when a big truck drives down your road. Except instead of fading after a few seconds, this shaking just got stronger until I could hear the aircon clanking and the water in the pipes sloshing about. I got up and looked out of the window (quite what I was expecting to see, I don’t know – an incoming tsunami? A fast approaching mushroom cloud? Alien tripods?) but all seemed well. I could hear a few people calling out in the hallway, but nobody sounded especially panicked. I wondered what I should do, and felt a bit frightened for a minute as the room kept shaking (idiotically, I put my hands on either wall as though I was trying to steady them), and looked over at my laptop and electronics cube full of important things like my portable hard drives (which would be the things I’d want to save in an emergency). After a few minutes, the shaking started to lessen. When the clanking and sloshing stopped, I relaxed. Since I was still pretty tired (I had been coughing all night, and only dropped off at about 3am), I paused for another minute just to make sure the alien tripods really had left, then shrugged, and pausing only to tweet about it, I got back in bed and went back to sleep.
Not very exciting, I grant you. Exciting earthquake stories tend to result in bothersome things like death and/or destruction, however, and in this one nothing even fell off any shelves, so I think in some ways, whilst my tale may lack pizzazz, it has a distinct upside in that I am still alive to tell it. Win.
*muff/pocket things = when you have a bit sewn onto the front of your sweater that you can put both of your hands in, like a muff, but you can leave stuff in there like a pocket as long as you don’t start dashing around too enthusiastically. It doesn’t mean anything else that you might have thought it meant.