Saturday, November 24, 2007

Silence, and then it begins again…

In this dog eat dog world of a zillion voices and opinions struggling to be heard and to be different online, one quickly becomes irrelevant unless one adheres to the three cardinal rules of blogging – update, update and update. Every day, at the very least, or, if you fancy yourself as citizen journalist, every hour or with every new development in a big story.

So, my 20 days of silence has been an eternity. But, you know, I haven’t been lying on the beach, sun tan lotion on my side, Corona in hand, admiring the sunset.

Life trotted along and things (though rarely, thankfully, shit) happened – some of them personally significant, others of social, political and national interest that touched me in unexpected ways.

Two developments have been gobbling up the hours and minutes of the day – getting into the groove work-wise, and making a concerted effort to get some exercise into my life by joining a gym and embarking on a programme. The second new thing required an initial boost to get over procrastination (one needs to just do it and stop making %&*&%$^ excuses), but the payback has been almost immediate – better energy levels, better sleeping patterns.

Getting into a work groove was as much a relief as it was necessary, since in the months before, I have alternated between being distracted (family, travelling, friends, this and that stuff) and depressed (not getting significant work done).

But now, it’s all good, it’s all chillin’.

First up (or down, since you have to read below), is the Bearded Warrior of Kelantan, and below that, getting crabby and Lucky.

Is there such a thing as an objective past?

Today, for benefit of its readers who might want to stretch their legs a little, The Star, featured the historic Tok Janggut Trail in Kelantan, a state in northeastern peninsula Malaysia. Tok Janggut (which the writer of the article translates as ‘The Bearded One’, although One seems a pale version of Tok, an honorific accorded to those of who are particularly wise and respected, and who are no longer young punk warriors) was a local warlord who led a rebellion against the British colonizers around the turn of the 20th century.

The meaning and significance of his act is shrouded is some controversy, as the title of the book written by an expert (who is quoted in the article) shows: Tok Janggut: Revolutionary or Traitor?

A monument to
remember Tok Janggut by.
(Picture copyright: The Star.)

But what struck me about the article was the way in which history is again being spun in the service of the present. Here’s how the writer, reflecting the State-determined standard accounts of history of today, puts it:

“Arguably the first person to revolt against the British in the Malay Peninsula back in the early 1900s, Tok Janggut did in a way anticipate Aug 31, 1957.”

But a close inspection of the details suggests that linking together Tok Janggut’s rebellion to Malaysia’s independence from Britain requires some suspension of critical thinking.

Tok Janggut’s beef was as much against the British as it was against the Sultan of the day, and rested on local issues like taxes and local autonomy. His rebellion could be seen as part of a long tradition of maintaining a balance of power between the ruler and the local lords. The ruler, rarely all-powerful unless he was especially charismatic, won the support of local chiefs by promising them titles and legitimacy, while extracting taxes (in goods and manpower) from them. Levy too high a tax, and the chiefs revolted.

So the jury is still out on whether he is a modern anti-colonialist hero, or a local warlord seeking to exploit a weak Sultan.

Also, the Malaysian (or more accurately, Malayan) parties involved in the negotiation for independence, hardly resembled the violent and radical Tok Janggut. The British identified and chose to negotiate with a group of conservative elites (quite a few of them who had studied in England), and who were amenable to the Queen’s interest after the Union Jack had been lowered.

Ah, the devil is in the details…

Lucky, lucky me

One of my supervisors emailed me recently asking for the address of this blog – he said he had heard I was writing about food. This is the person who once packed a ton of rendang from Sumatra to take along with him on his 9,000-mile journey home (and we got to taste it at a party he threw!!). The point of this aside is that while this is not strictly a food blog, I’m beginning to feel the pressure to deliver!

Lucky me, I am eating well, both at home (Mum’s cooking!) and outside. One of our favourite joints is this unassuming steamboat (alternatively known as hot pot in certain parts of the world) restaurant in a corner shoplot not far from home.

They have sets, depending on the number of diners, that include fish, prawns, meats of all sorts, vegetables, tofu, stuffed tofu, beef balls, fish balls, eggs, noodles etc. We normally add to their sets or order off their non-steamboat menu.

Steamboats are simple dishes, really – the success depends almost entirely on the quality of the ingredients since all of them are boiled lightly, and not subjected to heavy cooking. Luck Kee Steamboat takes pains to ensure all the ingredients – especially the seafood – are fresh and of a better grade. Here’s a close-up of the pot just as the lid is being taken away…

The above pictures are from 2006. Just recently, we went back to have their non-steamboat food. We’ve always ordered their crabs as a side dish (yeah, right, crabs as a ‘side dish’). This time we decided to go the whole hog [actually, you can order braised pig’s trotters (chee keok) from a nearby stall (bak kut teh) too].

We started out with a plate of khau yoke mai funbee hoon/bihun (vermicelli) stir fried with strips of braised pork belly; a dish with deep flavours that one can appreciate with just a few mouthfuls. You might think it strange that the noodle dish appears first, since noodle and rice dishes appear at the end of fine Chinese banquets. But when you’re having a crab meal, the crabs are usually served last, during which all conversation stops and everyone is all hands on deck, literally.

Next came the yim kook har, or salt encrusted/baked prawns. (I am getting terribly hungry as I write this, sigh!). Deep-fried to the right level of crispiness, you can throw the whole thing into your month, chomp on it, and swallow everything – head, eyes, legs, tail, meat, stock and barrel. (You’ll need a fairly big mouth of course, or a way to unhinge your jaws.)

A plate of vegetables also arrived at this point, but I felt sure my salt-encrusted fingers should not be touching the camera.

Then came our chilli crab. We held our breath. I said a silent prayer for the folks in the San Francisco Bay Area – the side of a tanker had scraped against the Bay Bridge, and oil spilled out of a huge gash, sparking an environmental crisis that led to the restriction of the Dungeness crab season, much to the dismay of the locals there.

And then we tucked in! As expected, all conversation stopped, until the arrival first of the mantou (bread) to soak up the chilli crab sauce, and then the piece the resistance…

… our steamed flower crabs (fa hai). Flower crabs are soft-shelled crabs that have a more delicate flavour, which makes them less suitable for the robust treatment handed out to their bigger and meatier cousins (stir-fried either with chilli; peppercorns; curry leaves, ginger and spring onion; and so on). Instead, flower crabs are best steamed, on a bed of egg white whipped with Chinese wine, and sprinkled with some fresh spring onions.

Man, was that a feast!