Wednesday, August 4

Comfort food

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I was thinking of writing something profound and of deep value this week. As I was mulling over the possible subjects at my computer, I could feel a pain. Not a sharp pain, more of a lingering slow fused burn. It took me a while to work out what it was. First, let me put it in its context. It was at that time of the morning – 8am. That was when I would call my breakfast kakis to ponder on the weighty problem of where and what to eat for breakfast. Well, that was in the ‘good old days,’ before the accused Covid and MCO. Since the beginning of the year, we have been interdicted from frequenting our favourite place and savouring our favourite ‘comfort food’.

I use the term ‘comfort food’ pointedly. To me, it is the simple fare that defines home. Home, of course, is where the heart is. This idea was grounded into my consciousness all the more strongly because I went on a long ‘berjalai’, a sojourn to Britain in my younger days. In the initial years, the novelty of being in a foreign country masked the longing. At first, I thought it was going to be a few quick years, obtain my degree and heading back to old Sarawak. But somehow years turned into decades. Before I knew it, I started work, had a family and set up a business.

It was sometime nearing my 20th year that the longing started. It started with a recurring dream. In the dream, I saw myself riding a bicycle. That was a giveaway. Throughout the time I was in England I never once rode a bicycle. Whereas in the 60s in Sibu, bicycles were the main, if not the only, means of transport. During the half-hour after school, bicycles were like ants, clogging up the roads. It got so bad that the main secondary schools then had an agreement to stagger the class end to different times.

So, when I began to have dreams of riding a bicycle I should have known that something was amiss. It soon developed into me riding in a London street and ended up in Tiong Hwa Road, Sibu. That’s the thing about a dream, space and time collapse and fuse into one. Then the dream got more telling; not only I ended in Sibu, I found my way to my favourite kopitiam, slurping down noodle and chin-wagging with my friends.

Finally, the straw that broke the camel’s back. I just finished the production of a magazine and was walking up and down a high street in London with my client and friend, Harun, the publisher of the said magazine. He was a Muslim Imam community leader in North London. He hailed from Mauritius. There we were, walking up and down the high street looking for food. Those days England was famous for its less-than-palatable food. It was either fish and chip or chip and fish. The vegetables were all boiled up mash. Okay, I might have exaggerated it a bit. It could be that I was traumatised by my two years at boarding school. Anyway, it hit both of us at the same time.

“Why are we staying here? The food is bad and the people don’t like us,” said Harun.

He might have overstated it. He had lived through the days when the notorious London skinheads wore their racism on their fists and Islamophobia was beginning to set in. Harun had a good reason to moan about the food. He came from a tradition of delectable cuisine. While Harun was waxing lyrical about his mouthwatering Mauritian Creole dishes, all I could think of was Laksa and Kolok Mee. Hey, they might not be as exotic, but they are our comfort food, our image and our memory of home. Not long after, I was making a plan to go home which I did a few years later.

Once home, the first order of business for me, as you might guess it, was to hit all the stall foods. After a month or so of frenzy, I finally zeroed in on Kolok Mee and Laksa. I must add it must be ‘Sarawak’ Laksa. My taste is confirmed. Now, whenever I have visitors in town, they invariably say, “We must have your Laksa and Kolok Mee before we leave.” Curiously, these two are recognised as the signature breakfast meals of Kuching. Whereas in terms of taste, they are miles apart. If the latter is unassuming and plain, the former is exciting and exotic. While they may represent the different ends of the taste spectrum they are united as one, occupying a special place in the hearts of Sarawakians.

I suppose it is easy to fall in love with Laksa. Just visualise this: crunchy and fresh beansprouts, strips of chicken, succulent prawns, slivers of omelette, sitting on a bed of Bee Hoon and bathed in a rich spicy broth and garnished with chopped coriander. Add a dash of lime and you have a meal good enough to excite even the most demanding palate.

On the other hand, Kolok Mee is plain and simple. It is just noodle, boiled, strained, stirred with lard, flavoured with a liberal dose of monosodium glutamate (MSG) and topped with a few slices of roast pork. Of course, in these present more health-conscious days, lard is being substituted with healthier cooking oils and MSG is administered with greater restraint.

Kolok Mee, nothing to shout about you would say and I would be inclined to agree. However, there is something almost mysterious about the lure of this seemingly ordinary dish. One day, I was taken aback when my friend Jack said that he wanted to go to a coffee shop to buy bags of Kolok Mee for his son to ‘ta pau’ to Kuala Lumpur. My niece, Lynette, who lives in Singapore, also has the habit of stocking her fridge with bags of this local favourite after each visit to Kuching. I was rather bemused by this eccentricity and further intrigued when someone mentioned that she brought along a good supply of frozen Mee to Hong Kong while on vacation there. Talk about ‘bringing coal to Newcastle’ – Hong Kong is the food capital of the world. There, aside from the rich and exotic Cantonese cuisine, one can sample practically all the dishes of every country in the world. It was a puzzle to me why one should be bothered with the plain, starchy, oily Kolok Mee amid such abundance.

That was my question until a few years ago. I was on vacation in California and enjoying the wide variety of food here. However, I began to have this craving for Laksa and Kolok Mee and I had been away from home for barely three weeks!

Maybe that’s what it is. Food is more than a meal. It is a fragment of our home. It is a sweet memory. Laksa and Kolok Mee are to Sarawak as Apple Pie is to the Americans or Fish and Chips to the English. ‘Apple Pie, just like mother used to make’ is a popular billboard slogan in America. I recall also that in Spanish resorts popular with English holidaymakers ‘Fish and Chip’ restaurants always featured rather prominently.

However, Laksa and Kolok Mee carry a deeper meaning. They are apt metaphors for the harmony of Sarawak multi-racial society. Laksa is a manifestation of that cliché so popular with Sarawakian politicians, ‘Unity in diversity’. The various ingredients are representative of the different racial groups in our State. They are all united to form one beautiful dish.

On the other hand, Kolok Mee is a story of acceptance and integration. With its lard and roast pork, it is a truly Chinese dish. However, such is its popularity that it transcends cultural and racial boundaries. There is now a halal version, Mee Kolok, served with chicken or beef.

So when we take a bowl of Laksa, Kolok Mee or Mee Kolok we are not just eating a tasty meal, we are making an affirmation of our belief in the Sarawak society. I hope all those who doubt the viability of a multi-cultural society can learn from these two signature dishes of Sarawak.

For me, I know I am home only when I sit in my favourite Kopitiam, savouring a bowl of Laksa or Kolok Mee. Okay, the Kopitiam outing might have to be on hold for a while. Grrrr…