The Curry Mee Tragedy

I never knew how much I loved my Penang curry mee until my favourite hawker died.

Yes, she died.

Not while cooking curry mee, of course.

 

Penang curry mee in Georgetown Penang Malaysia
Yummiest Penang curry mee with some teh C on the side

You see, Nic and I have a ritual on Sundays. We potter into town and have a totally “ah pek” breakfast. I call it “ah pek” breakfast because it involves an old corner coffeeshop with loud patrons speaking Cantonese, hawker fare which are deemed typical of Penang and yes, it also involves some old-style kopi and tea.

We sit about this coffeeshop, enjoying its ambience – the sights and sounds of a regular coffeeshop can be quite comforting.

Read more

A Matriarch’s Cuisine of Love

It’s only when guests or friends come to Penang that I make that mad effort to find new places to dine. Most times, we’re lazy and eat around our area which to me is rather sad and boring. I mean, how many times can you eat “chee cheong fun” for breakfast before you kind of roll your eyes and wish this dish was never invented?

Little Kitchen, Noordin Street, George Town
Little Kitchen, 179, Noordin Street, George Town, Penang

My area, Taman Sri Nibong, isn’t exactly crawling with lots of eateries.

So it gets fun when guests arrive. A few days ago, Nic and his Mensa Penang friends hosted Patrick, a fellow Mensan from Hong Kong.

It was Patrick’s first time in Penang. We thought it would be fun to take him to a Nyonya restaurant in George Town. But where? Nic’s favourite Nyonya restaurant, Hot Wok, had closed down about 2 years ago so there went the first choice on our list. Nyonya Breeze in Straits Quay was a little too modern for my taste, at least for this round.

I quickly scanned CK Lam’s food blog and found an interesting one. “Let’s take him there,” I enthused to Nic.

That’s how we ended circling Noordin Street three times before we finally found a parking spot near Hotel Grand Continental. The hotel was just one street after the Nyonya restaurant called Little Kitchen @ Nyonya. Don’t ask why it’s so oddly named.

Conceptually the restaurant was interesting. It is a Straits Chinese shop house some 135 feet long which belonged to a 4th generation Straits Chinese family. They still reside on the first floor. This family runs the Nyonya restaurant with the matriarch as the head chef! (She was this smiley Auntie in her 70s.)

Ulam appetizer with two types of sambal belacan
Ulam appetizer with two types of sambal belacan

So what’s unique about this place? Plenty of character I can tell you.

The main business (yes, the Nyonya food isn’t the main business and I will tell you why in a bit) is their birds’ nest business.

This family trades birds’ nests – the kind that most Chinese elders will give an arm and a leg and two best jade bangles for. So you can actually buy the birds’ nests in dried form from them or pre-order and have them double-boil the birds’ nest dessert for you (available for dine-in or take-away).

So the Nyonya food is more like a hobby for this family.

Nic and our Hong Kong Mensa friend, Patrick
Nic and our Hong Kong Mensa friend, Patrick

This we found out from the Auntie’s son – a chatty guy in his 50s. He must be recounting the history of the 7 year old restaurant to so many customers that the stories simply flowed out easily. And he is a veritable trove of birds’ nest facts, trivia and how the Chinese grew so mad over drinking and eating birds’ nest. The other way to locate this restaurant is to look for “Birds Nest Heaven” – the alternate name of the shop.

An array of Nyonya kuih to whet the appetite
An array of Nyonya kuih to whet the appetite

Anyway, he said that his family really didn’t need to run a Nyonya cuisine restaurant. His grandfather and father had done well for themselves back in those days of trading that the family was well set for life.

The only thing was, with his father’s demise some 10 years ago, his mother felt an inexplicable sense of loss. You see, in those days, his mother cooked every day for his family. Specifically his father never had to eat out. He had breakfast, lunch and dinner prepared lovingly by his wife.

Plus as her children had grown up, they ate out more than they ate in. Hence, the matriarch felt abandoned – no one appreciated her cooking any more.

So the children got together and hatched a plan to keep dear old Mum happy and cooking up all her favourite Nyonya dishes.

That was how Little Kitchen was born or at least that’s how Mr Loh, the son, tells it.

The second hall where we dined
The second hall where we dined

When you step into the restaurant, it does feel like you’re dining in someone’s home. We were ushered to the second hall which had an air well.

What I liked was that we were served tiny slices of Nyonya kuih as well as raw sliced cucumber, baby brinjal and four-angled beans with sambal belacan as appetizers.

The other unique feature is that all drinks were free flow – nutmeg, ginger, Chinese tea and plain water. These were in traditional hot water flasks and you could drink all you wanted for RM4 per person. Funny how free flow of drinks could make me so delirious!

Free flow of nutmeg, ginger, Chinese tea and plain water in Chinese flasks
Free flow of nutmeg, ginger, Chinese tea and plain water in Chinese flasks

The food portions weren’t exactly large although they were tasty and had a true home-cooked feel. We ordered pig stomach soup with gingko nuts (although it had Szechuan vegetable too which is a first time tasting this vegetable in a pig stomach soup), fried paku or fern shoots in sambal hae-bee, sliced pork with cincalok, mixed vegetables, acar fish and asam prawns.

Mother-of-pearl day bed, one of the antiques in the restaurant
Mother-of-pearl day bed, one of the antiques in the restaurant

Later the affable owner came around to explain why his dishes were small in portion and a tad more pricey than most. Then again, he did say he was “rather choosy with his clientele” preferring those who could appreciate the food and not just bus-loads of tourists who eat and leave.  Not that his place could accommodate bus-loads. At most there were 6 to 7 tables.

Mixed vegetable stir-fry and pork cincalok
Mixed vegetable stir-fry and pork cincalok

As someone who goes to the wet market (yes, I do cook), I know how pricey fish, pork, chicken and vegetables cost these days.

Anyway he justified it by saying that his mom insists on the best cincalok, the freshest ingredients and all so these add up. Plus he served us on true-blue possibly heirloom/antique porcelain plates – perhaps harking back to the days when his grandfather used to run a restaurant on No.7, Leith Street!  (Upon looking under the plates, Patrick says that they were from Jingdezhen, a city in China famous for its fine quality chinaware!)

Look at the original floor tiles so telling of a Penang Nyonya shophouse
Look at the original floor tiles so telling of a Penang Nyonya shophouse

Dining at Little Kitchen was an experience that wasn’t just about the Nyonya cuisine and food tales.

Sure the food’s on the pricey side (the bill came up to RM208 for the five of us, plus drinks and 2 bowls of black glutinous rice dessert) and it wasn’t classy like some of the newer establishments. (This is Ji Tiao Lor after all.)

Labelled herbs in pots to show you what's used in Nyonya cooking
Labelled herbs in pots to show you what's used in Nyonya cooking

Yet in its homely way it was charmingly Chinese – much like dining at your favourite aunt’s home.

Whatever it was, I left feeling satisfied and perhaps made a mental note to revisit, if only for the unique tale it has to tell.

Colourful pickles in jars
Colourful pickles in jars

A Passport Adventure…Or Why We’re Always Behind Singapore

Lots of people find difficulty in creating blog posts.

I can tell you that if you observe your daily life long enough or meet enough people, you will have plenty to blog about.

Case in point – today we were at the Penang Immigration Department on Beach Street.

Most people, especially Malaysians, hate dealing with Government departments.

The waiting time is long as hell and you get crappy service most of the time. I say this because sometimes, like a glimmer of light from beyond, one or two officers will come forth and shine and make your dealing with them a lot better. But these people, once we come across them, are like gems. Few and far in between.

The rest have this “attitude” which you really dislike.

Like intensely.

Nic for one hates bureaucracy. As the rebellious person that he is (and he is famous for this even when he was in USM – he was well-known for his rebel nature), he finds such experiences tiring. I do too but I take these experiences better than he does.

Anyway, based on our last experience at renewing our passports, we figured it would be a breeze. At least you now do not need to wake up at the ungodly hour of 6 am and wait in line for a number. With improved services, we now have a passport renewal kiosk – a machine which shortens the time considerably.

The last time we renewed our passports, it was easy. Just get there, get your number, and do the needed at the kiosk. The kiosk scans your passport, scans your MyKad and scans your right thumbprint. Plus it also accepts your cash. And it spits out your receipt. Your new passport will be ready in an hour, give or take a few minutes. So in that one hour, you can go and do other things, run some errands, have your breakfast and later come back for your new travel document.

This time, we thought, it would be relatively quick.

I think I give our Malaysian departments too much trust.

How To Renew Your Malaysian Passport

Here’s how the procedure works and I experienced it first-hand today.

So consider this post a how-to, so you can save time, prevent yourself from tearing your hair out and cut out the stress. At least if you can learn from this post, please do. Go all prepared. Then you have less issue and less frustration.

I don’t know why this time we had to get the passport renewal forms to fill up. But we did.

If you see a line of people, skip the queue. These people are lining up for their numbers.

If you haven’t gotten your form yet, go right up to the counter (which lies smack in the middle as you enter) and ask for the form. You DON’T need to line up for forms.

Next, you need a photostat copy of your MyKad as well as 2 recent passport-sized photographs. I brought along mine which was taken not very long ago (I had a hair cut since then) but they told me that I had to take my photo again! Of course I grumbled. Surprisingly Nic was calm.

You don’t have to go very far to get your instant passport photos taken.

The Immigration Department has a little annexe (more like a hastily put up shack) behind the main building. You go around the building (walk to your left as you exit the main entrance) and you will see a line of people waiting in the sun for their turn to get their photos snapped or to photostat their MyKad. No shade whatsoever. The smart aleck who is doing a roaring good business behind the main building charges RM0.60 for photostat and RM10 for 4 pieces of photos.

So we had to wait in the bloody hot sun, in a line, to get our photos snapped.

Once you get that, you check your form – fill it up properly – and attach your 2 photos, your MyKad photostat copy and your old passport. Of course, none of this is written down on their Immigration Department board or website.

I check websites religiously – I even told Nic we could do the renewal online but Nic does not have faith at all in the online system. If it failed, we’d have to do the regular way. So might as well save ourselves the agony and do it the regular way. That is how mediocre our Government departments are. That is how much trust we have in them.

With your form and necessary stuff in hand, you now get back into that stupid line again (yes) to get your number. Tell them you want to use the kiosk. It is much shorter (unless the kiosk throws a fit and refuses to scan your passport, in which case you need to do the Manual Renewal method…which I will clue you in, too, since I am in such a good mood…NOT).

With that number in hand, you go to the kiosk which is a little room and get this, with one of their officers inside! (We can’t trust machines too much, can we?)

Basically, the kiosk scans your old passport, scans your MyKad and scans your thumbprint. Then you “feed” it with money (RM300 for 48-page Malaysian International Passport of 5 years’ validity – update: as of 2015, it is cheaper to renew your passport) and you get a receipt.

In usual cases, you are asked to come back in one hour. Today being a Friday, I was told to collect my new passport at 3pm. Done deal, right? Not so. When you come at 3pm, you line up AGAIN to get a number.

When Being Punctual or Early Can Be Bad

The officer won’t give you a number if you’re early by a few minutes. Oh no, it must be on the dot.

I was early by 5 minutes and he told me that but I told him I wasn’t going to line up again.

I am quite nice most times but I can be nasty when I want to.

I told him, “Look. There’s a line behind me. I am NOT lining up again.”

Maybe it was my Tiger face because he finally decided he didn’t want to argue with me and gave me my number. Earlier I had made a fuss when his colleague told me I had to take my photo again – and that colleague (when I went back to him again to get a number) told me not to be so mad. I was quite furious and when I get mad, it shows on my face. You don’t want to mess with me then.

With this number and my receipt, I went to Kaunter 8 and dropped the receipt in this pathetic, cheap red plastic tray. The guy behind the counter will call your number. You just need to present your MyKad, sign the new passport and sign the form (the one you initially had) and scan your thumbprint. That is it.

I was lucky. My passport was deemed accepted by the machine.

Nic wasn’t so lucky. The machine refused to scan his passport and finally he was asked to do the Manual Way. This is something we dread because it is long, tedious, bureaucratic with stupid systems!

When You Renew Your Passport Over The Counter

Here’s the manual way, explained step by step:

1. You get a number. (If you don’t have a number, you won’t get anywhere. Get in line. Get a number.)
2. You wait your turn. Remember to check if you have: your old passport, your xerox copy of MyKad and 2 photos and the stupid form (which you got earlier and filled up).
3. The wait can be horrible. You see, the Penang Immigration Department is one of the most run-down and dismal places to be in. The wall where the cheap Kilometrico pens are (tied with string no less, just in case you decide to steal some Kilometrico pens! Oh for god’s sakes)
are littered with such interesting profanity and art that it shows how bored mindless the waiting can be. The desk here is dirtied with ink of leaky pens.
4. The wait is annoying because there aren’t enough seating or if you do find one, it’s a dirty seat with stains and what-not. When I am here, I feel like I am in some dingy Third World country – oh wait a minute, I am in a dingy Third World country. Like the LCCT in Sepang, this waiting area makes me ashamed to be called a Malaysian. Is this Malaysia? Not only are the seats dirty and cramped, most people hang around and wait, making it utterly claustrophobic.
5. When your number is called, you go up to the counter. The officer takes your form, processes it and asks to scan your thumbprint. You get to ink your thumb and put your thumbprint on the form too.
6. Do you pay your RM300? Oh noooo….. you take a seat again because your money will be paid at another counter.
7. So you return to your seat and resign yourself to another 30 to 50 minutes of incredibly mindless waiting. The officer who takes your form doesn’t take your money?! This is a system problem. Why must you be re-routed to another officer so he can collect your money and give you a receipt?
No wonder our civil service is so bloated. It takes 2-3 people to do one person’s job!
8. So you endure the wait until the officer calls your name.
9. When he calls your name, you pay and get your receipt. When you get your receipt, you are asked to collect your new passport in 1 hour. (Now’s the time to go around the corner and have a cup of coffee while you wait out the hour.)

Some Useful Tips

Make sure you renew your passport for as long as you can. You never want to endure this ordeal too many times in your life. It kills you.

A woman complained that she had been there since 8.30am. A woman we met said she was scolded by the officer when she stood too near the counter (she had seen her form on the next pile and knew he was about to call her name). He actually slammed her form on the counter, showing his displeasure.

If I were her I’d say, “Go ahead and get mad. Then give me your name because I am going to write a letter of complaint to your big boss and report you as rude and uncivilised.”

What sort of civil service is this if you treat fellow Malaysians like they didn’t matter?

Here are people of all walks of life with most being nervous when dealing with Government Departments because they lacked proficiency in Bahasa Malaysia and don’t know how to fill forms. I saw many people like this. They worried not knowing what to write in their forms.

They hung around, unsure of what came next. Uncertainty is a horrible feeling when you are illiterate and the worse thing is when some officers throw a tantrum in front of the people they are supposed to serve with a smile?

Some are friendly – no doubt – the lady who served me when I was at the kiosk was a cheerful spirit.

But I was lucky. How many others got horrible officers?

The moment we got our new passports, I told myself that I won’t need to step into this place for another 5 years and that’s in 2017.

I met a friend too who was lining up for a second time to get her number – she was apparently too early the first time around and the officer refused to issue her a number. She said,”Oh but it’s like that. We’re not like Singapore you know.”

But why aren’t we like Singapore?

Why do we accept mediocre service and think it’s OK to be bullied by rude officers? Why do we take such crap without even a squeak?

That is why Malaysia will never progress beyond what we have now if we don’t speak up and get services improved. Many Malaysians are too accepting of rubbishy service particularly from the Government departments.

Just like the other day when a bank officer at the RHB Sungai Dua branch (a woman no less!) was rude to Nic.

I told him never let that get away. We have been loyal customers of this bank for more than 10 years. Is this any way to treat your customers?

Then and there, Nic went up to the bank manager and told him that he was unhappy that not only did she not offer a solution to his ATM card problem, she laughed like a hyena while walking away. I hope she gets a good earful from her bank manager.

So don’t stew if you get bad service – write about it, blog about it, write to your newspaper, write to the company. Let them know that you are unhappy. At least then something can be improved.

Of course don’t just complain for nothing. Complain so that they improve their services. That’s the goal.

In Singapore, businesses take complaints seriously. Customer service is a serious culture over there.

Over here, we take crap from people who should be serving us with a smile. Why?

Rebuilding An Oasis in Love Lane

Penang is shaping up nicely indeed, if going by the lovely restored buildings of character each day. Just last Sunday, we were at the old Oasis Hotel on 23, Love Lane.

Love Lane is a quaint old name, conjuring all sorts of imaginative visuals – why Love Lane? (It’s good alliteration too…rolls off the tongue in one long loop!). Did secret love trysts happen here? Was it named after someone called Love?

Love Lane reminds me of my maternal grandparents who used to live in a rented room (room, mind you, not even a house) on 76, Love Lane. Like a movie, I can remember as a child of 4 or 5 being in this little room which functioned as a bedroom and dining room. I can still recall the amalgam of smells of that room. Like a whiff of everything – food, old people’s minyak urut, old newsprint and Tiger plasters. I cannot recall exactly but the people who rented rooms in that building shared their bathrooms and kitchen. I can imagine the morning rush!

Anyway, Love Lane also connects to Convent Light Street and St Xavier’s. These are the schools my mom and dad studied at, respectively. Apparently that is how most girls met their future husbands. (Why are all convents situated near boys’ schools? I studied in a co-ed school so I really can’t understand why boys and girls can’t just study together instead of separated?)

Almost Missed It

We almost couldn’t tour the old Oasis Hotel as Nic forgot to RSVP Sook Foong of PHT. Luckily some who RSVPed did not turn up so we quickly joined the PHT tour. As the boutique hotel of 10 rooms is not yet open to the public(it opens on 1 December), joining PHT has its privileges! We were taken on a private tour of this new premises, restored and perhaps looking even better than it was looking before!

Dr Gywnn led us to gape at the wonderful work that has been done on this building. It certainly looked painstaking and arduous, going by the ruins it was in when the current owner bought it in 2008. Back then, this building was an old backpackers’ hostel called Oasis Hotel and owned by the Tan family (who now runs the famous Rainforest Bakery on Chulia Street).

No Photos Please

Despite most PHT members coming armed with cameras, we weren’t allowed to snap any photos. It was a pity as the restored hotel is absolutely beautiful. It abounds with nostalgia. Hence, you won’t see any photos here. But I am sure you will soon see them as the hotel prepares to be launched next month.

You can of course follow their restoration blog where they’ve chronicled every detail which went into making this building a pride of George Town again. This is truly a helpful and immensely detailed blog, useful for people who are looking to restore old buildings and wanting to know what work goes into it.

It helps that the rooms are impeccably decorated with classic teak furniture and lots of local artwork. It seems that finally the owner has a place for his art pieces and furniture he’s collected over the years. I for one am glad that there isn’t any ugly or cheap furniture. You may spot one or two IKEA items. The best piece of furniture has to be the Planter’s Lazy Chair on the verandahs -a lounge chair where one could lie back and have a ‘stengah’ or two!

The new hotel is also wheel-chair friendly so disabled guests can also enjoy this little boutique hotel.

While working/digging the old hotel, workers found shards of old crockery. These are cleverly used as decor pieces around the hotel. An old horse shoe or two was also found, giving some information that there used to be a horse stable at the back. Even the Chinese doors when sanded off their paint revealed some Chinese couplets!

A Touch of Charm and Then Some

I love old buildings like these – high ceilings, lots of wooden louvred windows complete with sheer cotton curtains with deep green borders fluttering in the breeze. The only modern items would be the Sony iPOD dock and Sony TVs in each room. Other than that, it simply reeks old world charm all around.

The upper floors are made of real wood, not the laminated floorboards we know today. Walking barefooted on real wood floors is divine.

We never did find out how much accommodation per night costs here but we hope it will be affordable enough that locals can try out a night or two. I was bemused when one of the staff commented that Nic and I could stay in their “Secret Room” with the Spectacular Bath for our honeymoon. Nice try but I’ve been married for a decade already. Too bad. Otherwise I would book it for our honeymoon!

Until then, I’m satisfied that I know what is behind the Chinese gate.

I could say this place could be called The House No One Loved, Look At It Now….fabulous!