Purify the Stomach

It is the Nine Emperor Festival in Penang now. Actually the festival has been going on for the past week. Devotees who make vows will observe the 9 days of taking nothing but vegetarian food. And in Penang, it’s easy to do so as every corner one turns, one can see the yellow buntings and stalls with throngs of people. Penang is still predominantly Taoist and many take the opportunity to give their bodies some rest from meat and turn to more vegetables and fruit.
To say that many Chinese observe this festival is an understatement. And SAR scares, bird flu and what-not have in a way made it more enticing to have more vegetarian meals. But I feel that Chinese vegetarian restaurants and stalls focus too much on mock meats, which isn’t really a healthy way to observe vegetarianism.
Still, I was a tad surprised when someone asked us if we were observing the festival.
We had just finished our weekly marketing at the Lip Sin market yesterday and with bags of meat, fish and vegetables (and a packet of ‘siew yoke’ too), we sat down to our breakfast at the Supertanker food court (which is located conveniently opposite the market).
We’re regulars at this food court and the person who asked us was a woman who usually takes our drink orders.
“Ni men mei you zher hsu?” She asked. (“You both not taking vegetarian food?”) She must have eyed our meat, fish and yes, that tempting packet of chopped ‘siew yoke’.
Nope. We don’t. Not because we don’t think it’s important. I think it’s important to go vegetarian but not necessarily to go when it’s dictated. Religion is private, between me and the cosmic god and unless I am thanking god for granting me my wishes (which I stopped doing a long time ago because it’s not right to barter with god, you know?), I believe I can go vegetarian any day. Not just on during this festival. And anyway, food from these roadside stalls can be quite dirty. I’ve found sand and stuff in them so I prefer proper restaurants if I want some quality vegetarian food.
When I had firm instructions from my Chinese sinseh the last time to cut out all meat, sugar, eggs, seafood, fruits and processed food if I wanted to get well from my horrible geriatric cough, Nic and I went on a two-week vegetarian food diet. We eliminated everything but rice and vegetables. Initially I had balked when the sinseh told me what I had to cut out. I even had to take my bread plain – no jam, no kaya, no butter, nothing. I thought I was dead and gone – what, none of my favourite stuff like cheese allowed? How do I survive?
Surprisingly, Nic and I did. We managed to enjoy our vegetarian stint. I don’t know if it is psychological (or what Cantonese call “sum lei zhok yung”) but I felt better. Lighter, more energetic and less sluggish especially in the afternoons. In the end, with a strict diet of vegetables and rice (I can be quite disciplined if I need to) and the sinseh’s powdered medicine taken religiously every four hours, I got better and my cough disappeared.
During that time, I found that Penang is a vegetarian’s paradise. This little island has some of the better, if not best vegetarian restaurants all around.
One of my favourites is For You Yen in Dato Kramat (near the Clark Hatch Gym). You can order ala-carte or you can take the economy-rice style pickings with some 25 different types of vegetarian offerings each day! This place is very popular during the 1st and 15th of the Chinese lunar calendar and many people come to take-away or ‘tar-pau’. Parking here can be a headache though. But prices are reasonable.
The next place nearest to where I stay is probably Than Hsiang Temple, near the Snake Temple on the way to Bayan Lepas/airport. The food here is pretty delicious and they even do full vegetarian 8-course wedding dinners too. Their 8-course dinners are replete with vegetarian sharks’ fin soup and mock prawns/fish/meat. The last time I went, the temple had a separate section which served only organic vegetables. Popular with the factory crowd at lunch because of ample parking and a quiet environment.
Of course in downtown Georgetown you can find lots of good vegetarian stalls and restaurants. It’s just that I have yet to explore them fully! Do recommend some to me if you know if any good ones.

Redbox Goes Redbox

Lisa and I didn’t plan it – it was just a spur of the moment idea. Like all ideas for fun, I was thinking of doing something different this Raya holiday. And vegetating in front of the TV watching old P.Ramlee movies just didn’t sound like much fun although I love those old black-and-white movies (funnier than those awful Scenario movies any day!).
We decided to head for Redbox at Gurney Plaza to sing our hearts’ out last night. For me, this was quite funny because here we were (Nic and I) of Redbox Studio going with Lisa to Red Box Karaoke! Definitely something to remember! (I say this because lots of people mistake us for Red Box the Karaoke. It’s not even funny anymore. But we do get a kick out of explaining that we registered the name Redbox Studio back in 1998 way before this Hong Kong business came to Malaysia.)
Lisa had booked a room yesterday morning so it was just a matter of getting the two perky, Hongkie-like reception girls to confirm our booking and send us along to Singing Haven (actually, it was Room 58). We decided it was going to be a splurge and took the dinner buffet package at RM42++ per person. (In the end, with titbits which you must order, the whole night of karaoke-ing cost us each RM58.)
(As an aside, what is it with Red Box and the Canto-speaking staff? I’m Cantonese too but I would have thought their staff would at least speak Hokkien – this is Penang, not Tsim Tsar Tsui – or Mandarin. But no, they TOOK every opportunity to speak Cantonese! Probably they were trained to do so, Nic says.Still, it was disturbing to hear Cantonese spoken with such mad enthusiasm!)
And so Lisa and I began our 4-hour Happy Hour singing marathon. Oh, the songs we chose were so reminiscent of our upbringing and eras! Tellingly, we chose songs which we liked, but that didn’t mean we sang them well! Lisa loved Barry Manilow so she started off with a few Manilow songs while I chose songs which reminded me of growing up in the 70s and 80s. We enthusiastically did Ricky Martin’s Ale ale ale World Cup song and we sang Copacobana with wild abandon. We tried a few golden oldies – those sad love songs which bordered on soppiness but we couldn’t care less. It was our Happy Hour, it was our room for the night and we were there to de-stress!
Nic was happily having his extended dinner from the buffet line and commenting that the food was actually delicious despite being a bit over-salty. The buffet wasn’t exceptionally large but offered a range of salads, rice, noodles, cakes, ice cream to herbal soups! I don’t want to speculate if their chinese herbal soup has much ajinomoto but it sure was piping hot and great to soothe parched throats after singing!
What I didn’t like was the titbits charges – RM7 per person for some pathetic murukku and chips. What I didn’t like was that their staff kept barging into our room and this happened about 4-5 times for one reason or another. They came in to clear our plates, they came in to ask if we wanted to apply for the Red Box member card, they came in to give us the application form etc. Couldn’t these be done at the front desk later? Don’t spoil the mood, man!
At the end of the 4-hours, we still hadn’t had enough of singing. Lisa tried to end the session with a few firm favourites (“Oh you must do Celine Dion’s My Heart Must Go on, it’s absolutely must!”) and we tried some Malay numbers too. I wanted Peterpan’s songs but couldn’t find them in time. We did manage to sing Hijau, Lagenda, Sinaran and Ikhlas Tapi Jauh though. Damn I feel old. We did manage to do Hoobastank’s The Reason and Avril’s Complicated, both angst-ridding songs which is so superb for yelling one’s lungs out. OK, that put me back firmly as a child of this era.
And yes, we did Abba’s Dancing Queen too.

In the Spirit of Diwali…

In the spirit of the upcoming Deepavali or Diwali, whichever way you want to call it, I am doing a food post. Yes, after a long time of serious posts, why not something more in the spirit of feasting?
Knowing me, I would have a number of these foodie posts on my blog. It’s just plain old laziness which prevents me from showing them all to you.
But today, today is different. Today I just want to steer away from those serious topics and be crazy over food.
If you know me or read my blog often, Sri Ananda Bhawan of Little India, Penang, is a favourite hangout for me and my pals. We go there for lunch, dinner and most of the time, supper (although the place closes at 11pm). A trip to Ananda Bhawan is never expensive – they are one of the most reasonable banana leaf restaurants around. My favourite orders are the thosai, the banana leaf rice set (of course!) and the curries (the chicken and mutton varuval are a must-try. Forget the fish curry. Not spectacular at all). The Punjab Chicken is fiery on the tongue but worth all the water you gulp. Nic’s favourite way to end his meal there is to sip a glass of rasam. It’s something like wasabi – one sip of the rasam and your sinuses clear immediately!
About two doors away from the corner Sri Ananda Bhawan is Kaliamman’s. It’s in a class of its own because it offers similar items like its competitor but with higher prices. It’s quieter than Bhawan’s (which can be quite noisy at lunch and dinner). Good if you want to entertain clients and want some form of peace and quiet. They serve Western dishes too if you’re not into the Indian food mood. Try their kulfi and gulab jamun if you like very sweet desserts. Otherwise, stay with the curries. I recommend the palak paneer which is lovely and creamy and very much comfort food!
Innira’s in Brown Garden, Gelugur, is an institution with USM students. Parking is hell in that area but somehow people manage to squeeze their vehicles on some part of the road, leave them there and go to Innira’s. Innira’s serves banana leaf rice and the food’s a bit on the salty side. Lunch and dinner times are usually crowded so go early. You may be put off by some wait staff there (don’t let that spoil your mood for food). Sometimes their business is so good that you can be kept waiting. Try their crispy fried fish or the curry chicken.
If you have issues with coming all the way to Gelugur for banana leaf rice, you can try their outlet in town called Passions of Kerala, located at Jalan Chow Thye, off Macalister Road. Same family running the outlet. Lots of Caucasians frequent that place but the curries are still good and spicy! (Recommended dish – fried sliced bittergourd)
Jaya Restaurant (one along the main road on Gelugur and the other fronting Penang Road, opposite Cititel) is one place which I recently got to know. Anne had told me some horror tales about cockroaches but I’m not afraid of these bugs if I can tahan the rats as large as cats which I have seen at some nasi kandar places in Penang. The Jaya Restaurant on Penang Road serves up a mean tandoori chicken – piping hot, tender, juicy and spicy. I’ve never been a fan of tandoori chicken because at most places the chicken is tough. Jaya’s chapatis are wonderful too for supper. And their dhal curry is superb with chapatis.
One more place before I end. Spice and Rice at Green Hall, near The Actors Studio, is one classy place to go for Indian food. Of course, classy means the regular dishes cost more than usual (a friend sniffs that Spice and Rice charged her for sambar which is atrocious – how can sambar or dhall curry be chargeable, she asks). I had tea there once but I have heard from other friends that it is a lovely place to dine at night. They even have jazz music live or was it piano music? Whatever it is, this is one place you’d never be embarrassed to be seen at. Classy and elegant. The lawyers who own the restaurant have done up the old building just right.
Now that I’ve got your tums growling madly, pray… have you any good Indian eateries to share? Tell me, please do!
* I just realised I forgot to mention Annalakshmi at the Temple of Fine Arts (TFA), Jalan Babington. Annalakshmi serves vegetarian food for both lunch and dinner and yes, the food is scrumptious! Cooked and served by TFA volunteers. Located in a quiet neighbourhood, Annalakshmi is popular with both lunch and dinner crowds. I feel lunch is a better time to go as it is buffet style and you pay what you think your lunch is worth, donation-style. Dinner is ala-carte and you order from a menu but I have had a bad experience going there once for dinner. However, that said, I would still encourage you to try out its lunch buffet.

Kopi O Khau and Amina Wadud

I hadn’t really planned on going for it – my Friday was already hectic enough as it was. I had rushed downtown to attend our monthly WomenBizSENSE meeting at Jo’s shop and it had truly been an exhausting day. When that meeting was over and done with, I was up and running again – this time, going over to a client’s place to get some photos from her photo collection and confirming details of the website project we were doing for her.
Plus it was so hazy last Friday.
And on going home, I was stuck in the Scotland Road traffic jam. That jam happens every evening like clockwork. And I had to run to my Grandma’s place to pick up a very important fax.
ANYWAY… when Jana called me that evening, I was tired. I needed a shower. I needed to be still for a while, to really catch my breath.
But Jana being Jana, her enthusiasm was infectious. I told her if it was too arty-farty I’d leave. “No, it’s really good,” she gushed. So OK, I told Nic we were going for the FFF (Freedom Film Festival) that night. Even though I though having mooncakes and tea was truly what I needed. Yes, it was Mooncake Festival Night. It was the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. The first time I was not savoring mooncakes on the 15th of the 8th lunar month. How strange!
The three-day film festival at The Actors Studio Greenhall started on that Friday morning and short films by amateur filmmakers were shown throughout the day. After an hour of screening, the audience would be given the chance to debate and deconstruct the films. Sometimes the film-makers themselves would turn up and moderate the discussions.
Of course the topics and short films were controversial, eye-opening and alternative. I had the good fortune to sit in on Friday night’s films and Sunday afternoon’s films. Both days, the films were equally provocative although most times we being Malaysians, we tended to discuss politely and never went beyond our sense of self-propriety!
Yet, the films gave me an insight on matters which I had never paid attention to. For instance, Andrew Sia’s Kopi O Khau Sikit Kurang Manis talked about the police. Or rather, who’s going to police the police. He did it in a tongue-in-cheek style, with hip-hop music but it didn’t detract from the serious message – the worry over rising crime, where’s our police, who is going to jaga the police. Also, perennial Malaysian issues of corruption – what should we do about it? Do we shaddap and just give duit kopi or do we play good citizen and ask for a summon, only to be slapped in the face when there is a Malaysia Megasale Police Discount on Summons (instead of RM150, you just pay RM30).
Another interesting and extremely powerful film was Elli Safari’s film – Portrait of Amina Wadud. Amina Wadud is an African American Muslim woman who brought the issues of women’s rights into the masjid. She made news when she led a mixed gender congregation in New York in 2005. As a result of her action, and her constant questioning of the male exclusivity within the religion, she has been somewhat of a cause celebre plus the target of death threats and violence.
The film, all of 29 minutes, shows Amina Wadud (Professor actually) as a woman, a human being, a professor and a Muslim. It explained why she believes that women, just like men, should be able to lead a prayer congregration. But this film packed a mean punch in the last 30 seconds before it ended. When it did, all of us started clapping. It was a damn powerful last line. Like a tornado, it hit one straight between the eyes and to understand, one had to link the whole film, her words and action back to this one simple sentence she says at the end. If you can, do view this film.
Of course there were many other memorable films too like Said Zahari’s 17 Years by Martyn See and Medium of Love by Elli Safari. I had never heard of Said Zahari before this yet the interview with this 78-year old Malay man, a Singaporean citizen, shed light on ISA and Lee Kuan Yew. Said is a political prisoner who was jailed for 17 years without trial. He is now freed but resides in Malaysia.
Elli Safari has now made me a fan of hers (I hope it is a her!) through Medium of Love which is one Iranian clergy’s attempt to teach religion using cinema and films. Ali Afsahi’s poignant recount of his love for films and his new and almost radical way of disseminating and teaching religious values came to nothing because the Government started accusing him of spreading Western smut. And so it is with gatekeepers.
KOMAS (http://www.komas.org) is the organiser of this FFF and they’ve done a fantastic job in bringing thought-provoking films on gender equality, women’s rights, workers’ rights, issues of refugees, people and culture and lots more to joe public. I heard that they will be compiling a DVD of the films soon. Get a copy from KOMAS if you can.
Find out more about the FFF at http://freedomfilmfest.komas.org/Archive.html
(Unfortunately ,the screenings are over but I do hope they’ll bring the FFF to other cities in Malaysia. Worth the donation you give!)