Stuffing myself yet again

I can’t believe that I’d never heard of Plate Culture until last week.

And now that I’ve become a devotee, I can’t believe that it only exists in SE Asia – it’s such a fantastic idea.

At the risk of being accused of epicurean evangelism, let me try to convert you.

If you’re lucky enough to live in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore or the  Philippines, you can go to a dinner party and enjoy a meal cooked by a real foodie, but without any of the stress of having to reciprocate … you simply pay for the dinner and then go home afterwards, leaving your host with all the washing up.

It’s described on wikipedia as ‘airbnb for food’; hosts list their offerings, and guests book up and pay via the website.

Eight of us went to Ken’s flat for an authentic Peranakan dinner.  He used recipes that came from his great-grandmother, who was 102 when she died in 1979, so it must be very healthy food.

I’ve become really interested in the Peranakan culture since I arrived in Malaysia. It used to be called Straits Chinese and is mainly found in Malacca and Penang, so I was delighted to find someone with authentic Peranakan roots and recipes here in KL.

Ken is a university lecturer who loves cooking and sharing his heritage on his days off.

The write up sounded fab:

We had a fantastic meal, took our own wine, and listened to all Ken’s stories about his family and food

and the cost of the evening was £13.24 a head.

With a bit of forward planning, I should easily be able to stick to my resolution to avoid cooking for the whole of my stay in Malaysia; whilst at the same time supporting the local economy, keeping traditions alive and fostering intercultural relations … I’m beginning to feel like a bit of a hero.

 

On the yoga trail

One thing I love about living in a big city is that there’s so much going on and so much choice; whether it’s restaurants, bars, hip coffee shops, music venues, karaoke bars, exercise classes … just scroll through the options and you’ll find one that’s just perfect for you.

Having spent the past ten years in a tiny, provincial town where I was lucky to find one yoga class, I was very excited to find that in KL there are hundreds classes, and you can practise every type of yoga you’ve ever dreamed of – or had nightmares about, depending on your perspective.

I found a studio within walking distance and signed up for the Newbie Special, which allows you to take as many classes as you want to for the first week, so I decided to get my money’s worth:

Class number 1 – Vinyasa

This involved a lot of complicated sequences of movements, and I was at a distinct disadvantage because the girl next to me appeared to be made entirely of India rubber, and was twisting herself into the most outrageous shapes, so there was no way I could follow her.

Plus I was distracted because I’d seen a cockroach disappearing into a hole in the cloakroom just before the lesson started, so I kept peering around anxiously, hoping that it wasn’t about to emerge from the woodwork and make a beeline for the top of my t-shirt – which was what my previous cockroach had done.

I did enjoy climbing backwards up the wall though, despite a bit of an issue with free-range cleavage, which this man obviously didn’t suffer from –

– no wonder he found it so much easier than I did.

Class number 2 – Ashtanga with the lovely Valerie

If Madonna can do it, I thought, then so can I.  But I think the lovely Valerie was rather disheartened by the end.  She took to adding ‘even if you can only …’ to the end of every instruction, and I knew this was directed at me.

We started with the lotus position

which wasn’t the pose in itself – it was just the beginning as we worked towards something even more challenging.

‘Even if you can only manage the half lotus that would be good,’ she said, hopefully.

Wanting to please her, I grabbed my foot and forced it onto my leg, gritting my teeth.  But my knee wouldn’t lie flat like smarmy Miss Yoga’s does in the picture here –

mine was sticking right up in the air, with the bottom leg objecting furiously and trying to straighten itself by twitching wildly, while I tried to balance and pretend that everything was fine.

‘Now touch your forehead to the floor,’ said Valerie.

You have got to be joking, I thought.  The only way my forehead was going to touch the floor would be if I passed out.

‘Even if you can only move an inch that would be good,’ she added, looking at me.

Cunningly, I moved my arms backwards, hoping to make it look as though I was bending forwards, but it just made me look like a desperate, dyspraxic spider.

Class number 3 – Restorative

I felt much in need of something restorative after the Ashtanga, so trotted along yesterday morning at 8 am to see Dr Birgit.

Restorative yoga involved a lot of breathing, while Birgit chanted ‘vun, two, vun two, vun two …’ and invited us to look at the white light in the chakra in between our eyes.  I couldn’t quite manage that bit, but I did manage to breathe, thankfully.

Birgit was very thorough and pulled me into the right position several times, and tutted at my downward dog.  But when I toppled sideways off my mat onto the floor during a failed attempt at pigeon pose

and then got a fit of the giggles, I could tell that I’d disappointed her.

Class number 4 – Hatha

This morning’s Hatha teacher had big glasses, and because the light was behind her, I couldn’t see who she was looking at when she was talking … and it was usually me.  So she had to keep repeating herself, and quite clearly thought that I was half-witted as well as inflexible.

She also had a strong accent which I found difficult to understand and  I was sure that she’d said ‘now work your pancake’ at one stage during the class.

Then, towards the end, I thought she said ‘press your vagina into the mat’.

At this point I was reminded of a class I took in Cambodia with a heavily accented instructor who I thought had said ‘and now massage your vagina’.  I glanced surreptitiously at my neighbours, neither of whom moved a muscle, so I didn’t either.  I asked about it afterwards and they explained that I hadn’t misheard, you just massage it mentally … phew.

Assuming that this was a similar instruction, to be done mentally, I ignored it.  But then she repeated ‘Louise, press your vagina into the mat’, got up and pulled my shoulders back and pushed my pelvis down.

‘There – this is how we do cobra – can you feel it?’

I certainly could.

My only quandary now is which classes to sign up for permanently, and which instructors are going to have the thrill of seeing me turn up to their class every week.

 

In which I devise an ingenious plan …

Is there anything more rewarding in this life than teaching three-year-olds?  Watching little eyes open in wonder?  Seeing young minds flourish and blossom?

Yes, is the resounding answer to that question … a long list of things actually, starting with herding cats, and ending with painting the Forth Road Bridge or pushing a boulder endlessly up a hill as a punishment from the gods.

I have one class of three-year-olds a week, and frankly it’s one class too many. After spending nearly four months in their company, I have come to realise that there are several inherent design flaws in the construction of three-year-olds and they really need fixing:

Firstly – there is the vast gulf between their actual ability and their perception of their ability

‘Can you write your name?’ I asked one small girl during her first lesson.

‘Yes,’ she replied, confidently, and then produced something which looked more like an electrocardiogram.

 

 

So we moved on to writing the letter A.

 

 

In this picture you can see a couple of beautiful green As that I drew on the board.  The surrounding squiggles are their copies – upside down, stepladdered, or just random lines – but they were delighted with their efforts and thought that they looked just like mine … or possibly better.

Likewise their cut-and-stick copy of Inky the Inchworm, which they made whilst looking carefully at the original, which was on the table to help them.

 

 

They managed create Inky’s identical twin …

 

 

… presumably after a tragic accident with a lawnmower.

 

Secondly – they have a woefully short concentration span.  This afternoon, in the middle of singing a song, they all suddenly and inexplicably disappeared under a table.

 

 

Thinking I could lure them out, I picked up a story book,

‘Who wants to come and see the colour of the birthday cake in this picture?’ I called enticingly.

‘Nobody!’ came the answering shout from under the table.

So I sat and looked at the cake by myself … and it was pink, in case you were wondering.

Thirdly – they tell you things that you’d really rather not know, like ‘I have stomach ache, but my poo won’t come out.’

I have no idea what I’m supposed to say in response to this sort of revelation, or indeed any orifice-related revelation – and I’ve had a few.  So I generally make do with a half smile and an understanding nod of the head, before moving smartly out of the danger zone.

And fourthly – there is a magnetic attraction between three-year-olds and climbing frames.

 

 

So much so that they can’t pass one without being drawn towards it at high speed. Ferrets hurtling up drainpipes could pick up a few tips from three-year-olds swarming up the nearest climbing frame.

I’m so sick of prising them off multiple times per lesson, that I have devised a fiendish plan … to grease the top rungs.  Then next time they give me a defiant look out of the corner of their eye as they race towards it, I will be able to smile calmly and wait for them to reach the top, ping off and slither to the ground.  Then I will simply round them up and herd them back to the classroom.

In the meantime, whilst I wait for my Amazon delivery of two kilos of Extra-Slippery Bear Grease, if anyone knows of any quick fixes or updates that I can apply to reconfigure these mini-menaces, please let me know.

 

 

Just popping down to the jungle stall

Did you know that every market in Malaysia has at least one jungle stall?

No – neither did I – until yesterday, when I went on a cookery course which began with a trip to the market.

The market is literally within spitting distance – and I can’t spit very far – of the school where I work, so I will be popping in regularly from now on to sample all the jungle produce.

These are pandan leaves

which are a very common flavouring and colouring in Malaysia, but are also used to keep cockroaches away … so I will be ordering a regular bulk supply.

This is called Pegaga or centella asiatica

and is apparently good for warding off dementia, as well as being delicious in a salad – so what’s not to like, for we over fifties?

And fiddlehead ferns look really pretty and make an excellent side dish cooked in coconut.

They contain antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids, but if you eat too much of them, you could get beri-beri, cancer or be poisoned by an as yet undefined toxin, depending on which variety you pig out on (note to self – caution advised).

This is not a lump of coal – it’s a century duck egg

an essential ingredient in my latest favourite food – salted egg yolk crab/prawns/chicken/croissant/cronut/cruffin etc. etc.

As if fresh durian didn’t smell bad enough, they also sell fermented durian –

– the facial expression here says it all.

The course itself was in a lovely old house in one of the peaceful villages that are dotted around in the jungle areas surrounding the city.

There’s no air con, but a traditional ice shaving machine makes cold drinks and desserts to cool you off.

There is so much pounding involved in cooking here that Malay women must have biceps to rival Amazon warriors –

but I did like the way that the drying pestles and mortars are used to create an installation.

We made fish parcels in banana leaves which was my favourite of the dishes –

The panda sticker on my shoulder is an ingenious mosquito repellent.

Then we pounded yet again to create a chicken curry and fiendishly complicated lacy pancakes, which Hani our instructor made so beautifully –

whereas mine were more blobby than lacy

but they tasted OK.

I will definitely be coming on another course here – if only to keep my biceps beautifully toned and to learn more about the miraculous properties of jungle produce.

 

I have a new pet

I’ve been worrying a bit lately about leaving Mr Toad on his own for so long, while I’m at work.  I think he’s lonely, and he spends far too much time watching trashy TV –

 

So when I saw the advertisement, I just couldn’t resist …

 

 

And so far it seems to be a success; Mr Toad and Dave the Date have really bonded and love spending time together –

 

 

And I have discovered that a date really is the perfect pet.  They don’t need walking, grooming or feeding, and if they should happen to suffer an unfortunate accident …

 

 

Then Dave the Second (Third, Fourth, Fifth etc …) is there in the fridge ready to step up and take his place

 

And, just like a child with a replacement goldfish, Mr Toad is none the wiser.

The Crab Crew go to Crab Island

I suppose it was inevitable – like junkies drawn irresistibly to Amsterdam – that the Crab Crew would end up on Crab Island, or Pulau Ketam as it’s called in Bahasa.

Mr Tan, the man with a van, picked us up and took us to the port for a rather blustery ride across the Straits of Malacca, through the mangroves

and past fishing villages on stilts.

When we got to the island we headed straight for the restaurant, where the decor reminded me vividly of Cromer –

And then, finally, we were able to get down and dirty with some very sticky sauces and sumptuous seafood

A new dish for me was fresh oyster omelette – made at a roadside stall next to the resaurant –

There was much fun to be had afterwards on the fitness equipment

and posing in front of the local street art

When all of a sudden the artist’s muse himself arrived, and recreated his pose –

albeit looking reassuringly less like Frankenstein’s monster in the flesh.

After more photo opportunities on the way home, I have just one question to ask:  why is it that when I’m behind the camera, everyone looks like a normal human being –

But as soon as I’m in front of the lens –

the wind whips up and obscures me from view?

It’s either a tribute to my photographic skills, or the gods of photogenicity are conspiring against me … and I’m tending towards the latter.

 

Gin, fags and karaoke … a typical night out in KL

Have had my first experience of karaoke Asian-style, and I think I’m hooked.

Here in Malaysia everyone sits around the edges of the booth, looking at the screen and singing along – a choral performance rather than a solo, with several microphones in every booth.  So, as long as someone knows the tune, you’re in with a chance of being able to warble along too.

With as much or as little drama as you like –

The gin and fags took me back to my student days …

… when smoking bans hadn’t been invented, and the economy of scale mentality kicked in whenever you were given the choice between a single measure of spirits or a whole bottle.  Of course, a bottle is sooo much cheaper in the long run  … well, it is if you’re planning to have 40 shots over the course of the evening.

I did a bit of booth stalking while I was there, and the place is enormous – at least fifty booths filled with couples, families with kids, birthday parties, rowdy groups of drunken teachers … everyone singing lustily in their soundproof boxes.

After a quick look at the website –

I found that you can even pop in during your lunch-break for less than £1 an hour.

Now that the physical and psychological benefits of group singing are being extolled by all and sundry, I think that employers should be required to organise a weekly sing-along lunch-hour for all staff – compulsory attendance required.

You’d have to bring your own instruments, obviously.

 

What’s in a name?

Hopefully not too much … as this was the name plaque on my door at Parents’ Meeting this weekend –

 

At the other end of the name spectrum – I now have my own meme, which makes me feel totes ahead of the curve .  I arrived at school on Wednesday to find it stuck on the inside of my locker door –

 

Me and Leo – yay!  But I soon found myself fretting …  does this really capture my essence? Can you discern my je ne sais quoi – even with a ridiculous hat on?

Time to get a grip, I realised – essence or no essence, Hardon for Bardon inside my locker is a hell of a lot better than Mr Lousie B on my classroom door.

But it’s not just the Barden name that’s been up for laughs this week; there are some names over here that still make me smile, no matter how often I hear them.

For example, my new dentist is straight out of happy families … Dr Chew.

Then at school there’s Jo Kin, which gives us teachers the opportunity for all sorts of banter:

‘You must be Jo Kin?’

‘No, I’m not Jo kin.’

‘I hope you’re Jo Kin.’

etc etc

And how about Kang Foo?

Then the very talkative girl in one of my classes, who’s called Yap.

And my current favourite … Amberlyn.  If there was ever a name crying out for a meme, then this is it –

 

I hope you’re impressed by my newfound skill – my life has taken on a new meme-ing.

 

 

 

Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about leeches

I went on a guided forest hike today, and before we set out the guide gathered us together for the briefing, which included instructions on dealing with leeches.

‘Rule number one,’ he said sternly, ‘is don’t become hysterical.’

A mere five minutes later we had all forgotten this instruction, and there was general hysteria from the crowd, and more focused hysteria from Sarah, the first person to find a leech attached to her.

Luckily (for the rest of us) this gave the guide the opportunity to show us how to roll the leech round and round with your fingers to detach it.  But once you’ve detached it you have to flick it away very quickly or it attaches to your finger and starts bloodsucking again immediately, and you have to repeat the whole process.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by the clinginess of the leech, as I’ve been using that metaphor for years – but obviously without really thinking about the creature itself.  I expect I’d be equally surprised if I saw a couple of rats having a race, or a kangaroo dispensing justice; the expressions have become detached in my mind from the creatures in question.

Anyway – the whole point of this walk was not to learn how to deal with leeches, but to hike through the forest to the canopy walkway and then walk across wobbling planks suspended between trees, 30 metres up in the air.

It was frankly terrifying, and I’m very glad that I didn’t find out until afterwards that it’s closing permanently on 30th June, because it’s so old and dilapidated.  Not quite as decrepit as the ones that the likes of Indiana Jones run across to escape marauding natives or runaway boulders, but more ramshackle than anything you’d be allowed to tackle in England without a hard hat, ropes and a signed disclaimer.

I managed to get across, chanting to myself ‘I can do this, I can do this’ – and even cracked a feeble smile for a photo.

As you can see here, some of the planks are coming apart – I just hope they last until 30 June.

Then, when I got down, as if that wasn’t enough excitement for one day, I had to remove a leech, that has left a hole in my foot.

But it’s a compliment according to our guide – they only drink good quality blood – so leech marks are a sign of health.  Well, I believed him …

 

 

 

Crustacean Fixation

Is this a recognised obsession, or am I the only sufferer?

It’s only really surfaced since my arrival in Malaysia.  I spent the previous decade living a mere 10 miles from the home of the Cromer Crab without developing any symptoms at all … apart from a totally understandable urge to snigger at the crab-shaped lights decorating the Cromer seafront.  But after three months here, I’ve developed a full-blown mania.

It all started on a trip to the seaside, where I first tried salted egg yolk prawns –

– and they were so delicious that I found myself sucking the empty shells after all the prawns had been eaten.  Only my own shells, I hasten to add – although that was in the early days of my infatuation, so God knows what lengths I mightn’t go to now, if I found myself in the same prawn-deprived situation.

Then I was told that the home of salted egg yolk seafood is Penang – and the salted egg yolk crab is the dish to go for – so I had to go and try it –

and I was hooked.

The wonderful thing about crabs in Asia is that they are served hot and white; no prissy ‘dressed crab’ here – which I always think is an excuse for putting just one measly spoonful of crab meat onto a pile of brown sludge that tastes like ptomaine poisoning in a shell.

And it’s not just the crabs in Penang that are wonderful – the prawns are pretty amazing too – and you can choose the ones that take your fancy –

– this one was about the size of my forearm.

And then last month in Singapore, at the Hillman Restaurant, I lost my inhibitions.

Chilli crab is the dish to eat in Singapore – and their food website tells us:

“The king of all crab dishes, this popular dish is served with the shell on, and is typically eaten with one’s hands. Make sure you have plenty of napkins handy – it’s messy work!″

… and it certainly was.  This was my chilli crab when it arrived –

and this is what the table looked like after I’d finished –

I was the floor show for the evening – the staff kept popping out of the kitchen to stare at me, as chilli sauce dripped off my elbows and I wiped it off my nose with the tablecloth, but I didn’t care.

Last week my infatuation moved to another level at Restoran New Wong Poh, where we had chilli crab, salted egg crab, plus my new favourite – butter crab.

You even get your own hammer –

so you can splatter your friends with chilli sauce

or you can just cover yourself if you prefer –

We’re now forming the Tuesday Night Crab Club, so I’ll be able to indulge my passion on a regular basis.  If I can find similar enthusiasts for a Prawn Thursday and a Clam Saturday, then my happiness will be complete.

 

 

 

Mr Toad becomes a luvvie

We’ve just had Dress Up As Your Favourite Book Character Weekend at school, and we all took it extremely seriously.

I had my Professor McGonagall costume imported from England (thank you, Anthony) and then spent hours in front of the mirror working on my role.

The stance was very important –

But the facial expressions even more so …

… think I’ve got Dame Maggie to a tee now.

Cleopatra spent hours on her make up –

And our genuine luvvie – the drama teacher – got into role as Count Olaf every morning –

While our esteemed deputy-head added all his Frankenstein’s Monster stitches painstakingly, one by one, every day –

What a bunch of dedicated professionals –

Mr Toad, ever the narcissist, was keen to play himself, but I managed to persuade him to play Trevor the Toad from Harry Potter instead, which he did grudgingly.

And at the risk of sounding a little like Mr Toad myself, my photo on the school Facebook page has ‘nearly gone viral’ according to the Headmistress

MyMMy

My only worry now is what to do for the next book weekend in October.  If I don’t decide soon, I won’t have time to perfect my character.  Any ideas for a suitable battleaxe that I could play?  If so please let me know asap.

Cockroach in a coma

 

What do you do when you suddenly realise that a cockroach the size of a fist has materialised from the cloth you’re carrying and is crawling across your decolletage?

Well, if you’re anything like me, you scream, drop the cloth and jump around like a demented dervish until the creature flaps its wings – yes, these huge, tropical ones can fly too – and heads for the floor.

It scuttled around looking for somewhere to hide and finally settled on the dark corner under the bathroom cupboards

I watched from a safe distance as it backed into the corner and hunkered down, obviously planning on a long stay.

Well, it’s him or me, I thought, and I pay rent and he doesn’t.  So I grabbed a glass for stage one of my cockroach elimination plan.

Edging gingerly forwards, I tried to put the glass over the huge twitching creature, but it suddenly rushed sideways and I shrieked and leapt backwards.  This lunging, shrieking and retreating went on for some time, like a strange crouching version of the hokey-cokey, until I finally managed to corner it and slam the glass down quickly before it rushed up my arm and gave me full-blown palpitations.

It whirled round and round inside the glass, making the most horrible rasping noises, while I dashed off to consult Google on the best way to kill a cockroach.

I discovered that it’s actually very hard to kill a cockroach – they can even live for a week without their head – and stamping on them is a very bad idea, as cockroaches like nothing better than feasting on their dead relatives.  So the smell of a roach that’s been splattered across your kitchen floor will have them flocking to your door from miles around.

But then I found an article suggesting that the best way to get rid of a cockroach is to put it in a coma.  You get some soap and water and shake them together in a bottle and then squirt the soapy water onto the vile beast.  This blocks its airways and puts it in a coma, and you get rid of it before it comes round.

I tried it, and it worked! And my comatose cockroach has now gone to convalesce in a bin bag a very long way away.

I feel rather proud that I’ve added to my skill set, but this evening, whenever the fan makes my papers move and rustle, I jump and look nervously around.

Hurrah for the Rotating King!

Today is yet another holiday in Malaysia … I think they have more public holidays than any other country in the world.

Today’s holiday is in honour of the Installation of the Rotating King.  I’m just hoping he can stand still long enough for them to put the crown on his head.

The installation of Sultan Muhammad V as the 15th Yang di-Pertuan Agong takes place at the National Palace today.

I’m not sure if Malaysia’s the only country with a consititutional monarchy which elects its head of state, but I’ve never come across one before.

Nine of the Malay states have a hereditary Royal Family, and the Royalty all vote for a new head of state from amongst the nine every five years.

I started thinking about what it would be like if we had the same system in England, imagining Prince Charles on the hustings promising free organic produce and a return to Palladian architecture, and William and Kate appealing to the yummy mummies with Montessori nurseries for everyone and compulsory smocking on all children’s clothing.

Anyway, I didn’t want to spend my whole day musing about revolving monarchs, so I went to a daytime Pilates class, with a very friendly group of Pilates experts.  They made up for being so much better than me at all the exercises by inviting me to their post-Pilates brunch at the local Mamuk (Indian Muslim Malay restaurant) and explaining all the dishes to me.

Nasi goreng, Mee goreng, Rojan (hot salad with peanut dressing) and coconuts … delicous.

I know now that nasi is rice, mee is noodles, and rojan means a mixture of things. My Bahasa is obviously improving, but it’s restricted to nouns – so I must sound like the average toddler when I’m trying to communicate.

I’m no purist, but …

… tulips in Singapore?

I’ve always wanted to go to Holland to see the tulips, so it seems ironic that the place I get to see them is in a specially cooled biosphere in Singapore.

But the crowds loved them – and some people dressed up specially for the occasion.

Or tried to have an intimate moment amongst the throng of selfie-takers.

And yes – that is Van Gogh in tulips behind the happy couple.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve always associated him with irises rather than tulips.

And there was also a floral representation of Starry Night –

What next I wondered … Frida Kahlo in cacti? … The Monarch of the Glen in assorted thistles?

 

Singapore Botanic Gardens … so much more than a collection of plants

I have never been to a garden before where every plant was screaming –

‘Take my picture!’

‘No mine!’

‘No mine!’

it has the National Orchid Collection

With little orchids

Medium-sized orchids

And orchids as tall as a house.

And this is as close to a selfie as I’ll ever get

Me in the orchid mirror tunnel.

There’s even a celebrity section where they’ve named new varietals after visiting celebs.

This one was my favourite

 

But this one wasn’t bad either –

 

It’s not blue … but you can’t have everything, I suppose.

But it’s not just about the plants – it’s such a beautiful place that it’s ideal for –

A tai chi lesson

yummy mummy joggers

A mysterious clapping and chanting group

 

Jogging grannies

And dog walkers … obviously offering both the basic and the premium service.

Continue reading Singapore Botanic Gardens … so much more than a collection of plants

A rose by any other name …

I have had my portrait painted …

 

 

… or crayoned to be more precise.  But it’s a very good likeness, and I shall be keeping it on my fridge.

 

And here is the artist, displaying another of her latest works –

 

I am slightly alarmed by the current trend among the children for wearing face masks.  If you’ve ever struggled to understand a non-native speaker whose mouth is unfettered and clearly visible, then multiply that struggle by ten and you’ll have some idea as to how much I can piece together from a stream of muffled incoherence coming from somewhere around my mid-thigh level.  This child was either rhapsodising about how much she’d enjoyed her milkshake and cereal for breakfast, or confessing that she’d pushed her granny down the stairs and then made off with her life savings – I’m not quite sure which.

And it’s not just face masks I have trouble with, it’s names too … big time.  And for someone who has always prided themselves on being good with names, this has come as rather a blow.

The Malay names aren’t too bad – they are at least recognisable as a first name – Nadya, Alecia, Maryam, Danial.  It’s the Chinese names I struggle with, as they look to me like a random set of syllables which I may or may not:

a) pronounce correctly,

b) get in the right order, and

c) remember 30 seconds after they’ve corrected me.

The easiest are the names I can peg to a similar English word – so I have students called Onesie, U.N., Highway, See You, Junior, Lazy (and I’ll gloss over the Japanese boy, Kazuki, who I called Suzuki one day).

Then there’s the issue of which part of the name is the surname, and which is the first name, and how on earth to find that out.  There seems to be no rule for this, as family names can come either at the beginning or the end.    I discovered recently that I’d been calling one small girl by her surname and half of her first name ever since I arrived, and she’d never corrected me.

I asked one child ‘What’s your Christian name?’ and got the entirely reasonable reply, ‘I’m not a Christian.’  So I tried ‘which is your first name?’ and he simply pointed to the one that was written first on the register, obviously wondering how stupid his new teacher was, as she was clearly incapable of reading from left to right.

So I now have a system.  Having conferred with local staff in the office, all first names are highlighted on my register, with phonetic spelling written in too if necessary.  So Xiao Yi is Chow Yee, Heuyie is Hughie and Zhi Suan is Zee Shwen; the children find it highly amusing to see my ‘version’ of their names.

To complicate matters further, some children only have two syllables instead of three, and I’m still not sure whether they’re like Madonna and don’t have a surname, or whether they have a single syllable first name plus surname.  But I do know – thanks to the office staff – that you call them by both parts of the name all the time.

The last problem to crack is the tones in the Chinese names.  Some names are made up of sounds that I either can’t hear or simply can’t say – one girl’s name is a deep growl from somewhere in her diaphragm, and every time I try it she winces and the rest of the class guffaw.  She’s now started saying ‘just point to me if you want me to answer’ – a very sensible solution, albeit somewhat humiliating for me.

 

Local papers – don’t you just love them?

There are two newspapers in KL – The Star and The New Straits Times – and I have become an avid reader whenever I’m sitting in a waiting room with papers available.

As an expat, I think it’s essential to find out what the current hot topics are among the locals –

 

 

and to learn about hazards that might not be immediately obvious to a European like me –

 

 

or, for anyone thinking of starting a pick-your-own coconut farm –

 

 

And it’s not just HGVs that are a danger for cyclists –

 

 

The paper has also given me a bit of a heads-up on what might be coming my way, as I graft away at the chalkface every day –

 

 

Religion features more prominently in Malaysian papers than it does at home. They publish the prayer times, which seem to be like the tide times published in Norfolk, and vary from place to place and from day to day.

 

 

And how about valet prayer services?  I know that Papal indulgences exist, but have yet to see a newspaper story about them.

 

 

Some stories show a side of life that I haven’t yet seen –

 

 

– people digging to find condemned chicken dumped at the tip several days previously … and with temperatures rarely below 30 degrees.

It sometimes seems, with all its shiny skyscrapers, mega shopping malls and huge urban motorways, that Malaysia is a modern, developed country.  But a glance at some of the stories in the paper shows that they still have a way to go –

 

and –

And shades of Romeo and Juliet (1594) …

 

But my absolute favourite headline to date has to be this one –

 

 

And it’s not even about Malaysia.

 

You either love it or you hate it

  1. Did you know that Marmite is very popular in Malaysia?

It’s used in Chinese Malay cooking, where they make  Marmite chicken or even better – Marmite prawns –

 

I’m sure that even Marmite haters would be converted by just one of these luscious little mouthfuls … it’s practically an umami-overdose, if such a thing were possible.

2. Durian polarises people even more than Marmite.  The flavour has been described to me as ‘onion and motor oil custard’, while the smell has something of the sewer about it.

There’s a man who sells durian from a van just down the road –

and people sit on the pavement and eat it –

but you can smell the durian long before you get anywhere near the van.  I’ve walked towards the van several times, determined to buy some and try it, but then the smell hits me and I scuttle away and buy some mangoes instead.

The closest I’ve got to eating durian is in a dessert called cendol, which is a mixture of crushed ice, coconut milk, red beans and green jelly noodles.  There was an option to have it flavoured with durian puree, so I recklessly went ahead and ordered it.

Whilst the flavour wasn’t too bad, the durian puree has a pungent rotting smell, and the putrid aftertaste stays in your mouth for hours.

If I could just get past the smell, maybe I could skip up to the van as happily as the locals and order myself one – although nobody at school would go near me for days afterwards, as your pores apparently exude the smell, and any unfortunate release of gas is equally pervasive.

3.  Birds’ Nest Soup

Having heard so much about the health-giving properties of birds’ nest soup, and how highly prized and therefore hugely expensive it is, I decided to try some in the name of research.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get past the fact that it is saliva … and birds’ saliva at that … formerly solidified birds’ saliva that has now been dissolved in water.

So I will just have to forego any miraculous healing that might have come my way if I’d finished it.

Let’s be honest – it’s all about the food

OK – so Malaysia has beaches and sunshine.  It has history too, and the rainforest/jungle is a walking zoo – but all anyone here is interested in is food.

Malaysians talk about food in much the same way that Brits talk about the weather.  “Have you eaten yet?” is a common morning greeting, which switches to “What did you have for lunch?” in the afternoon.

Street food is huge over here, and there’s so much of it that you wonder how the stallholders sell enough to make a living – especially since every second building in town is a restaurant too.

There’s so much variety here that it’s taken me months to begin to get my head around the various types of cuisine and what all the dishes are.

Char Koay Teow is hugely popular, and is cooked in a wok over such fierce heat that it’s a health and safety hazard.

But punters are prepared to risk a bit of singeing, as they wait patiently in the queue –

It’s a noodle dish with prawns, cockles, beansprouts, chinese sausage and chives – plus whatever the chef’s signature additions are –

– and jolly yummy it is too.

Rice porridge is something I haven’t yet plucked up the courage to try, but this bowlful was eaten by an adventurous colleague

It’s served with Century eggs (the black ones), salted eggs (the white and orange ones) and a raw egg which is just beginning to solidify in the hot porridge.

An alternative to the egg medley is this one –

I haven’t tried this yet either.  Although, as a francophile, frogs don’t faze me in the least (but don’t tell Mr Toad).

But it’s not all street hawkers, there’s posh food too.  Last Friday we went to a Michelin-starred dim sum restaurant, to try their famous xiao long bao – or pork dumplings.

There’s a whole ritual involved with eating the pork dumplings, which are seasoned with vinegar, soy sauce and ginger, and then eaten whole.

Here they are on a plate with some jellyfish salad, which was delicious too.

The whole restaurant was very swanky, but I couldn’t help feeling that the staff looked like the latest Ebola Emergency Response Team, rather than waiters in a restaurant.

 

We had dinner in the jungle last week, which was a fantastic experience.  Who would have known that there’s a patch of virgin jungle on a hillside in KL suburbia?  Not me, even though it’s only a ten-minute drive from the condo.

The restaurant has trees growing up through it and greenery everywhere.

We had a local dessert called sago – pronounced sargoo over here – and nothing like the hot milk pudding served in England.

This one was cold, green and coconutty –

– yep, it looks like frogspawn, but tastes a whole lot better.

And just to prove that we really were there …

Here we are with the lovely Julia, who works with me, and her parents, who have introduced me to a whole range of different restaurants and food styles since I arrived.  So much so, that I may have to invoice them for my new XL-sized wardrobe.

 

In which I discover that David Attenborough is a tad prudish

Penang Hill is 833 metres above sea level, and is reached by a funicular with an ascent which seems almost vertical in places.

The top of the hill is a strange mix of ancient and modern; the man-made world and the natural world clinging together on a hilltop.  If you imagine an English bluebell wood with Mr Blobby’s World jammed right up against it, you’ll get the idea.

After you’ve admired the view –

And wondered what all the instructions for weight lifters could possibly mean –

You can visit the tunnel of lurve –

where you can have your photo taken inside a heart-shaped arch – choosing the most appropriately titled one for your circumstances.

I looked for the heart labelled ‘Gin’, or even ‘Sauvignon Blanc’, but as I couldn’t find either I declined a photo.

Another photo opportunity is the padlocks of lurve.

Presumably inspired by by the Pont des Arts in Paris, you can attach a heart-shaped padlock to the railings and then take a photo.  But unlike in Paris, it doesn’t seem to be restricted to couples here.

And perhaps it can also mean ‘I’m looking for lurve’ …

And if all this is just too subtle for you, you can always opt for the lurve installation –

just to make sure you hammer your message home.

But for me – not being a lurve-seeker – the most interesting thing on the hill was the rainforest.

It’s partly equatorial and partly tropical rainforest, and is thought to be 130 million years old.  It has some of the oldest plants known to man – and to dinosaurs –

such as this fern, which is one of the oldest species in the rainforest (can’t remember exactly how many millions of years old it is).

Our guide showed us monkey cups

which collect water inside to lure insects to pop in for a drink.  Then they slam the lid shut and eat them.  Vegetarians please note – plants are hardly the pure, selfless, oxygenating victims they make themselves out to be.

The Amorphophallus Titanium was not in flower when we visited, but our guide showed us pictures.

It only flowers very rarely, which may be a good thing because it smells like a dead rat – which apparently attracts pollinators.

When it’s fully open, the flower is the largest in the world –

… just imagine how a dead rat that size would smell.

The flower is always referred to by its common name of Giant Deformed Penis in Malaysia, and if you look at the bud –

you can see why.

However, the guide told us that when David Attenborough arrived to film the flower for his TV series, he refused to call it the Giant Deformed Penis, and insisted on referring to it as an Arum Lily.

Whoever would have thought that a naturalist would have such a puritanical streak?