the nothing whatever...

Food and Sleep

Sleep is a giant factor in determining the cognitive abilities of your average human being. Without wanting to stereotype, it seems that wherever we have traveled in South East Asia the locals seem to be operating for almost every hour of every day with efficiency and stamina at a level that my laggard mind would be incapable of. But you know that they sleep, because you see them do it; balancing on a motorbike with its “for hire” sign blocking the sunlight, upside-down in the back of a tuk-tuk with legs dangling out over the edge to show it is manned, even on the chains connecting the small cement poles that act as a metaphorical barrier for any garden or park, an inch-wide linked steel hammock that I would imagine to be beyond uncomfortable and bordering on torturous. But they do it, and unfortunately it seems like it affects their idea of the mandatory minimum requirements for us simple Westerners to do it too.

Malaysia is the first country, however, that we have gone place to place and found that no matter where we go, we can’t sleep. Their currency is a bit stronger, which I guess technically means our equivalent expenditure in the other countries bought something that was not quite the bottom of the barrel, and allowed for little things like mild soundproofing and carpeted floors. It wasn’t exactly stark silence, but also wasn’t bone-shuddering, tension generating, sleep depriving noise. For some idiotic reason, all the dorm rooms seem to be on the top floors of the places we have stayed in Malaysia, so the thump of people jumping from their bunk to go to the bathroom makes me wake up thinking a plane full of dynamite has just crashed into our room.

Many of you would have heard about Mr Shuffles, the elephant that blast himself to fame a couple of years ago by being born alive in Taronga Zoo after previously being declared dead in the womb (and, incidentally, nearly killed his keeper a few months back). What you may not have heard about is that Malaysia has its own version of Mr Shuffles the elephant, several in fact, all running their budget accommodation stays and all awake until the wee hours of the morning. It’s easy to hear why they have earned their name as they meander past your door at 1am, and several times we have speculated that Mr Shuffles may be equipped with some sort of extra long, extra heavy, extra grippy sandals to get that extra traction and make that extra excruciating noise, but this has only been speculation, as they could just be normal everyday sandals and an extra lazy individual. Besides, with shoes that big and grippy, it may make it difficult for the elephant to transition into his casual earth-shattering stomp when he reaches the floors above, each footstep containing such ferocious power that it makes me question the durability of the surrounding architecture. There are definitely efforts by the hotels to eliminate these sorts of thundering footsteps, like A4 paper signs that, if you get close enough to read the text bubbles, are little cartoons teaching people how to walk properly (right next to the weird signs that say “NO PETS OR DURIANS”, the Durian being a large green stone-fruit that, given consciousness and a sense of morality, would no doubt object to such specifically targeted discrimination). But often, as mentioned, it is not the guests of the hotel who need the lesson.

But, going back to my original point, sleep is a giant factor in determining the cognitive abilities of the average human being, so as I have been lacking in it for quite a while now, forgive me if this blog entry starts digressing on weird tangents or if some parts just seem to fizzle out and die. As writing delves into ones state of mind, it pretty much explains where my head space has been at.

That only accounts for the downtime periods though, when we have a moment to realize how exhausted we actually are. Fortunately, during the day, Penang doesn’t offer many of those. When we told the guys we met in KL that we were to be heading to Penang, all they told us about it was that it is the place to eat until you burst, and now that we are here, I can understand why. Penang has the best of Chinese food, the best of Indian food, the best seafood, and has it all in abundance. We have subsidized our skipping of India by eating Indian in Little India almost every day, whether it be a thali for breakfast or a palak paneer for lunch or a mutton masala for dinner. The atmosphere in Penang’s Little India is something else, a constant soundtrack of bass-heavy Indian tunes blare out of the Bollywood movie stores and makes it all seem frenetically surreal, and the lingering smell of sweet spices hangs in the air wherever you go. For anyone planning to go there I will save you a bit of trouble and tell you that Sri Ananda Bahwan will give you some of the best food for the best price, a table full of excellent Indian dishes costing around $10 AU. The place was jam packed with tables full of polite Indian families, and we seemed to be both the only couple without children and the only Westerners, so it is obviously not just us who thought it was quality and value for money.

The rest of the meals have been various Chinese and Malay dishes from street vendors, food stalls and restaurants. There is a place called “Red Garden Food Paradise” that we have been drawn to a few nights for dinner, and it offers everything from hamburgers to sushi, from lobster to fried chicken. There is a Chinese soup dish (similar to a Hainan chicken in layout) that we ate for lunch one day and became addicted to, and now that we have left Asia, I am devastated that I can no longer remember its name. It was at Red Garden that I ate frog for the first time, fulfilling my promise from a few weeks ago to eat something questionable for the cause. It came in a claypot covered in chilli and other spices, and despite the sort of glistening bulbous look of its segmented body (as below) and its stringy texture, it was a really succulent and tasty meat. I want to encourage people to try it by giving it a glowing endorsement and describing how it tastes in comparison to another meat, but it is very difficult because I haven’t really tasted anything like it before. It had what I thought was a sort of natural spice to it, not really bought on by the chilli but inherent within the meat itself, and I have heard that crocodile meat possesses the same characteristics (for those of you who have eaten crocodile meat). While one is an amphibian and the other a reptile, something about their aesthetic and behavioral similarities suggests to me they could possibly have diverged at a later fork in the evolutionary tree, meaning that it would not be so far fetched if “flavor-when-cooked” was a common gene between the two species. I am probably just deterring you more from any sort of culinary experimentation by going on about it, so I will just say that it was good enough that if I saw it on the menu again, I would not be scared to point my finger at it.

Earlier I mentioned that the Malaysian currency, the Ringgit, is a lot stronger than some of its South East Asian counterparts, meaning that some things are quite a bit more expensive. Well, this discrepancy is not translated when it comes to food in Penang, which is still very reasonably priced. The streets are littered with stands of “Economy Rice” that made me laugh at the candidness of its name, the ol’ Chinese not being ones for sugar-coating (there was also a stand that had on it a title to the effect of “Noodles Immigration” that might just be a foreign dish lost in translation). A char kway teow (similar to a pad thai but with different flavors and with seafood) costs about $1 AU, and the soup we became addicted to wasn’t much more. Indian is slightly dearer, but compared to the $35 AU you would be paying for the same meal in Australia, its an expense that we can justify.

But we have still had our disappointments. Two things that we have been let down by that we thought would be cheap, delicious and in surplus were the Penang Curry (that must be Thai as I saw them everywhere in Thailand), noticeably absent considering the less than inconspicuous name, and also the Penang Laksa, which is less like the Laksa we have in Australia (and in KL, where I ate one of the best I have ever eaten) and more like a seafood soup of porridge consistency served with large gluggy spaghetti-sized rice noodles. Nic was craving a good Laksa and was shattered when she found her first in Penang was abhorrent, but was sure it was an anomaly. Down to our last few Ringgit at the airport and hungry for a meal, she went to the counter and ordered the “Ayam Laksa”…and received the exact same inedible seafood porridge she got the first time. Upset did not begin to describe her.

But despite these little things, Penang is without a doubt a requirement for anybody planning to eat their way across the Asian continent, and even running on flecks of sleep, Malaysia in general has surpassed all expectation as being an accessible and fun place to be in.