i have been catching up on my food this past few days. my nasi kandar. my hakka mee. my nasi lemak. char kuey teow. my ayam madu. my rendang. my assam fish. everything pedas pedas pedas! god, how i missed the flavours… how i missed food that actually had any trace of flavour at all!
fine. i’m being unfair. italy tasted like tomato.
thing is, europe IS expensive for the poor asian backpacker. i remember what mom used to tell me when i was put on a budget back in university – the poor student stinges on everything except food. so i walked everywhere on campus (kolej matrix was the furthest thing you can get from the faculty back then) and bought second and third hand books from seniors. but for the humble RM50 per week, i could still scrape at least two square meals a day and ice cream when i felt like it.
fast forward ten years and a whole different continent, one modest meal with no drinks costs me 10 euros. that’s 47.50 ringgit. and that’s drinking from water fountains and eating in narrow cafeterias. for 6 euros, maybe i could get a sandwich with yesterday’s baguette.
and so, i fell into the routine of the poor backpacker scrimping through, just to see the world. hog as much bread as possible from the hostel breakfast no matter how awful they are. one, and only one meal a day outside. and for dinner, cheap dried pasta and tomato sauce that i buy from the local grocery store and cook myself in the hostel kitchen.
i know this sounds so sad, but one of the happiest time i had in barcelona was when i found dried mee sua in the tiniest grocery shop an hour away from my hostel. i bought a packet for 90 euro cents (almost 5 ringgit), a box of chicken stock for 2 euros (almost 10 ringgit) and a packet of chopped vegetables for 60 euro cents (when nobody buys fresh vegetables and they are no yet bad, but just old, they chop it up and sell it in packets). i went back to my hostel kitchen and portioned the box of chicken stock in two. that made two pots of mee sua noodle soup. that’s two days’ worth of dinners. PROPER DINNERS, mind you! i tell you, i happily burnt my tongue eating the noodles.
other times, i found microwave packed food and most of them are as lousy at it sounds. the only consolation is that it is cheap. it is not as filling as i would like it to be, but drink enough water and the growling goes away.
i know what you would tell me the magic word is: maggi! i almost burnt my mouth off drinking maggi soup in paris. the kitchen had a pot, but no bowls, and no spoons. please, don’t even try to imagine. thing is, you don’t want to live on just maggi. seriously.
the worse worse worse is rice. european rice is so different. we have nice long grain whole rice. they have short, fat sticky rice. the rice does not absorb any of the flavours from anything. there was a time i bought a box of mircowavable “curry flavoured rice” and it was the most tasteless thing i have ever put in my mouth. every grain was hard and even though i tried to steam it with water, it stayed hard. i mixed the rice in a bowl of instant chicken soup which resulted in disaster.
i found the word “basmati” on some of the microwave packs and even that was unfamiliar. i found that the rice grains were mixed with european rice. the result was weird. the pack came with a packet of microwavable chicken masala which was anything but spicy. no trace of curry. no trace of chili. just pepper and tomato.
one of the travellers in the kitchen says, you can tell an asian by how she inspects her rice. that is true.
i find that a lot of europeans can do with cold food for days and days and days. there is no urgency for hot food. there is simplicity without attention to strong flavours. and while i am so so so fascinated by the history and art and culture and technology of european countries, i don’t think i can eat like them. even if i was not the poor backpacker and could afford proper meals, i don’t think i can be the one who eats cold food for days at a stretch.
would i do it again – of course i would. everything about europe was a new experience and i have no regrets for seeing what i had. but i might packed a little differently. i would have left the cream crackers i brought with me at home. i would have packed dried bee hoon and little bottles of spices and dried chilli with me. i would have packed rice. heck, i would have packed ikan bilis.
i love malaysian food.