26 November 2012

Sudah Makan?: A Food Tour Through Kuala Lumpur

A perfect spoonful of prawn noodles
A few weeks ago I had 24 hours in Kuala Lumpur, and by god, I was going to eat. I've flown into the Low Cost Terminal (LCCT) in KL five times and spent the night at the Tune hotel by the airport three times, but I had never actually taken the one hour journey into the city. Until now. When booking my trip to Kathmandu I discovered that it was significantly cheaper to connect through Singapore and KL (God Bless Air Asia!) and so I decided to spend some time in each and finally get to see - and eat - what the capital of Malaysia has to offer. 

After some googling and tripadvisor-ing, I booked a tasting tour with Food Tour Malaysia and literally rushed from the airport to Taman Paramount LRT station to meet my guide Farrah and the other guests, who turned out to be three jovial Aussie kids.

Now, the first thing you need to know about Malaysia is that the country is made up of three main ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese and Indian. Malays are the indigenous local people who have inhabited this land for millennia, and they make up about 55% of the population. Next up are the ethnically Chinese folks who arrived in three main waves of immigration, dating from the 15th century until the 1990s. They make up about 25% of the population, but to refer to them as"Chinese" is misleadingly simple - there are Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, Teo Chew, Min Bei and Mandarin populations, each with attendant food cultures that are as unique to them as the different European countries are from each other. Finally, about 8% of the population is ethnically Indian (mainly Tamil),  brought here by their colonial masters at the end of the 19th century when "Malaya" was the largest rubber producer in the world and one of the jewels in the British Empire's crown. 

Whether you're Malay, Chinese or Indian, food is serious business in this country. In fact, instead of saying, "hey, how are you?" people instead greet one another with the phrase, "Sudah makan?" which literally means, "Have you eaten yet?"  

Stop 1 - An Indian Muslim Mamak
A majority of the ethnically Indian population of Malaysia hearkens from the South and from Sri Lanka, and therefore it is much more likely to see idlis, vadai and dosas than it is to see a properly cooked aloo gobi. Our first stop was at that most beloved Malaysian institutions – a Tamil Muslim Mamak. This is a place where you can kick back, watch some footie and order from either a steam tray of prepared curries or a fresh roti or dosa, made to order.

My favourite breakfast on the planet.
Farrah started us with a roti and it was fresh, hot and buttery. We dipped it in a little bit of lentils and a fish curry, and she explained that Malaysians like their roti liberally doused with curry – this translated to soaked, much more than I would normally use – and it was delicious. 

Hello giant Indian nalesniki. I love you.
 Next up was a dosa – this one a little different than what I am used to, made with rice flour (instead of lentil flour) and laced with egg yolks and dipped in a rich coconut chutney. Divine. 

Farrah then brought over a plate of and rice that looked like a dog's breakfast. See?

This reminds me of what I do with Christmas dinner - I make a holiday stew on my plate.
 Despite its messy appearance, this slurpy mix of squid curry, beef curry and mutton curry slopped on top of rice and cabbage salad was freaking delicious. As she mixed it all together into a big slurry, Farrah reiterated that Malaysians like A LOT of sauce on their rice and roti. I'm sold. I'm still dreaming about that chicken leg. 

I'm the best helper!
Last but not least, I got to help make dessert! This is an extra thin roti called "Tissue Roti" and it is served almost like a huge cookie on the table, covered with lashings of butter and crunchy carmelized sugar. We ate this accompanied by strong pulled chai. Dreamy, like a Christmas cookie.

Stop 2 - Chinese Hawker Centre

You're cute, and you have delicious lime drinks. Wanna date?
Hawker centres are uniquely Malaysian/Singapore institutions, similar to a food court but all of the food is actually amazing. This part of the world takes their food mighty seriously, and they demand delicious, fresh meals and snacks for cheap prices - and hawker centres make this possible. It's not uncommon to see people dressed to the nines dining on one dollar popiah (kind of like a spring roll) while seated on plastic chairs. The stalls usually specialize in one dish, and if they do not do it well - like, really really well -  they soon go out of business. This competition to survive creates a food culture that makes my heart flutter. Jesus, have I been reading Ayn Rand?

Pork bits are the best bits.
First up - pork and yam flavoured with 5 spice and then rolled in crispy beancurd skin and deep fried. Sorry, what? I couldn't hear you because I was cramming all of this in my face. While laughing. And crying with joy.
I will eat ALL the things.
The infamous Char Kway Teo! I tried to eat this for supper in Singapore a few nights ago, but the hawker centre we ate at was more well known for its wonton noodles, stir-fried frogs and satay. So I ate those things instead, which is a totally Singaporean way to behave. Sigh. I think I am meant to be from this part of the world.  

Char Kway Teo is one of the most beloved hawker stall dishes, a combination of soft flat rice noodles, chinese sausage, prawns and bean sprouts - kind of like pad thai, but much more flavourful. This was the Aussies' favourite dish of the day. My favourite of the day was the spicy, savoury, fishy bowl of broth and noodles featured at the top of this page - prawn noodles.

Dish sponge? Rice pudding?
Another dessert! And doesn't it look terrible? One of the girls looked at it and asked, "Is that a sponge?" Turns out it is delicious. It's a patty of sweet sticky rice covered in a layer of coconut jam, and tastes like the most wonderful bowl of rice pudding ever. I want this with tea every morning.

Stop 3 - Mini Stop at a Food Truck 
This was really one of the strangest food experiences of my life.
Seems safe.
 In this converted truck, this woman makes popular local snacks that are usually only available at special holidays. Farrah explained how this really jazzes people who live nearby, so I imagine it to be like being able to get Christmas goodies in July.

A Malaysian Double Down.

The treat consists of a slab of a brown sugar and coconut caramel sandwiched between a piece of yam and a piece of sweet potato, battered and deep fried. I'm not going to say I loved it, but somehow the mix of hot caramel, mash-y potatoes and grease was not at all bad. It was actually kind of good. I would eat this again, and I feel weird about that.

Stop 4 - Malay Warung
While not the most flattering, this photo illustrates my horror at the prospect of more food.
By the end of the Chinese Hawker stop, the four of us guests were already painfully stuffed - like, I felt like I was about to cry. I have no idea how I kept going - I felt like a circus act.
Don't make the mistake of calling Malay food "Malaysian food." Farrah quickly corrected me and said, "Indian, Chinese, Malay - this is all Malaysian food!" Touche, Farrah. Touche.
I'm a little catfish.
 I have quite a bit of experience with Malay food, as I spent 2 weeks in Malaysian Borneo and 6 weeks in Indonesia a few years back, and my biggest impression at the time was how.... lukewarm everything always was. Farrah confirmed that yes, Malay food is meant to be served at room temperature. Everything. Even fish. And yet it never makes me sick. In fact, this catfish was one of my favourite dishes of the day, despite my near-hallucinatory state of fullness.
 A final desert! A green spongy crepe (it reminded me of sweet injera bread) stuffed with carmelized sugar and shredded coconut. This was ridiculously good. Seriously, Malaysians have the right idea when it comes to desserts. Except maybe the mashed potato caramel combo....

A city is best experienced through its food, and I feel like I got to know the hell out of KL in just four hours. So go. Eat. "Sudah Makan?"

19 November 2012

A Stormy Evening in Kuala Lumpur

Hi! Sorry about the chronological messiness - this was written at the beginning of November, before I checked into Kopan.
Step into my office.
Things you should know about this picture:

1) There is a literal monsoon outside this covered verandah. I was lucky enough to have a beautiful, bright, sunny (sometimes too sunny) day for my KL food tour but at 6pm the sky opened and trapped me in my hotel. The sound of thunder and lightning is deafening, but I actually love this tropical stormy weather as it gives me an excuse to sit right here and....

2) I'm wearing a little floral onesie in November and I am outside. I am Canadian - you have to understand how novel that still is for me.

3) I love smoking. I don't do it very often, but when I do I always want it to be Marlborough Lights because they taste like Asia and freedom and traveling and a little bit like bad decisions. Good bad decisions. I love those.

4) And while I love smoking, I hate lager. But - I will drink a Tiger Beer or two, on occasion. Especially when that occasion is me doing my best Hemingway impression and drinking and writing in a tropical storm. I am giddy with the fact that I am tipsy and it is only 8:30 pm - and the only thing I have to do tonight is go to bed. Bliss.

5) As soon as it got dark I began to get attacked by mosquitoes. But I refused to move inside because, soon? Nepal. And no more onesies.

6) Earlier I was listening to Bob Marley's "Legend" and then to Patty Smith's "Horses", but now I have moved on to George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass." They're all so perfect for tonight that I can hardly stand it, but I still have no idea what "Apple Scruffs" is about.

7) I'm smoking again. *giddy*

8) I am relishing this alone time so, so much. This is the first evening where I have been completely alone in weeks, and I needed it badly.

9) My little phone is out because I am posting things to instagram - on which you should follow me! Violetdear. (Surprise).

10) Holy fuck I move to Nepal tomorrow (which will be last week by the time you read this, because right now I am in the Kopan Monastery thinking back fondly to this tipple). And so maybe I need another Tiger beer.....


13 November 2012

Mental Boot Camp: Checking Into Kopan Monastery

My friend Brandon remarked, "That's the longest set of anal beads I have ever seen." I'll admit I lol'ed.
 By the time this is published, I will be checked into Kopan Monastery.

I just went through my old emails, and it seems that I sent my first inquiry about the Kopan Monastery November retreat way back on April 3rd. It seems like a trick of time and space that the first day of the course is tomorrow. How did this even happen? I am so not prepared.

Back in January, February and March I was a fantastically devoted Dharma student and daily meditator  - I felt that the only way I could advance my practice was to go all the way. In typical Violet Dear fashion I decided that that meant I had to go to Nepal, to study at the storied Kopan, a bastion of tranquility nestled in the hills above the Kathmandu Valley. I like to do everything BIG. This seemed BIG, and I patted myself on the shoulder and proudly congratulated myself. "Violet," I thought to myself, "you have the potential to be the best meditator on. the. planet. One day YOU will be teaching a course. Just pretend to be humble, you brilliant little minx!" Oh, ego.

Of course, everything has changed since I booked the retreat. I was hired to be a Ethical Tourism Advisor for NGN, I applied to British grad schools for 2013 and I graduated from University (finally. I know).

Aaaaaand, my practice has gotten... sloppy, to say the least. Without the daily rigours of a set schedule (I took 24 credits in my last semester) my life got more messy (and fun. It also got more fun).  I have stretched the limits of "no intoxication" until its grey areas turned black, and celibacy? Bwah! Celibacy went out the window.

I shuffled guiltily past my living room shrine without placing my bum on its cushion, and my prayer beads gathered dust around Buddha's neck as I avoided his peaceful gaze. I focused on work, friends and boys instead of Dharma and compassion. I attended a sangha twice a month, maximum, and while I would like to say I meditated on my own more often than this, that would be total bullshit.

This five month vacation from my practice has led me to feel incredibly ill-equipped for the silence, meditation and strict monastic life I am about to enter. Here is a copy of the daily schedule:

5.30 am - Prostration
6.00 am - Morning tea in the dining room
6.30 am - Morning Meditation
7.30 am - Breakfast
9.00 am - Teachings
11.30 am - Lunch
2.00 PM - Discussion groups
3.00 PM - Break for 1/2 hour
3.30 PM - Teaching
5.00 PM - Tea
6.00 PM - Guided Meditation
7.00 PM - Dinner
8.00 PM - Guided meditation, Q/A

The third and fourth weeks are slightly different, as you only get one meal a day (lunch) and it is held in silence. The fuck, Violet Dear. The fuck.

For one month I will have no creature comforts and will live in a dorm. There will be no heat, even when the temperature drops below zero at night. I will wear no make-up and only baggy, loose sweats and t-shirts. I will eat only dahl bhat and drink only water and tea. I will not be allowed to commune with members of the opposite sex, and I am not meant to think about sex at all (slow clap). No gossip or idle chit chat is permitted. No reading of any non-Dharma book. And I am paying money for this!

I am doing this of my own free will, and complaining about it seems trite and insensitive in light of the dire poverty in this country. I know that. It's still scary.

I'll admit, I am looking forward to just being there. It has been so many months in the making, and now I am kind of eager to just settle in and be, y'know? I know that it will be a true test of my mettle, and I know it will transform me.... into what, I have no idea, but it will sure be something. I'll be more calm. I'll be more mindful, more present. Maybe I will be stronger, more compassionate, more vulnerable. Like a spider web - transparent and delicate but able to blow in the wind and get soaked in the rain, strong as fuck and able to do anything to survive. God, I am making it sound like I am going to a melodramatic boot camp.

Which I guess I kind of am.

See you in December -
Violet Dear

I have 3 other pre-scheduled blog posts that will appear over the next month, roughly once per week. Ciao!

09 November 2012

Some things I learned in Kathmandu today.

Things I did NOT learn: How to make this map make sense.
1. As a part of my position at Next Generation Nepal I will attend regular meetings with the UN. (!!!) For a gal like me who plans to one day work for UNESCO, this is a dream come true.

2. This city is four years overdue for an earthquake that is predicted to kill about 25% of the population. I come from a city that has its own fears about the “BigOne” but the idea of 200,000 casualties kind of blows my mind. My new boss strongly suggested that I prepare a “go bag,” try to get a room in a UN-worker certified flat and register myself with the Canadian embassy. I can’t say I am not a bit shaken by all of this. Ha! No pun intended. *adjusts collar*

3. There are elections called for March, and it is predicted that they will spur massive strikes, protests and violence in the streets. Nepal is a politically unstable nation, and I guess all of the talk of Buddhism, the tinkling prayer bells and the calls of “Namaste” make me forget the grim realities of a nascent democracy.

4. And finally, I learned that I had forgotten how much vagina and boob touching occurs during an Ayurvedic massage. Turns out it’s a lot.

08 November 2012

Hours Away From Kathmandu...

A sign in the arrivals terminal of the Tribhuvan airport.
 I am sitting on yet another airplane and thinking about Kathmandu. All I have of my new home is a four-year old memory about how FULL ON it is. Granted, it is a different sort of madness than one finds in the large cities of India – there is this sort of atmospheric, smoky haze that covers everything, and while the traffic is every bit as terrifying and the smells just as pungent, there is also something different. More relaxed. Gentler. And infinitely more strange.

Over beers (and a victorious pub quiz) two nights ago, my friend Tanya recounted her experience driving in a taxi from the airport to Thamel, the main tourist area in Kathmandu. “We were weaving in and out of traffic, and then on the side of the road, there was a sadhu. A naked sadhu. I told Peter to look, and he said ‘what’s happening on my side of the road is too interesting to look away from.’” A naked sadhu covered in human ashes wasn’t the most interesting thing on the road - that should tell you something.

 I am excited to see – in an hour and 45 minutes (!!!!) – if my memory is building it up. If it is as magical and horrible and otherworldly as I remember it being. If it breaks my heart and builds me up the same way. Intrigues and repulses me. Reminds me that the world is a bizarre place beyond all comprehension. And if it still has really wonderful pomegranate juice.

I’ll let you know in a few hours.

Violet Dear

***Author's note - I am now checked into my guesthouse, have eaten momos and drank 2 cups of Nepali chai. And yes, Kathmandu is all of those things. More to come soon - VD

07 November 2012

Background (Noise): How I Learned to Stop Hiding and Love the Dark

Kali knows a thing or two about re-birth through death.
In my mid twenties I was an “Adult” with a capital A. Sure, I still had a framed poster of Hedwig and the Angry Inch on my living room wall (since relegated to the bathroom) and when my friends came over to stay on weekends we got absolutely wrecked, but I had a steady 9-5 job, a beautiful apartment in the West End and a fat stack of RRSPs accumulating interest in the bank (or wherever they are).

I also didn’t like myself very much. Worse, I had no idea that I didn’t like myself very much. That combination is dangerous.

I was caught in this strange limbo in which I attempted to show everyone, including my loving boyfriend, just how normal I was. Just how well adjusted and Adult-y and capable and good. I stifled the part of personality that loves dark and macabre things in order to prove that I was not fucked up IN ANY WAY AT ALL. See, I have always loved horror movies and graveyards and scary stories and since childhood I have nurtured a fucked up fascination with death. But in my mind, if I was somehow bad (too brash, too loud, too manipulative, too much ME) then this stuff was contributing to the badness. So it got the kibosh.

Not too many people know this, but while I was backpacking Asia and living in India a few years ago I was also being bullied and stalked online. I filed police reports and cried and lived my life in a kind of quiet desperation, just wanting it to stop. The worst part of it all was that the person who was harassing me seemed to know that I had a molten hot core of self-hate and they knew EXACTLY how to fan those flames. I slid into a world of self doubt and sickly nausea. I would pick at my raw scabs and re-read the awful things that this person sent to me and I would envelop myself in a blanket of shame. I made choices and decisions in my personal life that echoed the swamp of negativity in my brain. I lived in a weird hell.

And my weird hell was constantly being surveilled online. Every blog post I wrote was written with a keen sense of self censorship as I attempted to prove to the harasser – and, by proxy, to myself - that I was good. I left so, so many things out, afraid to admit them even to myself. It was a sick loop. The horrible things they said to me reinforced every fear I had ever secretly held about my perceived inner wretchedness.

I went to talk to a counselor about it last year, and she looked at me in horror as I recounted the entire saga and then admitted that I still re-read the horrible things that the harasser sent to me. She wrinkled her nose and spat out the words, “Well, that’s stupid. You just don’t do that anymore.”

This advice should not have worked. At the time, the counselor's harsh recriminations sent me reeling from her office and I should have landed in the arms of some liquor, the wrong boy and my email archives to worry at some old wounds - but somehow it worked. Since that day eighteen months ago I have not once looked at anything the harasser has sent me. It feels amazing.

Shortly after this breakthrough I started studying Buddhism in earnest and I began to cultivate self-compassion. I forgave myself for all of the pain I have caused others in the past (and started to work on forgiving myself). The old unquestioned notion that I was a “bad person” began to fade away.

And now here is the weird thing. As I work on this monumental task of loving and forgiving myself, all of the sudden I realize that as long as my actions are compassionate and kind, it doesn’t matter whether I love Bauhaus, Dario Argento and grave etchings. Whether I get jazzed about memento mori and Victorian hair sculpture and human skulls. I can still be “good.” I am still good. In fact, I think I am better for it. One of my favourite things about Buddhism is that it actively encourages us to think about death, to prepare for it and to realize that it is nothing to fear.

There is a bittersweet irony in the fact that it took me embracing the dark side of my personality to get to the light. Stifling the weirdo macabre parts of my brain in order to be sweet was like going to war for peace (or fucking for celibacy). Redundant.

This was meant to be a post about my walking tour through Singapore’s Chinatown, and I still want to write about that – but for now I think that this should stand on it’s own. I’m glad I wrote about it, and I promise it will make sense after my next post. The paper effigies, dead women and temples of Chinatown loosened some things in my brain - and made me more ready for the next eight months. To be continued....

Contemplation, forgiveness and Tiger Beer -
Violet Dear

See! I'm not alone. She is my hero. :)

05 November 2012

Turbulence Over the Pacific

Me and my neck pillow, about to board in Vancouver
I left. Throughout my going-away party (which was lovely, thank you) and the final day of packing mayhem and even as I said goodbye to some people to whom it was really hard to say goodbye (hey artist boy, I’m looking at you), I had doubts. Doubts that I would actually do it. But I left. I am gone.

Well I’m kind of in limbo, actually. I am on an airplane. I will actually post this from the safe and cozy confines of the spare bedroom at my friend Tanya’s home in Singapore, but as I write this I am seated in seat 51A of Air Canada flight 7 from YVR to HKG. I have less than an hour in Hong Kong – not enough time for dim sum – and then onwards to the town I once dubbed “The Big Uneasy.

Once I land at SIN I have been instructed to pick up a bottle of JB Blended Scotch for Tanya and her man Peter – spirits are four times more expensive in Singapore than in Canada, and her welcome email included the lines, “If you exit the passengers-only area without a duty- free bag, we will not know you. In fact, we may even alert security that you’re a known chewing gum smuggler.” I will gladly oblige. And maybe even sneak a nip for myself. Violet Dear loves her vodka, yes – but she also loves her scotch. 

Maps. They don't love you like I love you.
I’m getting ahead of myself with thoughts of scotch. Let’s not forget that presently I am on hour nine of a thirteen hour flight, and I am starting to get into the “bored-child” stage of long distance travel. I want to whine and stamp my feet and pout. I’m listening to Tom Waits. I have watched three movies (The Muppets, Kill Bill 1 and The Dark Knight Rises). I have eaten two terrible meals and drank two cokes. I read the latest Vanity Fair and the new Chuck Pahlaniuk (why did I bother?). Enough already.

These next three days are a kind of limbo in and of themselves. A tropical vacation before the real work begins – the dreaded month of silence and meditation. I am scared of Kopan monastery in a nerve-wracking way, in the same way that the anticipation of a first kiss can tangle your stomach and play games with your head. I know that it is going to be wonderful and rewarding and meaningful, but the lead up is a sort of torture. A strange and scary torture.

I described this to my Dharma teacher last week and she smiled her serene 80 year-old Buddhist smile and said, “well, that’s because you like to be in control. You will need to give up some of that control when you walk through the gates of the monastery.” She’s right.

Right now the plane is going through patch after patch of turbulence. It matches my mood and my Tom Waits-fuelled dreams of scotch. I have always liked turbulence, which my friends and family find strange (sister, I wish that was the only thing they found strange) but I find it comforting. Maybe it has to do with the fact that all control over my situation is completely and forcibly removed from my hands when the aircraft shudders and shakes – there is literally nothing I can do but close my eyes and snuggle into my seat and ride it out. I find it calming.

Shit, did I just accidentally write my way into some kind of metaphorical lesson? I swear that it happened by accident, but it seems fortuitous and I’ll take it where I can get it. So listen here, see: the only way I am going to enjoy the next three days is if I take a deep breath and snuggle into the experience and stop trying to control shit and jump ahead into the future, whether that future is as near as Thursday when I check into Kopan or June 15th when I return to Vancouver. Or, for that matter, three hours from now when I get off of this fucking plane.

So shut up, Dear. Flag a flight attendant, have a scotch and get comfortable. Enjoy the bumps. Afterall, you can’t control them – and that is fucking wonderful.