Kurang pedas

Right, there was this one time when Shalla tried an ostrich burger at one of the hawker places Zaty brought us to. It's a surprise I wasn't the one who tried it.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I had the rare opportunity to act like a worldly, well-travelled person when I found myself returning from Hong Kong for a work trip and, the next day, flying out to Kuala Lumpur (via Singapore) for a vacation with Shalla, our first solo (couple?) vacation. That meant, in my I-give-myself-too-much-credit-as-a-writer head, I had this brilliant idea of tying themes from both trips into one essay that would give me immense satisfaction but would, in all likelihood, not be read by anyone.

The starting point was to be at a restaurant near the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. We don't usually attend lunch at the conference venue itself - it's what you'd call a "networking lunch", meaning you don't get to sit down, which is awkward since you're not eating finger foods - so we always duck out and eat elsewhere.

My colleagues did the ordering, and since the menus were in Chinese, they relied on the photographs. They didn't do too bad, all considering, but there was this one item they bought that came with a lot of chilis. "Sili ba 'yan?" asked one, as he picked a piece with his chopsticks, before deciding that, well, yes, it is, and you don't really want to eat that. I, however, was feeling adventurous, so I picked a few pieces and ate them. Yep, spicy. I'd like to think I like spicy food, though, so this is fine. I just hope I don't choke and cough. I don't.

"Ito kaya, sili?" another colleague asked, picking up a little, berry-like thing from the plate. He popped it in his mouth, and reacted visibly. "Sili rin."

I tried it myself, and found that I quite liked it. That, as it turns out, was a Sichuan peppercorn. So that's what it tastes like, I thought. Numbing. Nice. But am I really supposed to eat this like this?

Fast forward three days later. Shalla and I have just arrived in Kuala Lumpur, and we were to meet her friend Zaty - me, for the third time; she, for the first. We were going to hunt for a mamak place near our hotel. I think it was because I requested for it. I don't remember. It's been five years. I know I should, though, for it's only been five years. But anyway.

Mamak stalls are the Malaysian equivalent to our carinderia: often set up on the road side, offering unpretentious food, a bit of a cross between Indian and Malay. You go there for fried rice, or fried noodles - but you most definitely go there for the teh tarik. But the menus themselves wouldn't be necessarily as helpful. If you new to the whole thing and don't have any idea what you want, reading the menus - laminated and filled with text - would be intimidating. But that's what Zaty was there for: to guide us.

Shalla was wary about eating spicy food. She isn't a fan, and for a reason more valid than "I don't like it": her lips literally swell when she eats something particularly hot. But she settled for the Maggi goreng - stir-fried Maggi noodles - and Zaty gave her a tip when ordering: say "Maggi goreng, kurang pedas". Less spicy.

It still was too spicy. And she wasn't just being picky. Even I found it spicy - or was it because I was eating something already spicy to begin with? I think I ended up finishing her food, which made me really full, but at least the walk was pretty long. Our hotel was on one side of Bukit Bintang and we ate on another side. Two monorail stations apart, I think. But our elders say we shouldn't go to sleep so soon after eating noodles or else we get nightmares and die, so, as tired as we were from a long trip - there was a failed attempt to have brunch with someone relatively popular during our Singapore stopover - we had to stay up, or at least I had to.

The entry was supposed to be far longer (and more elegant) than that. I had lots of threads I wanted to tie together. There was the char siu we tried at a hole-in-the-wall in KL's Chinatown, as recommended by another one of Shalla's friends, Clarissa. There was my first ever ice kachang at Changi. There were all the breakfasts I had in Hong Kong for those work trips I used to do. It was going to come together and become this expression of... something about food, I guess. I have forgotten. I took too long to plan that essay, because I fashioned myself as a "great" writer that revealed buried truths about things we tend to take for granted. And now, it's been five years, and all I have are hazy memories of that durian buffet somewhere in Petaling Jaya - Zaty brought us to a lot of places in the five days we were in her neck of the woods - and the notifications from Facebook that I got over the weekend. I also forgot that I have uploaded photos from that trip. I also fashioned myself as a serviceable photographer at the time. I am clearly delusional.

So, here we are, five years later. We've not been able to fly anywhere because everything is confusing, and also, because travelling is a pain in the ass, specifically, the part where your wallet is. All we end up doing is reminisce about the places we visited and the food we ate, no matter how hazy those memories are. But some do pop out more strongly than others. There was the vegetable bun at Namdaemun Market in Seoul. There was the cute baby at the Muji restaurant in Taipei. There was the time when we went to Ikea at Causeway Bay, and imagined ourselves having a fully kitted-out bedroom in a place we can call our own.

And then I remember the misfortune I had on our very last morning in Kuala Lumpur. We were packing and getting ready to leave when my belt buckle snapped into two. So, I have this anecdote about how I took one taxi, one train, one bus and two planes, across three countries - Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines - with my pants falling down my waist. It might be worth telling, but unfortunately, the details are also hazy.

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