Moonshine on a moonless night

This musing was first published in Flavours magazine and is not in Chef’s Tales the book:

Did I ever tell you about the time when I was working in Kuala Lumpur and went for my very first visit to Sabah to introduce myself to my in-laws? On announcing the master plan to visit the wife’s family’s village, Beatrice jumped out of her chair. “We can organise a Christmas party for all the people in my village.” “Hang on a minute – How many people are there in your village?” I was almost scared to hear the answer. I mean to say, feeding two or three thousand people had to cost a bundle and on my salary at that time, I will tell you, it was a most daunting thought. “Oh, there are lots” – was not the answer that I was looking for, believe me. “How many is ‘lots’?” I whispered out to her. “About 52,” she replied enthusiastically. “How many?!?” I asked in a shocked manner, expecting 5,200. “52,” repeated Beatrice. Well, I thought this was going to be the cheapest Christmas party I could ever have hoped for. “Although we are short of money at this moment in time, I do believe that we can we can offer to hold a party for the entire population of your village. I will even throw in a couple of cases of Carlsberg for good measure,” I announced, trying to conceal my relief.

Beatrice booked and organised the trip as she always does and off we went. Arriving in Papar, we were greeted with the biggest and heaviest tropical downpour that you could ever imagine, which stirred all the toads back to life and unfortunately, all the mosquitoes too. Being eaten alive is not the most pleasant of experiences and not being able to sleep due to the loud croaking coming from the paddy fields did not help either.

The day of the party was a monumental affair to say the least. People came from miles around carrying potluck food items to place on the table for everyone to enjoy. We worked all day to get everything ready and the time had come to enjoy ourselves. On discovering we had no ice, I offered to get it, so off we drove. The first thought I had was how dark it was getting.

It was a moonless night, there was no lights to illuminate the road and the only way to go was to drive slowly down the narrow path so we did not end up in the hitch. Suddenly, we saw something in the middle of the road and slowed down. I thought it was a water buffalo having a nap before continuing on its journey.

As we approached, we found that it was not a buffalo. Instead, it was one of the villagers lying down motionless. He was not moving an inch and I was worried for the poor guy. “Is he dead?” I asked, petrified. “No,” was her monosyllabic reply. “Then what’s wrong with him?” “Tuak,” Beatrice answered. “Tuak? What is that – a tropical disease or something?” I wondered out loud. “No. It’s tropical liquor made from palm or coconut and he has had too much of it.” “Too much of it? He looks like he has had all of it. It’s a wonder that there is any coconut left, by the looks of him!”

I later nicknamed tuak “Gut Rot” once I had tasted this delicate beverage. I will give you another red-hot tip. You do not want to drink this stuff while smoking – you may end up being blown up to kingdom come! As I stared at the drunken villager, out of the blue came the cavalry in the form of two of his mates. They picked him up and carried him off, having a good laugh as they went. “How strong is that stuff?” I asked Beatrice. “It’s quite strong, but alright if you are used to it. Old man Bob is used to it – he’s been drinking it all his life.” If old man Bob was used to it, what would happen if someone was not used to it and drank it for the first time? We would be rushing him to the intensive care unit to have his stomach pumped… Or maybe even replaced! “What is this stuff made from?” I asked Beatrice. “Tuak can be made from the sap of palm trees or coconut trees but it’s usually made from coconut tree sap. There are others as well, you know.” “Oh yes, well, why don’t you give me a heads up so that I can make sure I avoid the stuff at all costs?” “Well,”

Beatrice started out, there is bahar which is also made from the sap of the palm tree, but is made with a different recipe. And then there is tapai which is made from rice.” Different recipe? Maybe there is a recipe book I could buy and place it on the drinks list in the Farquhar Bar menu in our hotel lobby. I could not help but to ask her the golden question: “Do you like a tipple of this refined alcoholic beverage once in a while?” Beatrice pulled her glasses down to the end of her nose and stared at me over the top of them.

Her impression simply implied the articulate response she was expressing. “Idiot” – would have been the best way to explain her thoughts, but as usual, her manners were way too polite to voice it. When we got back from the shop, it was time to get the party started. I decided to take a quick shower before going down to the dinner table.

I emerged about fifteen minutes later and everyone was sitting around chit chatting and looking at me with looks of anticipation on their faces. “What is going on?” I asked Beatrice. “They are waiting for you to eat first before they start.” I could not believe how polite they were and announced that they should all eat and enjoy themselves.

I dipped my hand into a large bucket of ice and grabbed a bottle of beer. As I turned around to speak to Beatrice, I could not believe the sight before me. There in front of me, was old man Bob! Instead of being hung over for four days like I would have been after having my stomach pumped, he looked as if he had never touched a drop. “Here in Sabah,” he started out, “we like to consume this local beverage called tuak. Have you ever tried it?” “Before I answer that question, let me ask you one – do you have an identical twin?” Beatrice came from nowhere and retorted: “Don’t listen to him Bob – he’s a twit!” I tried to defend myself while looking around for help. “To answer your question Bob, not lately, no,” I mustered. “Well, let’s have a shot together. Come, let’s share a glass.” He poured two glasses, walked towards me and handed me the one that was the most full.

Very polite people, I thought… too polite. “Why don’t you have the full glass and I will have the short glass?” We swapped the glasses and I took my first sip. Now I have to tell you something that I shouldn’t but I can’t help it. I have never tasted anything so vile in my entire life. As it passed down my throat and into my stomach, it dissolved every body part in its path like an ice cube in a microwave. “That’s not so bad,” I declared, while wincing badly. As Bob turned around to smile at Beatrice, I quickly poured the balanced of the tuak into the paddy field next to me and pretended as if I had finished it.

I could have sworn that I saw the paddy wilt the instant the tuak touched the water surrounding it. I probably contaminated the whole eco-system of Sabah with that one thoughtless and selfish act. “Wow, look at you,” said Bob. “You have finished it all, but don’t worry, there is plenty more where that came from, I will go and get you a top-up”, “he better not or I will throw up,” I whispered to Beatrice. “Just another drop to make them happy and then you can return to your beer,” she pleaded. “After another drop, I am going to return to my bed. Hopefully, not to a hospital bed!” “Don’t be such a baby!” Beatrice snapped.

This was going to be a long night, I thought to myself. And a much longer day tomorrow, if I kept on drinking this drain cleaner. “Maybe we can place a few bottles in the boot of our car, just in case,” I suggested. “Whatever for?” asked Beatrice. “Just in case we run out of petrol, we can pour it in the tank and keep the car running for a few kilometres until we reach another gas station. “Of course, we would have to keep it in a non-corrosive metal container. You know – the one that does not corrode if it comes in contact with metal-eating acid.” I pointed out that the foul-tasting stuff had indeed been delivered to the village in a screw-top petrol can, which I thought was only appropriate since tuak was also a highly-flammable liquid.

Beatrice rolled her eyes at my latest observation. Bob returned with another couple of glasses and I gingerly sipped on the cloudy substance until it was all but finished, trying to cause as little damage to my insides as possible along the way.

 As I was talking to old man Bob, his eyes glazed over and he started to fall backwards. I had downed two glasses of this rocket fuel myself which resulted in me not being as alert as I should have been and thus, was not able to catch him. Bob just fell backwards right into the paddy field thereby squashing the toads. That was the end of my first, and hopefully my last encounter, with East Malaysia’s version of toddy. Although I am sure that these home-grown Malaysian beverages create an enjoyable pastime, I have to say that they are little bit out of my league in strength and I will stick to the conventional beer or red wine.

The Great Junk Food Conspiracy

I have been on holiday for a while, so I must aplogize for the lack of postings,  to make amends I would like to offer you one of my Musings which was first published in Flavours magazine. This musing is also not in Chef’s Tales the book….hope you enjoy.

Junk food is the stuff of a marketing exec’s dreams and a true foodie’s nightmare. Junk food is one subject that fascinates me, and the amount of attention it receives is quite astounding. The term “junk food” is usually used to refer to food with little or no nutritional value – which may be a waste of time to eat from a nutritionist’s point of view, but my goodness, doesn’t (most) of it taste great!

Parenting groups lobby for junk food commercials to be banned from prime-time television, to be aired late at night, as if the subject matter is as scary as a restricted movie showing violence, drug use or worse. Then, the large fast food chains fight back by spending millions trying to prove that their food is actually great for consumption and that their meal sets are balanced meals!

And there is just so much money involved here. Would you believe, after all the negative media about canned Spam being the worst, possibly most unhealthy food on earth – the company just celebrated selling its sixth billionth can of the processed meat. There are potato chip companies today boasting of sales upwards of one billion bags of chips a year! Can you imagine how many people are crunching these salty deep-fried snacks every second of every day?

In the hotel business, we spend hours trying to come up with great marketing ideas, slogans, sales concepts and other ways to increase sales. Junk food companies have an easier time of it due to the fact that their products are cheap, tasty (everything that is bad for us tastes great, we all know that), quick to purchase and are loved by…well, basically everyone on the planet. Junk food usually has too much fat, too much salt, too much sugar – in some instances, all of the above. I have always wondered how we are persuaded to eat so much of it, so bear with me while I imagine the scenario in a junk food marketing meeting.

Imagine a brainstorming meeting where the MD is trying to get the creative juices going with his people.

“Come on everybody, we have thrown ideas around for days and we cannot come up with a single idea worth its weight in coarse sea salt on how to increase sales for our MSG! Somebody say something worth listening to!” says the MD. As he finishes his grand speech, the meeting room door creaks open, and in walks the semi-retired tea lady. “Madam, please offer these clowns some advice – how would you increase the sales of our MSG shaker? Our million-dollar-earners here all seem to be brain-dead today,” he says, rounding on her. Placing the cups and saucers down on the table with her old, shaking hands, she raises her head ever so slowly and whispers, “Why don’t you make the holes in the shaker slightly larger?” The whole office is swallowed by an unpleasant silence as the executives look down at the floor in shame and the MD looks astounded. “Brilliant! Shrieks the boss excitedly, “That’s it!” As the tea lady is leaving the room, the boss asks her, “What is your current salary, madam?” “Five dollars an hour, sir,” she replied with pride. As she whisks herself away to continue her daily tasks, the boss is less than amused, to say the least. “You lot had better wake up, let’s get cracking,” he says, “Our sales of Twinkies are slipping every day and people are saying they are not healthy, so what can we do?” “Let’s change the name to Grandma Mabel’s Homemade Twinkies instead,” is the first offering. The boss looks at the speaker with an open mouth and an expression of despair. “We are not changing the recipe, image or packaging, how the heck will that help sales, you twit?! The cakes are made from flour, eggs, sugar and a fake cream that lasts – unrefrigerated – for then years!” “Well,” begins the upstart, “This will give the impression that if it is good enough for grandma, it must be all right – I mean, good ol’ grandma would never hurt us by serving us food that was no good, right?” “Ok, brilliant!” announced the boss, “Now what about our burgers, what are we going to do about their floundering sales?” “Let’s announce that they are ‘All Natural’,” offers a different staff member. “No, that’s not a good idea,” sighs the boss, “I don’t want to lie and I think that is stretching it a bit too much.” “How about we offer dental floss to go with the burger – that way, even if the burger is made with a stale bun, goodness-knows-what meat, terrible sauce and processed cheese, we can at least look like we care about their teeth!” “Brilliant!” announces the boss again, “Now we are on a roll!” “How about starting a new line of deep-fried chips not derived from potatoes but made out of vegetables? We can call them “organically-grown veggie chips’,” says another voice. “Brilliant!” shouts the boss with glee. “Wait a minute,” announces the secretary taking notes, “they are still deep-fried in the same oil and full of cholesterol, salt and other stuff – in fact, they are exactly the same as potato chips!” “Yes, but when people hear the name ‘Veggie Chips’ they will believe that they are healthy,” says the boss. “This is great stuff,” announces another senior executive, “Here is another idea – how about ‘Cherry Chocolate Diet Soda’?” By this time, everyone in the whole office is on their feet, clapping and cheering as the meeting progresses to dizzying heights. “Guys, I can top all of your ideas – why don’t we make an ice cream float with the sweetest dollop of ice cream available plonked into a large glass of sugary, fizzy cream soda so that after drinking it, all the kids run around like nutcases all day, get addicted and then demand to have it every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner!” The boss looks at him, gobsmacked, and announces at the top of his voice, ‘This man is immediately promoted!”

The meeting then proceeds to come up with the concept of chocolate milk – where they turn even the healthiest drink into a fattening alternative – cocoa crunch, making the only possibility of getting children to eat a healthy breakfast nigh impossible, a chocolate-filled croissant, chocolates coated in hundreds of different colours (which all taste exactly the same regardless of the colours), caramel-coated sugar doughnuts, and the best idea of all, “diet ice cream”.

Of course, there is expensive, “exclusive” fast food that may make us feel proud about slowly killing ourselves by clogging our arteries; it my even raise our social status a bit, as not just anybody can afford such highly sought after delicacies as a double truffle burger which costs US$120 per burger just because it is topped with freshly-snorted-up, hard-to-find wild French truffles. Or an ice cream sundae that costs thousands because there is a four-carat diamond ring hidden among the cherries at the bottom to surprise and unsuspecting sweetheart – who hopefully does not swallow it by mistake and then has to wait a few days (after eating half a pound of prunes) to wear it.

Eating fast food a couple of times a week if all right I guess; I do it myself with my seven-year-old, but when you get sick of the long lines, the trouble finding a seat and less-than-glamorous surroundings, why don’t we all make a pledge to give our nearest good-quality hotel a call and make a reservation, thereby locking in a clean chair and enjoying some slow food for a nice change.