Sight - Meals at outdoor casual restuarants

Sight - Meals at outdoor casual restuarants

By
Chui Lee Luk
Contains
3 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742702407
Photographer
Chris Chen

As a child I considered going out to eat to be an exciting adventure, an unmissable treat and even, occasionally, something that I’d manipulate into occurring. However, this isn’t the place to discuss the machinations I employed in the past to get my own way, but an exploration of my love for all types of eating environments.

In the small town where I grew up there wasn’t a culture of haute cuisine. We had simple places in which to eat and, from my child’s view, these were generally divided into air-conditioned spaces and those without. The memories I have of the various restaurants we frequented form a visual montage: there were restaurants located at the bottom of apartment blocks that were open on all sides and served a small number of specialities from morning to night; there were air-conditioned restaurants in the middle of what seemed like industrial estates, offering a more formal experience with tables laid, albeit carelessly, with cloths and chipped porcelain plates and bowls and chopsticks balanced on stands; and there were the eateries that we called ‘cafés’ in the middle of town, serving coffee, snacks and also noodles, porridge or rice and a simple array of other set dishes. These cafés had a traditional spot in Malaysian culture and, although there was no sense of nostalgia about them at the time because of their proliferation, there certainly is now. And, of course, there were the food stalls set up in groups in the markets or congregated together near a popular park, scenic spot on the beach or residential estate.

There wasn’t any sign generally given by my parents as to whether we would be going to a formal or less formal eating establishment. If we were going out to dinner, my sister and I would still have to scrub up and dress up; that was simply the ceremony of getting ready to go out, regardless of the formality (or lack thereof ) of the establishment to which we were heading. I enjoyed enacting this ceremony.

Although I did adjust my expectations in response to each of these different types of eating places, there were different joys to be discovered in each one. I liked the common ritual involved in being greeted on our arrival, being seated, the pouring of the tea, negotiating the menu with the waiter — and all this as a precursor to the dishes even arriving.

‘Array’ is the word I’d use to describe the sight of the dishes on the table when we ate out. That was the way of the culture. It was array in excess in the formal restaurants if we were attending a banquet: crab and shark’s fin soup served by a waiter from a tureen, to which we then added droplets of black rice vinegar; a communal platter of crisp-skinned chicken skilfully divided into chopstick-friendly pieces; braised abalone with bok choy, served like Western-style steaks with knives and forks, and so it went on ... In the casual cafés the array was perhaps less impressive: a platter of rice noodles with beef in black bean sauce and maybe some roast pork and a stir-fry of vegetables.

My favourite curiosities were the Malaysian equivalent of greasy spoon cafés. These places usually had some speciality that turned them into local attractions. After shopping at the early morning markets, there might be a detour to a favourite noodle stall for a breakfast of tea and what I liked to call ‘black noodles’ — boiled noodles dressed with dark soy sauce and redolent with sesame oil and spring onion.

There was a seafood restaurant on the road out of the main town in Sandakan. It seemed to be situated in a hangar-like space, open on all sides to the tropical heat, with fans slowly turning above to help a little with air circulation. Concrete was the other predominant feature of its décor, its main use being to fabricate the ground level tanks of live Fish, prawns and crabs (guests could wander among them to choose what they favoured for their meal). The plastic-topped tables weren’t set in any fashion; plastic containers or baskets held chopsticks and spoons. Then, as now, we’d polish plates and cutlery with paper napkins, usually brought from home. I was a little repulsed by the dirt floor, and the thin and mangy cats ranging around looking for titbits, but grew to realise that the greatest attraction was the quality of the seafood and the skill with which the dishes were cooked.

This has built up an expectation I still possess, that the most obscure, humble-looking, dirty place anywhere in the world should surely harbour some hidden treasure of an eating place.

Recipes in this Chapter

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