|Smoked Trout with Ikura and Wasabi Mayonnaise, Sage.|
There is a gentle civility that makes Sage one of my favourite places for lunch. The beautifully pristine slabs of protein ornamented with small little leaves of Japanese herbs, form the little notes of a melismatic passage. Together with the accompaniment of resolute pearls Ikura with it's bold briny flavour and the gentle whisper of Wasabi Mayonnaise, it became a thunderous, beautiful symphonic chant to the Sea.
I am resigned to forget I am actually tearing into a piece of meat, a piece of now decaying flesh that used to be a part of the muscle that propels the graceful sway of the beautiful ocean trout as it swims in the ocean.
|Home Made Tagliolini Pasta with Seafood and Flat Leaf Parsley. Sage.|
Civilised Posh Nosh in beautifully assembled morsel sized bites.
Not having to deal with bones means that while imbibing and smacking my lips to a delicious meal, I would not have to be reminded that what I was chewing is something that used to be alive.
|Duck with Foie and Daikon, Sage.|
The harsh reality is that animal carcasses abound in any kitchen. Eviscerated, decapitated, hacked and skinned prior to be cooked and served, it is a scene right out of a medieval torture chamber . Disguised by beautiful garnishing and excellent plating, the odious idea that a sentient being has been killed and tortured to satisfy my craving is pushed right to the narrow recesses of my mind and lessens the guilt of having to grapple with the ethics of being an omnivore.
It's not that I find indulging in meat particularly objectionable , nor could I find any convincing philosophical arguments that manage to convince me to be a Vegetarian. As hypocritical as seems, I just don't like to be reminded that what I am chewing was once alive.
|Fresh Cherry Fruit with Champagne Sabayon and Vanilla Ice Cream, Sage|
Perhaps it is the cartoons I have watched as an impressionable youngster that bestowed emotions, rationality and feelings to animals. Somehow or another I feel uncomfortable with the thought of massacre of animals as a necessity for my pleasure and sustenance. I was never comfortable eating meat with bones stuck on them, and my preferred cut of poultry is still the breast, where there is a minimal chance of confronting fresh blood oozing from the marrow.
I suppose the rest of the English speaking world share some of my queasiness. Pork is never referred to as Pig and Beef never as Cow.
This was my narrow view of what civilized posh nosh should be. Beautifully presented food with minimal reminder of the original state of the victim and it's merciless termination of life.
When it comes to humans, who do we consider to be a civilized person? What are the qualities we deem as pre requisites to be considered civilized?
"Is it painful?" I asked N as the Tattooist stroked his skin with a tattooing needle to the accompanying high pitched whir that resembles a Dentist's drill humming in the background. There were splotches of bright red blood on his skin as the needle broke through the epidermal layer of his skin. (Those who follow my misadventures on twitter may recall that he puked and passed out after that.)
I have been asked the same question by him when I visited him and his friends in their mess, invited over for impromptu dinners. Sometimes after a long day at work would leave my neck in spasm and if I arrived with a stooped head or wince slightly while reaching out for something, he would ask, "Pain?". I would just smile.
After dinner, while I read amidst the hive of post dinner activities of migrant foreign workers in the background that involves strumming the guitar, a loud telephone conversation in a foreign language back home or the gentle blare of soap opera from the TV, I will get a pat on my back. This will be followed by a warm towel on my neck and N or H will give me a neck massage. There is no use protesting, they will be adamant and will only stop when they feel that the neck muscles are soft and pliable again.
N and his friends are from Myanmar. N is tall, lanky with dry, dark skin marred by splotches of eczema due to chronic exposure to industrial solvents. He is heavily tattooed and pierced. He would be the least likely person one would consider to be civilized. Foreign workers are not very well regarded in Malaysia, especially the semi skilled workers.
It was a chance encounter. I needed to some independent fact checking on Moulmein (known as Mawlamyine now), and asked my friend if he had any workers from that region. He had two, he said and I could meet them. N and H are ethnically Mon, with a distinctive language and script of it's own. Together with V, a Karen tribesman and T, a Shan tribesman, they share the largest room in a double storey terraced house my friend owned and used as a hostel for his Myamar workers.
All four of them have a unique story to tell, and I shall start with the story of N. His father passed away when he was 12, and he left home to work illegally in Thailand with his elder brother at the age of 16 because he did not want to burden his mother who had to take care of 2 other younger siblings. He hasn't used a single dime from home since then.
Working in Thailand was not easy. Thailand shared a long history of warfare with Burma in the olden days. The Siamese Kingdom of Ayutthaya was ended with the sacking and looting of Ayuttaya by the second King of the Burmese Konbaung Dysnasty, Hsinbyushin. Ayutthaya was razed to the ground. Golden statues of the Buddha was melted and more than 90,000 Thais were taken as slaves back to Burma.
The event has been long rallied as a sore point in Thailand's history and many migrant Burmese workers to Thailand face some prejudice from the authorities. After saving enough money to obtain a Visa to Malaysia, N finally escaped the intimidation of Thai Police and made his way to KL.
The past 3 years had been kind to N. With a monthly salary of more than RM1,300 and plus some overtime allowance, he has managed to send approximately RM500 home every month. One of his brothers is attending University in Rangoon and another one to follow suit next summer. But still, his material possessions till today is compared paltry by any standards. 6 t-shirts, 5 pairs of jeans, a mobile phone and his most expensive possession, his tattoos.
I have asked him many times if he needed any financial help. I could easily do without one or two lunches and would be more than glad to help out, obligation free. But the answer was always the same. A squeeze on my shoulder, no, he can manage and if the time comes, he will let me know and every single cent will be paid back in due time.
|Skull Motif on H's Arms. The Tattoo has yet to be completed.|
Finances are managed prudently. Lunch is taken care of by their factory. Breakfast is simple, bread and coffee and dinners are home cooked. Cigarettes are usually communal, shared out in the room and the last stick belongs to the person who bought the pack. This is their unwritten rule. Read magazines and newsletters from Myanmar are taken out to the living room to be shared out.
Is it easier to share when one has less, while relative wealth makes another hoard and be possessive?
Their only indulgence is to spend about RM50 to 70 each on their weekends, Beer and Myanmar Food at their hangout at Jalan Cheng Lock. Coincidently, that area was also the place where Chinese immigrants like my grandfather congregated at the turn of the 20th century.
If somebody falls asleep in the room, any conversation will be carried out in the living room or the balcony outside as not to disturb the one sleeping.
|Tattoo on H's back|
What is most amazing about N is despite having gone through so many traumas in life, he is not bitter about life. Our friendship is easy. Minimalist. No superficial hello hugs, no callous "take cares". He does not pretend to understand my job, in fact he never once asked what I do for a living, nor try to estimate my salary. All he knows is I work horrendously long hours and I am usually dead tired at the end of the day.
Messages are always answered all be it in broken English. Calls are always returned, unlike some lofty friends who claim that they are always too busy with their work and family but find time to write a long email or text message when they require some information and advice.
I never fear that I will be taken advantage of. Loans are short term, settled within the same day, after the shopping trip. The cost meals are shared out, unless it is specified that it will be a treat before the meal.
The care and concern is genuine. Although I am sometimes pissed that he and his friends text me at night when I am working and insist I have dinner with them because they cooked something I liked, I always find out later that it is always for my own good. I do need that break and usually leave their house happier and less tired. Freer days are spent reading to their ambient chatter and answering their questions about what I am reading. If I am less chatty, they will know that I am not in the mood and just leave me be for a while. Occasionally, when I am extra quiet and caught up in my own world, they will bring out the guitar and start playing the only Myanmar song I can sing after 4 months of attempting to learn the language. That usually breaks down my wall of ice.
Once a week I have my Myanmar lessons, writing and vocabulary. More about my adventures attempting to learn a polytonal language later. Invariably, the lessons will end up with learning some really wicked curse words and hysterical laughter.
|Perfect Tattoo on Imperfect Skin|
N does not pretend to be clever or intelligent. He does not pretend to know how tired I am. He is not interested in who my friends are. Life for him is lived at the present. We share a lot of similarities, but he was not as lucky as I was in obtaining some formal education.
He may not fit into one's image of a civilized man, and some may call him a savage. But to me, he is a gentleman and I am proud to call him my friend. Sometimes we want to get to know somebody because of the persona they project, especially through social media. But that is just good marketing skills. I can count with one hand the number of people I have met that lives up to that image.
Many times I have gone through my life with this preconceived notion of how a person should behave and food be presented. I dread to think how many people I have shut out from my life through this fault. This is one unforgettable lesson that N has taught me.
Both N and H will be going back to Myanmar in 5 days time for six weeks. It will be their first time seeing their family members after 3 years. I sincerely wish them Bon Voyage and a safe trip home.
|Seafood Paella from Chef Choi|
In the same vein, I was quick to dismiss Chef Choi's as an uninteresting restaurant serving the same, uninspiring Chinese Cuisine found elsewhere in KL. I was wrong. It is a gem, helmed by an enthusiastic Chef with an encyclopaedic knowledge of food and culinary arts.
When a friend invited me over for dinner, I was thrilled to find one of the most perfect paella in KL. Beautiful plump slightly al dente Arborio rice soaked with a generous amount of Saffron in the stock and served with prawns, squid, mussels and bits of Serrano ham, it was a delightful paella, much better than I have tasted in some Spanish Restaurants in KL.
Perfect Paella in a Chinese Restaurant. Almost unimaginable.
|Roasted Pork Belly|
The theme for dinner was Barbecue. It is such a primitive way of cooking meat. I could imagine cavemen huddling together in a cave while they roast their catch from the forest in an open fire. Worse of all, body parts abound, complete with bones and the form of carcass.
It was an invite that was very hard to refuse. CS had been so generous and is a treasure trove of culinary knowledge. Gregarious and witty, she could rattle on about food for hours and had been exposed to some of the most famous restaurants in the world.
I prepared myself for a bit of blood, gore and carnage as I made it to Chef Choi's.
The traffic was mercifully light during the fasting month. This was not the first time I was at Chef Choi's. I was there a few months back for a noodles inspired dinner. I saw glimpses of Chef Choi's creativity and skill back then, but was not prepared for his versatility in the kitchen.
If the Paella was magnificent, but the Spaghetti Vongole was subdued and meek in comparison. It just couldn't compete with the resolute saffron. The attraction of the day was the meat in all it's bloody gory. Humongous slabs of meat with crimson blood trickling by the side with bloodied marrow like a scene out of a B grade horror movie.
It was precisely the moment when the Barbecued Lamb Shank was served that I received a text message from N. My car battery had stalled after I arrived at Chef Choi's and I had texted N informing him that I will be late for our weekly Burmese Lesson. N wanted to come over with his friends to keep watch over my car while the mechanic from AAM replaced the battery. He was worried that I wouldn't be able to enjoy my meal while worrying about my car.
This was followed by another text message from H asking if I needed help from his cousin who is a mechanic at Chan Sow Lin, a skip away from Jalan Ampang. T called and wanted to preform CPR on the car. He just attended a CPR demonstration at his factory.
After a flurry of text messages reassuring them that everything was fine and taken care of and their text messages were distracting me from my meal more than my stalled car, my moment of epiphany arrived.
If I was able to enjoy their friendship in the most primitive form without the trappings of superficiality and decorum as society expects, why should I be distracted by garnishing and beautiful plating when I am enjoying a piece of meat?
I tore into into the lamb with relish.
It was one of the most beautiful piece of lamb meat I have ever tasted. The texture was tender, almost creamy with the wonderful aroma of Rosemary and garlic steeped into every fibre of the meat. The most basic cooking technique had rendered the meat perfect.
One does not need anything else to enjoy meat. Just a really good piece of meat, marinated well and cook at the right temperature for the correct duration of time.
|Fried Fan Pei|
The meal kicked off with some basic salad to balance out the meat, interestingly served with the slightly salty shoyu sesame dressing and the wonderfully tart and fragrant lemon cilantro dressing.
The roasted pork belly came with the crackling detached. I am not a big fan of pork and perhaps not qualified to pass any comments on it, but thought that the meat was tender and juicy though I found the crackling slightly too chewy.
|Pan Fried Matsusaka Beef on Glutinous Rice|
Bovine indulgence came in two forms, Roasted Prime Rib on Bone and Steak Florentine. Both were exemplary in both the meat texture and taste. I couldn't decide which was better as I have eaten more red meat in that meal than I have for the entire year.
Carbohydrate relief was Potato Boulangre and Yorkshire Pudding which had the weight watchers commiting the sin of wanton stuffing with carbohydrate without feeling a single ounce of remorse.
|Boston Lobster Yee Mee|
That dinner was not my virginal experience of being seduced by Chef Choi's food. On a previous occasion, another palate orgy was organised and involved lashings with strands of noodles and scalding with almond milk with giant lobster pincers creatively used to induce orgasm.
|Almond Milk with Papaya|
Chef Choi is also a dessert genius. The gorgeous Almond Milk with papaya is a work of sheer genius. I am not sure if any of you are partial towards Almond Milk like I am because if you do, then Chef Choi's is the promised land and this beautiful dish will be the Manna from heaven.
Lush and thick, with the distinctive taste of ground almond, it was served warm with bits of papaya and lotus seed.
His "western" desserts are equally delectable. The tart tartin was praiseworthy, served with fresh cream with crushed vanilla pods inside.
Sometimes I do need a good slap of honesty to wake me up. Meat is meat and no amount of dressing up can hide the fact that I am chewing into a piece of flesh. What I thought was savagery in devouring a prey with the body parts intact at a barbecue was just enjoying meat in it's purest form and Chef Choi was an excellent place to be introduced to it.
Like wise in my personal life. The boys remind me that one does not need much to be happy, and they are indeed some of the happiest people I have met in life. Much happier than morose intellectual wannabes trying to rationalize through their empty lives molly cuddled by a false sense of being superior to everyone around them.
Happier than some bloggers competing for hits and beautiful photos and bragging about their lives when all they expose is a empty hole where the brain is supposed to be and a huge emptiness in their soul trying to live out the persona they try to portray.
Much happier than the handsomely paid executives in multinationals who live in the fear of making a wrong decision and being stabbed in the back.
Much much happier than I am, stuck in a job that I loath, but happen to do be competent in.
They boys live their lives devoid of pretence and they are completely comfortable with who they are. The sure as hell will not pick up a passage from Proust, looking it up in wikipedia and try to impress me. It's unimaginable.
They have never stood me up and in fact provide relief for me when I am left dangling from last minute dinner cancellations. There were always there for me when I needed some comic relief.
After spending more than 12 hours of a working day pretending to fit in to a job that demands that I forsake my entire persona and ideals, the last thing I need is more pretence. I just want to enjoy my time being who I really am in the company of people who are being their real selves.
Just like biting into some juicy unadorned barbecued meat at Chef Choi's.
|Snow Skin Mooncake|
Pictures at Sage (no pork served) is from their daily lunch sets at RM 100.
Barbecue Dinner available at Chef Choi (non halal) is available upon advanced order. Please call +60 3 2163 5866 for reservation and prices. It is located at 159, Jalan Ampang, in between the MCA building and Pelita Nasi Kandar.