Finding myself in Rome for a year even as a "dependent spouse"is fortuitous indeed! I am determined to explore, discover and experience as much as I can of this "Eternal City". A Daily Dose of Rome is an attempt to document and embed this experience in my memories.
Life tends to send curve balls our way, on a fairly regular basis. And life being the way it is, nothing can stop its wheels from turning inexorably forward. This past Christmas season, a family emergency led to an unscheduled return to Penang Island in Malaysia, my husband’s hometown, a place we visit on a regular basis because of its beautiful beaches and to-die-for hawker food. This time, however, because the main purpose of the visit was to be with my very ill mother-in-law, we did not stay in one of the beach hotels in the Batu Ferringhi area, but opted to stay in one of the downtown hotels; close to the hospital she was confined in and also very close to her house.
Through the years, and the twice a year visits, I have seen mother grow old, from the tall, strong woman (who welcomed me into their family unequivocally) to the frail wheel-chair bound elderly woman I saw a few months ago to the bedridden mother I encountered today. She has changed from the person who took care of everyone around her to one who depends on her daughters to look lovingly after her. But her kindness, her lively spirit and the sweet smile she had shines through even to this day.
view from the hotel
Visiting her daily in the hospital, finding a place to eat for lunch, squeezing in a time for Christmas shopping brought us daily through the heart of Penang Island, Jalan MacAlistaire, Chulia Street (backpackers' haven), Campbell Street (jewellers row), Kampung Malabar, Leith Street (where great-grandfather’s tailoring shop was), Love Lane Street (where the wife of older brother lived), Pitt street, Gurney Drive (a long road right beside the sea, ideal for joggers, strollers and others, content to sit and let the world go by), and many more streets, their English names a testimony to Penang and Malaysia’s colonial past.
Gurney at dusk
Walking these streets reawakened my husband’s memory banks, anecdotes shared, school boy escapades relived, coffee shops and hawker stalls revisited, favourite food tasted again, and then again. He brought me along with him down memory lane, awakening in me a deeper understanding of my Penang born husband and his mother, whose influence undeniably made my husband the man he is today.
Penang is an island with three cultures on vibrant display, Malay, Indian and Chinese. Culture, customs, holidays and food mingle amidst tall, imposing office buildings, international hotels, beach-side condominiums, preserved colonial buildings, mega-malls, picturesque shop houses, local coffee shops, and open air hawker stalls.
spires of an indian temple
Penang style coffee shop
Understanding Penang for a “foreigner” like me may be difficult. However, eating the food she has to offer is a very good way to start. Whether it be nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk, accompanied by curry and sambal), or Roti channai, (an Indian fried bread which one dunks into curry) or porridge, (a Chinese dish featuring rice with vegetables, tofu and other stuff) for breakfast. Or does one go for curry mee (chicken bits, tofu and bean sprouts in a spicy curried coconut mild based soup), in a particular street, in a particular coffee house? What about char quay teow (fried noodles with chillis, egg, beansprouts, clams, pork rind and other delicious stuff) or the very healthy yong tau fu (vegetables, stuffed tofu and fish balls in a lovely broth), or the very satisfying Fatty Loh’s chicken rice (a very delicious rendering of the Singaporean variety) for lunch? And then for dinner, a lauriat complete with suckling pig served two ways, peking duck served three ways and healthier alternatives like baked soft tofu with scallops, chilli crabs, or an Indian feast with tandoori chicken, rogan josh (lamb cooked in yougurt and spices), dhal (a pulse cooked with spices) with naan (an Indian bread baked against the hot walls of a naan oven), or chapatti (an unleavened Indian bread first dry fried in a hot pan and then grilled on an open fire) or a seafood feast in one of the many seafood restaurants just across the Penang Bridge, on the mainland.
For me, mother has been an integral part of my love for Penang. And her food! She cooked up a storm whenever we would visit and my children to this day say: “the best Chinese food in Penang is in Granny’s house”.
This was an anxious times for us, amidst the nostalgia of rediscovery, there was apprehension, because mother’s condition was grave, further complicated by her 95 years. Prayers and offerings for her recovery were undertaken by the family. My sisters-in-law went to the temple of Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) to say a prayer and make offerings for mother’s recovery. My husband and I went as well. I was told that the Chinese believed that if mother should survive the winter solstice, she would weather this crisis, and this is what we made our offerings for.
Temple of Guan Yin
And she did! The day before we left Penang, Mother came home from the hospital, frail but alive and very happy to be home. My sister-in-law informs us that she is improving every day, making us believe that she will be around to welcome us home to Penang for a little while longer.