Our Food Goes Wherever We Go

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Totem Park Maggi Mee (Dormitory version)

Ingredients:

  • 1 x packet of Maggi Mee
  • 1 x egg

Instructions:

  1. Boil water. Pour into rice cooker and turn on.
  2. Add in one packet of noodles. Add seasoning. Break in an egg too.
  3. Cook until soft. Serve.

It was a Friday after class, and I was in my dormitory on campus with a couple of friends from my floor. They were both scholarship students, sent over to Vancouver to earn their engineering degrees, and we were new to the city. The seasons were just changing, and the leaves were turning brown and falling. We sat expectantly around the rice cooker that fit into the narrow room, longing for a meal from home.

There was nothing very good in the cafeteria, and the “ethnic” selection was often disappointing. I did however have a small rice cooker, and the three of us had packets of maggi mee stashed away in our luggage. We would later find out that the local Asian supermarkets stocked a bewildering selection of instant noodles as well as Old Town White Coffee.

The instant noodles were successful, but other ambitious efforts much less so. For anything particularly special, we would have to take a trip off campus in search of Malaysian food. On one of our early shopping expeditions, we stumbled upon a hipster restaurant across the road from Victory Square. It claimed to serve Malaysian and Thai curries, which cheered us up to no end – but the fusion food proved disappointing.

So I was quite pleased with myself when I “discovered” Hawker’s Delight a few months later – a hole-in-the-wall establishment billing itself as a Singaporean restaurant. It was located in a working-class neighbourhood filled with small foreign restaurants running the gamut from Japanese to Jamaican food. I never quite found out why its Malaysian owners decided to move to Canada in the first place, and why they ended up setting up a restaurant.

I suspect that it was because they, like me, are foreigners. Finding work is never easy – it is easier to move into the service industry, to cook and sell food. It is the flip side of the immigrant dream – many qualified people run restaurants, drive taxis or work in factories while they could have been doctors or engineers instead. It is a difficult fact to stomach, but I was simply glad to get a good meal for a good price.

We would eventually find other places: Laksa King was run by a Burmese couple who once worked in Penang, serving massive bowls of laksa alongside Burmese dishes like mohinga and lahpet, all the while keeping the neon lights and plush seats it inherited from a diner that once occupied the lot. Penang Delight hosted us shortly after we held a demonstration protesting the 13th General Election, when we put down our flags and went off to celebrate despite not achieving anything. Those restaurants formed part of our constellation of familiar markers, reminders of home even though we were cold and far away.

When I eventually left the city, I went traveling as far as I could go for work experience. I temporarily settled down in a small city on the edge of the Prairies, where I ran into another knot of Malaysian students.

In that quiet, cold place, we built strong bonds of friendship that would tide us through the cold months, snow piling deep and temperatures falling to 30 degrees below zero. I was there for Raya, where everyone brought something to the table. I don’t remember what I contributed, but it was probably either fried rice or noodles, seasoned with ikan bilis that made its way past customs.

Other students had tried to sneak foods back in, with varying degrees of success – one friend was forced to watch as a kilogram of bak kwa was confiscated, while I heard rumours that someone sneaked a whole durian through.

But at the dining table, all the food was excellent, the aroma of home seeping through the old house on the edge of campus. Eventually I ended up in a small town in the Okanagan Valley, working with newfound fellow students at a research laboratory. We were working next to an experimental farm, the valley was beautiful and we had a lot of time. I introduced my friends to the joys of ikan bilis and bakuteh.

It turned out that one of the laboratory technicians was originally from Malaysia, and her husband was a retired major in the Canadian Reserves. We were invited over for dinner one evening, where there was curry and lots of Boh tea, while her husband proudly showed us his collection of war memorabilia and German Empire helmets. That unusual Malaysian connection so far from home stuck in my memory, so some time later, before graduating, that dinner scene found its way into a play that I wrote shortly before graduating.

The Malaysian and Singaporean societies set aside their friendly rivalry (the Singaporean association had seceded from the Malaysian one, naturally) to put together an annual gala during that last spring equinox. The main draw was the food, catered from Malaysian restaurants scattered around the city, and there was a stage play as a bonus.

I joined the production, filling in scenes based on some of my own journeys. Ultimately it was a story about home and belonging. I wrote an adaptation of that dinner in the Valley into the play. Taking place at the midpoint of the play, with its promise of security and comfort at the edge of a confusing world with difficult decisions ahead, the dinner sequence was one of the most coherent elements of the night. They were reminders of family and home, the comfort of familiar meals, and the sense of certainty that everything would be alright.



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