Monday, April 26, 2010

Dealing with mosquitoes in the old days

BACK in the days when mosquitoes were less deadly and dengue or chikungunya were unheard of, there were many ways of dealing with the insect. One of my favourites was to use a medium-sized plate, coat it with a thin layer of coconut oil, and swipe it at a flying mosquito. Nine times out of 10, the flying terror would be caught on the plate.

Just after sunset, as we sat around the serambi (verandah) of the house, one of us would be armed with the sticky plate and get ready for the mosquitoes that had the habit of swarming above our heads.

A few well-timed swipes would yield teaspoonfuls of dead mosquitoes. And when the plate was full, or the oil no longer sticky, we just washed it and coat it with a new film of oil and get ready for the next round.

Of course, this was not the only way we dealt with mosquitoes.

Most houses in the kampung we lived in were built on stilts. Just before the sunset, we would drop embers into dried sabut (coconut husks) to smoke out the mosquitoes.

From afar, it would appear that someone had let off a smoke bomb, just like today's fogging operations, but less choking, I think.

During rainy seasons, when the mosquitoes were too many or when they were more stubborn than usual, we would drop dried chillies into the smouldering husks to add zing to the smoke. And it never failed to drive the mosquitoes from underneath the house.

Some of our neighbours would also burn garden refuse in the evenings.

Today's environmental activists may frown on this practice but in those days, the open burning was a well-accepted prelude to a good night's sleep as the refuse smouldered through the night and kept the mosquitoes away, or so many of us thought.

Those who could afford mosquito nets would string them up over their beds. Additionally, mosquito coils would also be lit.

On some windy months, we often hear tales of houses being razed in fires that were believed to have started from mosquito nets that got caught on a burning mosquito coil.

We also had ways to deal with the mosquito bites; we would spread a glob of kapur (edible lime) that you use in the batter for making crunchy pisang goreng (fried banana fritters) over the swelling.

Before Mopiko and Tiger Balm became vogue, every household that knew how to deal with the bites had kapur stored in recycled Brylcreem or Hazeline Snow bottles tucked away behind the doors or under the bed.

The lime not only soothed the skin but also reduced the swelling.

The only discomfort lime balm users had to endure was the embarrassing white spots all over their limbs.

Today, such "home remedies" are considered primitive.

I am sure your neighbours would report you for open burning even if it is garden refuse that you are trying to get rid of.

I doubt you'd know where to buy edible lime these days since chewing sireh (betel leaves) is no longer in vogue.

You would probably laugh if you see me use kapur on my skin for mosquito bites.

And you would also not hesitate to use the latest aerosol spray you see on television or switch on the electric mosquito repellent with little thought to whether they are any safer than what we used in the old days.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Migrant workers' ability to endure hardship source of inspiration

WHENEVER negativity swamps me, I look at the migrant workers I meet daily and look for inspiration in their lives.

Last week, I found yet another. The Myanmar helper who worked at the noodle stall I regularly go to is now his own boss.

His former boss told me that he had taken over a chicken rice stall at the food court next door.

"You don't keep them long," said the noodle seller, with discernible disdain.

"Once they have learnt the tools of the trade, they will leave.

"They are not loyal. And don't expect them to be grateful, too.

"Let's see if he thinks it is easy to be his own boss."

I was amused by his reaction, although it was unexpected. I recall how the chap was treated when he arrived at the stall two years ago.

Hardly able to speak or understand the local lingo, he was frequently the brunt of his employer's foul-mouthed tirade when orders got mixed up or were missed.

But each time, the chap would take the profanities raining down on him with a grin. Perhaps because he did not understand the meaning of the words.

I used to see him taking his lunch late in the afternoon when the crowd had petered out. Each meal was identically monotonous -- a heap of white rice soaked in curry gravy and a small plate of vegetables.

Despite the simplicity of each meal, he would enthusiastically tuck into it with the appetite of a man who had not eaten for days, as if grateful to have something to eat.

And as soon as he had finished eating, instead of engaging in idle chat with his peers, he would be back at the noodle stall busying himself with what needed to be done and was expected of him.

Seeing him work, one sensed an air of diligence and usefulness about him. Perhaps it was this that his former employer missed.

We meet migrant workers like the Myanmar stall helper every day. We see them in restaurants, at petrol stations and supermarkets. They serve us, sweep the floors, or mind the children. They do the more mundane jobs we once did, which we are now fortunate enough to pay someone else to do.

Some of them are here to earn an honest living; some try to make a fast buck and take advantage of our generosity.

Whatever it is, they all come in search of a better life or to escape the nightmare in their own land.

Many return to their countries years later with little more than the shirts on their backs.

Others build their dreams here instead, making do with whatever opportunity they can find and work hard at it.

Each time they serve my family and me at the hawker centres and restaurants, I would say "thank you". And I make my children do the same, not just for courtesy but to remind us how much better off we are in many ways.

We have no doubt achieved a higher standard of living, to be waited upon and served, but I also wonder if we have not lost something precious along the way - like the ability to endure hardship, the persistence to plod on not knowing if we will succeed, and the resilience to start all over again if we fail. And of course, we should learn to count our blessings that we need not, like them, leave our homes and loved ones and travel to another country to make our dreams come true.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Pandan leaves worked like magic

A COUPLE of weeks back, I bought 4kg of gerut-gerut fish (barred javel in) at RM16 per kg at the pasar malam in Taman Melawati. It was a bargain as the flesh of the fish tasted as good as the red snapper although they are not related.

For those who had been fooled by fishmongers, into thinking that the fish was a cousin of the red snapper, RM20 per kg would be appear to be a bargain compared to the red snapper’s price of over RM25 per kg.

But since I knew that the gerut-gerut was not related to the red snapper, the fishmonger had to make do with the price I offered him.

On theway home, I suggested to my wife that half of the fish be cooked in gulai kesum — clear spicy soup with generous helpings of kesum (smartweed) leaves and kangkung (water convolvulus) — and the remainder be frozen for another day’s cooking.

My wife was surprised by how well the dish turned out. I told her it was to be expected as fresh fish can be prepared in any style. Only week-long frozen ones are deepfried till they are crispy and dosed with tomyam sauce so that the gullible would think they are fresh.

The next day, while thinking about how to cook the frozen half of the fish, I was hit by an overpowering stench as I opened my car door. It smelt like a pasar borong the day after trading. The bony fins of the fish must have punctured the two plastic bags they were wrapped in the previous night and spilled the juices onto the carpet.

For the next 24 hours, all I had in mind was how to get rid of the smell so that my colleagues would not think that I was working part-time as a fishmonger.

First, I bought the fabric deodoriser that I saw on TV and emptied half a bottle onto the car’s carpet. Then I placed a Japanese carbon deodoriser on the dashboard. If both was as effective as advertised they should remove the dead fish smell by the following day.

Next morning, my hope of catching a refreshing whiff wa s dashed. The stink was worse than ever. Then I remembered the bottle of French perfume I got for my wife years ago. She had only used it once because, according to her, it was too strong.

I sprayed 12 shots of the perfume (which I shall not name, out of professional courtesy) onto the carpet. If it worked, then it would be worth more than the RM495 I paid for that bulbous purple bottle of perfume years ago.

But the same stink greeted me the next day. If anything, my car smelt like a toilet, not like that eau de toilette. Then I recalled how I had used p an da n (screwpine) leaves to remove a tempoyak-like (fermented durian) smell frommy car a few years ago after agreeing to transport durians to a friend’s home.

I bought half a kilogramme of pandan leaves, spread them all over the carpet and parked my car under the hot sun for a full day and repeated it the next day. The pan - dan leaves worked their magic.

After 48 hours, the dead fish smell was gone. The pandan fragrance lingered for several days. Someone I gave a lift to saidmy car smelled nice. I wonder why no one has come up with a pandan fragrance and sell it as air fresheners. It may not be wise to smell like a cookie but I think most people would not mind their car smelling like bengka (a pandan-flavoured baked cake) instead of a bangkai (carcass).

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Illegal food hawkers a bane to restaurants

I HAD just finished dinner at one of the restaurants at a newly opened business area in Wangsa Maju when the owner dropped by my table for a chat.

What started as an enquiry about his food quality trailed off to a 15-minute discussion about illegal traders that have sprouted down his street and how their presence was beginning to bother him and other shop owners.

I said I was surprised he should have minded since I have always thought that any business would welcome a little competition.

The food business could certainly do with variety.

Any food haven worth its name should be one that has almost everything within walking distance and I have not seen one that failed because of variety, yet.

Those that offer the best prices, tastiest fare and the fastest and around-the-clock service have always done well.

I said to the restaurant operator that he should not worry about his competitors but concentrate on his cooking and on keeping his prices reasonable instead. He replied that I had misunderstood him. He had no problem with competition with those operating legitimately in the area.

The ones he was concerned about were those that appeared at sunset, operating on road islands, pavements, alleys and car parks from makeshift stalls. He explained that while he had to contend with the taxes, business licences, and stiff rental, the highly mobile roadside traders operate on very low investments, save for makeshift stalls, bins to transport water for their cooking, tables and chairs, and a portable generator to light up their trading areas.

He added that some traders who encroached onto parking lots to be near popular restaurants were not only depriving visitors of parking space but were also obstructing the traffic. Traffic woes aside, he also questioned the hygiene level at these stalls.

His complaints were nothing new. Visit any new booming business areas and you will find a familiar sight -- makeshift stalls of all shapes and sizes coming up to tap into the growing traffic.

Fewer in the city centre but common in the outskirts, these traders start small but eventually grow in numbers until they become a permanent feature. And in their wake, they leave a host of problems behind including litter, leftovers, rats and traffic obstruction.

When local councils are forced to move these trading colonies because they have become unmanageable and have turned into eyesores instead of sight for sore eyes, the issue becomes an emotional tussle.

The authorities have to tread a fine line between their responsibilities to ratepayers and compassion towards the little man-in-the-street trying to eke out a living.

And when the tug-of-war begins, it doesn't take much guessing on who will end up looking like the bad guy.