In November of 2019, my parents and brother were back in Kuala Lumpur for a wedding. I still remember my Mama relaying questions from my relatives, asking when I’d be back next while I sat at my desk at work.
“Haneen is usually here now.”
I usually am.
The last time I was back in Kuala Lumpur was January 2019 for my 27th birthday. My first trip back with my mother since all four of us were going back-and-forth on tag-team trips over the course of about six months, caring for my grandfather before he passed. Following the passing of my grandmother when I was 21 and the subsequent loss of my family home, I decided to continue taking myself back there at least once a year. These trips were opportunities for me to see family, enhance my Malay language skills, attend weddings, meet new babies and most importantly, reconcile my relationship with my hometown and my country as my own person. By that last trip, I had even finally discovered the adrenaline-filled thrill of driving through the streets of Kuala Lumpur – despite already having had a licence for the last ten years. To feel comfortable enough to feel behind the wheel in a place where motorcycles and bicycles weaved through traffic, major street signs consistently appear three seconds too late and torrential rain can pour down without a moment’s notice reinforced that this was a skill I was meant to have. Even if it came late.
It felt freeing and I was excited to see what my next trip would involve, how my friendships would deepen and how I would continue to carve out my place in a chaotic city that somehow always had time for me.
Due to both Malaysia’s and Australia’s border closures, I have now not returned to Kuala Lumpur in three years – a distance of time matched only once when we were grounded awaiting Permanent Residency here in Australia. The space between Darwin and Kuala Lumpur feels minuscule compared to my seventeen years in Adelaide, where some years I reluctantly boarded that 8-hour flight upwards of four or five times.
The closeness of Darwin to South East Asia made my heart ache in new and unexpected ways. Thankfully, we have been barely touched by COVID-19, which meant the Rapid Creek markets remained open and I had plenty of access to most Asian fruits or vegetables I could have wanted. Stalls and stalls of intensely green and pink sweets in all forms, accompanied by sago pudding had me flitting between the kitchens of my great aunts during Hari Raya, while sweet tofu returned me to my place beside my uncle in the blue of the wet market, where I would always receive a bottle of soya milk to drink if I was good.
My proximity to distance meant I became obsessed with eating almost exclusively Malay food and found myself manually transcribing recipes into a notebook from photographs of hand-written recipes my mother would send me on WhatsApp. I was determined to master multiple kinds of rendang, rebung masak lemak, ondeh-ondeh and even just fried cutlets of Spanish mackerel coated with salt and turmeric. My determination soared from more complex dishes like ayam masak merah, to making bubur that could compete with my mother’s (it couldn’t). Cooking Malay food became my lifeline that propped me up and kept me going, kept me connected and kept me sane at a time when I was so unable to settle in and eat a home-cooked meal with my own cousins.
During this time I also uncovered more about my own family history. Through an exhibition I was working on, I learned about how my immediate family’s favourite dessert of tinned rambutan, lychees and almond jelly was a by-product of my mother’s childhood memory of living through the 1969 Racial Riots in Malaysia, where tinned jelly and fruit were provided as rations. Through a family Zoom on my maternal grandmother’s side, her brother candidly shared a story of witnessing beheadings in a local field next to their home during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. Other than knowing that my grandfather was a Prisoner of War to the Japanese while studying in Hong Kong and presumed dead for some time, the horrifying reality behind these experiences have largely died with my grandparents’ generation.
Some months into these efforts and countless hours between my kitchen and any Asian grocery store within a 20km radius, marketing for the Darwin International Laksa Festival began. A government-funded event that encourages people throughout the Northern Territory to go out, taste any laksa they can find and finally culminates in an event somewhere in the CBD. The definition of laksa here is loose. Laksas here are a distant relative of the popular curry laksa, but more sweet, creamy, often not too spicy and with toppings that vary anywhere from pumpkin, dumplings and BBQ pork. Businesses are encouraged to get creative, in turn advertising everything from laksa ice cream, laksa sausages, laksa chocolate and laksa cocktails.
The iconography of the festival features two Chinese-looking children in traditional Chinese clothing, playing with chopsticks and one with a bowl upturned on their head. These characters were accompanied by a “laksa ninja”, horrifying proof that the festival organisers were more interested in cute Asian caricatures rather than engaging any of the Malaysian population or consulting a history book, which would reveal that the Japanese occupied Southeast Asia between 1941-1945 to devastating effect.
I turned back to cooking as a way of making sense of what felt like wilful violence against the ongoing strength of my culture. Grateful for the internet and my shaky blend of Indonesian and Malay language skills, I informed my friends I was holding a dinner party – a laksa dinner party. Three different types of laksa made from scratch; assam laksa, Sarawak laksa and a curry laksa turned vegetarian. For the assam laksa, I spent a solid week trying to locate the most appropriate fish before finally tracking down mouth fish at the fishmonger. I taught myself how to gut the small, friendly-looking fish through a how-to video in Indonesian that I found on YouTube, which I propped up above my kitchen sink and set on auto-repeat for a couple of hours until the actions became second nature.
Each laksa required many hours of labour, as most Malaysian dishes do. The most satisfying part is getting the minyak to pecah, or oil to separate from the paste. A procedure that makes or breaks a dish and is the key to the sweet and complex flavours in our food. It demands what feels like endless time and attention in front of a hot stove, only for the final steps of the process to be completed within minutes. Finally, it just came time to prepare the fresh condiments of pineapple, cucumber, onion, chicken, prawn and sambal and have everyone help themselves.
We sat outside across two trestle tables on my balcony, sweating from a combination of the laksa and build-up November humidity. Everyone is laughing, eating, squeezing past each other to get up to help themselves for more and pouring drinks for one another. And for a split second, I feel like I’m back in Kuala Lumpur, sharing a meal with my cousins.
This No Compass edition is supported by Multicultural Arts Victoria, as a part of the 2022 Ahead of the Curve Commissions.