In search of Satay

The red lanterns above us sway in the slight breeze. Sweat trickles down our backs, and our faces are flushed in the heat. The air is redolent with the smell of barbecued meats. There are a variety of food stalls jostling for space on either side of the narrow street. Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur, is no different from Chinatowns all over the world.

The stall in front of us displays a variety of uncooked chunks on skewers ready to be picked and barbecued as per preference. “2.50 Ringgit”, the stall owner informs my husband, who is eyeing the satays with enthusiasm. My daughters shrink back, and I steer him away towards a poster of a restaurant claiming to serve the best Malay food in Chinatown.

Jalan Petaling, the adjacent street, is even more crowded. Stalls of fake scarves, bags, shoes and assorted sundries spill over into the streets. Louis Vuitton competes with Chanel, while Burberry muscles in on Mulberry. I am exhorted to buy with cries of “Lady…lady….pretty bag….” We weave our way through, side stepping other tourists who display more interest in the wares.My eyes are searching for the restaurant that will hopefully deliver on its promise. Espying it, we enter its cool environs and sit ourselves down in front of the fan, that swings lazily from side to side.

Alas! There is no satay on offer. Instead we choose Nasi Lemak for ourselves, and Nasi Goreng for the girls. The coconut flavoured rice arrives with its side of anchovies, cucumber and boiled egg, deep fried chicken and a hot chilli paste known as sambal. The girls make short work of their fried rice, while we savour the the exotic favours of the meal popularly referred to as Malaysia’s national dish.

The next day we once again set out on our search. The small shopping mall across from the LRT station has many local eateries, but no satay on its menus. This is proving to be Mission Impossible.

Later, we examine the menus of all the Malay sounding restaurants in Suria KLCC,the mall beneath the Petronas Towers, fruitlessly searching for the satay that has now elevated itself from a craving to an obsession. At one, we beckon a waiter over, and ask him where this elusive satay can be found. Something of our frustration conveys itself to him, and kindly, he signals to the centre. What I take to mean, ‘Middle One’, actually turns out to be ‘Madam Kwan’.

Impatiently we wait for our order to arrive. When it does, it more than ticks all the boxes. Six skewers of beef and chicken satay are accompanied by chopped cucumbers, onions and rice cake . There is a large bowl of peanut sauce, that we generously apply onto our satays. Each piece is steaming hot and succulent. We tuck into our satays with relish, and my husband declares them to be the best he’s ever tasted. Similarly replete, we nod in fervent complicity.

Appetite satiated, we wander out.

Mission accomplished.

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The need for a twist

The one common refrain I hear from the people that regularly read my stories is that they didn’t see the end coming. That little sting in the tail that I consciously, unconsciously or sub consciously seem to conclude my tales with. This has never been a planned thing. Not at the beginning anyway. Yet, from way back when, I always seemed to enjoy those stories more where I could not predict the outcome. Perhaps at some point I decided that this would be the way my stories would operate too.

Recently I watched ‘Gosford Park’ the much feted 2001 film. Even as I enjoyed the excellent ensemble cast and the central mystery, my overriding feeling was one of disappointment. I guessed who’d done it in the whodunit well before the final reveal. More crushingly, I’d guessed the why as well. Maybe that was not the point of the film, yet I couldn’t help but feel a tad cheated.

Conversely, when I finally got to sit down and marathon watch series 1 of ‘Broadchurch’ , the superlative British drama broadcast on ITV, I had no idea who had committed the crime. The series was littered with red herrings. With a growing cloud of suspicion over nearly every central character, the sting in the tail turned out to be even more venomous along with a complete jaw dropper. Now that was satisfying.

If there are, as claimed, only 7 plot lines to work with, then it gets very challenging for a writer to create an unpredictable denouement. This is even tougher in a short story, as the length of the tale as well as the number of characters are limited. A master of the twist was O. Henry. Within that limited scope he created stories like ‘The Gift of the Magi’ (of a penurious couple that each sell something of great value to themselves, to buy something of value to the other with an ironic but happy end) or ‘The last leaf’ (in which a painting saves a life but also loses another). For many of us, these are school days fodder. Yet the skill that it takes to create an end that no one saw coming is often undervalued.

These days I frequently find myself labouring to create that twist. Why? Because along with everyone else, I seem to have fallen into the trap of believing that this is my USP (unique selling point). Yet, that goes against the very grain of what I started my writing trajectory with. I wanted, more than anything else, to enjoy the process. Success, praise, applause would be very welcome. Yet I refuse to let it become the fountain of my inspiration. Equally, to believe that each of my stories should deliver a shocker at the end is subscribing to someone else’s idea of what my work should be.

So, I have taken a step back, and allowed myself the luxury of letting the story grow organically. I am not trying to strait jacket my characters into behaving to a prescribed formula. If that means they still surprise you at the end, then happy days. If not, I still hope the story stands by itself and for itself.

As always, I remain open to criticism, ridicule and censure…..with a bit of a sting. 🙂