The Story of Four Italians
Beach Barbecue, Eat, Drink and Ice Cream!
In 1997, I moved to a small fishing village in Terengganu called Merang.It was a quiet place, the only time it was busy was when tourists came over to get on the boat from Merang pier to Redang island during the holidays. I was running one of the guest houses on the beach and we also had a small cafe attached.
Back then, Merang was a small paradise in itself if you like remote unspoiled beaches and places where cellphone coverage was very minimal. Only two decent grocery stores were available and none sold ginger because the ginger would get rotten before anyone bought them! I got the shock of my life when I discovered that, and true enough, one of the grocers showed me his basket full onions sprouting leaves.
So, I guessed the villagers planted their own herbs and spices for daily consumption or hardly used ginger in their cooking at all. From then on, I made a fortnight visit to the nearest town 45 km away to get the supply of ginger and other useful things.
I was pregnant with my first baby at that time. The environment was very good for me. Cool clean fresh air. Swimming in the open sea practically at my doorstep. I could collect plenty of fresh clams called "remis" by digging shallow holes in the sand at the water's edge. They were quite good to eat, even a simple remis soup was very nice.
The guest house had twenty rooms but the seven rooms facing the beach were always on demand. One day, two pairs of elderly Italian couples came and decided to rent two rooms for a couple of nights. They spoke minimal English but we handled the communication just fine by using a lot of hand gestures and also drawing on a piece of paper.
It was my first experience with Italian tourists, I was not aware of their passion with food! I think the first dinner they had I prepared sweet and sour king mackerel with a simple tofu soup and white rice. The four of them consumed enough food for ten people. The meal was washed off with slices of juicy watermelon, coffee and ice-cream. They actually clapped my hands as I came out of the kitchen because they were really happy with my cooking. I was happy but also embarrassed because I never got this kind of "celebrity chef" treatment before.
So, on the next day, they indicated to me that they wanted pasta for lunch. Pasta? In a remote Malay village like Merang? So, being a creative cook that I was, I saw the only possibility was using rice vermicelli and made some nice stir fry noodles with it. While the happy couples frolicked on the beach and sunbathed, I dug some remis and managed to collect a huge pot within half an hour.
Back to the kitchen, I chopped plenty of garlic, washed off beansprout, shredded vegetables and carrots, soaked the vermicelli noodles (called beehoon) and started cooking. The remis was thrown in before the noodles and when the shells were open a few minutes later, I know they were ready to eat.
Mmm... I actually never prepared beehoon like this before and guess what? The whole batch was consumed in no time by those hungry holidaymakers and they wanted MORE! One of the ladies asked me what it was so I said it was beehoon. She took out a notebook and asked me to write it down so that she could ask for it the next time she went to another Malaysian restaurant because she loved it so much.
It was therefore not surprising that after they lunch they actually found another way to spend the holidays by digging out their own remis for me to prepare another feast for dinner. Even more surprising was the fact that instead of two nights, they extended their stay for a week!
The next day was my bi-weekly visit to town for supplies. Both men wanted to come along and get some big fish from the market for barbecue. Good because I had two extra pairs of strong arms to carry the stuff back home. I loved watching them shopped and haggled for those fish. These Italians really knew their seafood. They bought four big red snappers and I mean it, those were REALLY big. Also two big whole chickens. They snapped off fresh herbs and sniffed at them. Maybe they were expecting European herbs like basil and thyme.
Back to the guest house, while the charcoal was being prepared in the barbecue pit, one of them borrowed a knife and a big basin from me. He gutted, scaled and washed the fish using the seawater. Another one asked for a tub of butter and quartered the chickens.
If you see the passion, how they worked and how they talked non-stop while sweating heavily preparing the food, you would be amazed. It was quite an educational and entertaining experience for me.
I prepared a huge bowl of salad for their barbecue. Also made some spicy dips for the chicken and fish. True enough, another big pot of remis also arrived from the ladies and I made another batch of beehoon for them too.
I was exhausted to cater for their needs but was very satisfied with these guests for the rest of the week. They were fun jolly people. One of the ladies was a doctor and she would pat my belly and smiled, gesticulating that I would bear a big fat healthy baby.
You will not forget fond memories such as this easily. Even though we had language barrier, the universal communicator of food was enough between us. Yeap, food makes the world go round.
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