Have you ever had to think about what to do with the last RM5 in your wallet? Do you eat? Or do you put petrol in the tank so you can get to work? Which do you choose?
I chose to get myself to work. It was quite a while ago, but I remember the feeling. The anger, the bitterness that I am unable to take care of my family as I feel they should be taken care of and the hopelessness that sets in when I decide to put petrol because if I don’t get to work, I don’t earn money.
That feeling that I hugged close to me, that bitterness I felt when I looked around at my former schoolmates, my extended relatives, my colleagues, that feeling of being hard done by, that anger at the injustice of it all, drove me to succeed in my chosen fields. That anger, it took me a long time to get over it. Or so I thought.
Did anyone know how I really felt? I doubt it. I had pride. There was no way in hell that I was going to let anyone know my real situation.
I used to make jokes about being part of the urban poor. Nobody knew I was telling the truth. Nobody knew how much pride and anger drove me then.
I have not blogged, or written up a recipe in months. Friends thought I had been distracted by my “new” causes – kickstarting the Guerrilla Gardeners of KL (GGKL), joining Feeding the Needy (FTN), starting up #projecttikar… so distracted that I had lost focus on my little enterprise, the Straits Heritage Foods company.
The truth was, I had – and I hadn’t. I realised that the setting up of the company was a cumulation of everything that I had experienced over the last few decades. That what I wanted to do was not just take care of my family, but to give a chance to everyone I came across who felt the way I had, that that innate sense of justice I had somehow developed (I find it amazing that I have not become some sort of psychopath), would not let me rest.
Starting up GGKL, joining FTN, starting #projecttikar, all that, I realised, dovetailed into what I wanted for SHF, to take care of the disadvantaged, the poor, the hungry and the lonely.
There is something about being driven by anger and pride, you never let your guard down, you never let anyone close enough to you to drop those masks, you never let anyone in. One becomes very lonely that way. I remember not so very long ago, when I felt like I could no longer feel (that’s an oxymoron if ever there was one). That I was numb. I began to put my affairs in order – EPF beneficiaries, check, house mortgages, to be covered by insurance, check, life insurance, check – and ensured that my parents and my brother would be financially taken care of. I had done my duty by them. The plan was to make it look like an accident. That’s the thing about the successful suicides – nobody ever guesses. Nobody will know until it’s too late.
Then an old friend showed up in my life. Perceptive person that he was, I tried to avoid meeting him but couldn’t dodge him. He sat across from me in the conference room and asked me one question: So how are you planning to do it? I denied it, of course I did, but he had seen to the heart of the matter. The result of that meeting caused me to reexamine myself and my life. But that’s another story.
The not-so-end result caused me to decide to leave the PR industry and eventually set up SHF, but I was not done. Setting up a small artisanal business was hard work. Banging on bank doors, asking for loans to grow a fledgling company (half a dozen banks at last count, almost all of which was met by “we need a track record of 18 months to two years before we can lend you money and my increasingly angry response of “If I HAD the money to survive and grow my business for two years, I wouldn’t be coming to see you, would I?”), was nothing if not disheartening.
Juggling freelance consulting work while trying to grow the business was draining. Insomnia, which I already had, became worse. I had started volunteering with FTN while running GGKL. But the solitary nocturnal wanderings in the city started again. I became increasingly aware of the “invisibles” of this city of Kuala Lumpur, the people I now call the citizens of Kolumpo Below. And that led me to start up #projecttikar.
And now… now, I have begun another chapter. A chapter where all my projects come together, where if this succeeds, I have an answer and a solution to the problems I have seen and identified. A scary new chapter, filled with even more uncertainties, even more pit falls, even more challenges. But it is something that I am willing to risk everything for, which is why I have even put up my apartment, my home, for sale, because it needs seed money, because no bloodsucking banker would back me, because it has never been done before.
A friend asked me recently: ” You’re having problems even taking care of yourself and you’re struggling to pay your own bills. Why aren’t you taking care of yourself first instead of distracting yourself by doing all this homeless, urban poor stuff. Where are you going to live if you do this?”
My answer to that now is clear. It’s not where I will live, it’s HOW I will live. And that’s how I am taking care of myself. If it means taking care of other people – if it means giving them a fighting chance to earn a living, to succeed, to achieve something – it will do.
And how will I do it? By doing what I do best – feeding people, something I find joy in doing. It’s not just about filling a person’s stomach. It’s also about feeding their souls. And sometimes, all it takes to feed the soul is a little care and consideration – eye contact and an acknowledgement that they exist, that they’re still a part of humanity.
Because I am once again on a budget, I have begun developing recipes that can feed many yet is relatively inexpensive. The following is a recipe that can feed six to nine people cheaply.
The ingredients for my version of Mee Siam
- One packet of mee hoon or vermicelli (RM2.50 – RM4.50, depending on brand)
- Three to four cloves of garlic, chopped
- Three to four shallots, chopped
- A couple pieces of asam keping
- Cooking oil, about half a cup
- Two to three eggs (budget one egg for two people, for an entire pack of vermicelli that can feed up to nine people, four eggs will do, cost RM2)
- Two pieces of white tofu (the hard type, not the soft type, cost RM0,50 apiece)
- A stick of fish cake, or two (Optional, depending on budget – anywhere from RM1 to RM3.50 for a pack of three fish cakes)
- Shrimp (optional)
- Half a bottle of Straits Heritage Foods Sambal Belacan (RM11 a bottle)
- Two to three stalks of spring onion
- One or two tomatoes, quartered and cut into eighths (this is optional, depending on whether you have it in your fridge)
- Salt and pepper to season
Step One (prep – about 15-20 minutes):
- Soak vermicelli in cold water with a little salt and a couple pieces of asam keping for about 20 minutes
- Finely chop garlic and shallot
- Slice tofu into cubes
- Slice fish cakes
- Cut the tomatoes
- Cut the spring onion into about 2cm lengths
- Crack and beat the eggs
Step Two (Cooking – about 15-30 minutes, depending on how good you are at multitasking)
- Make sure you have a big enough wok or divide up the cooking into two rounds
- Heat oil in pan, toss in tofu cubes to brown
- In another pan, start making thin egg crepes. Slice the omelettes thinly into strips after they have cooled down
- After the tofu cubes are browned, toss in chopped garlic and shallots and saute until translucent
- Toss in half bottle of SHF sambal belacan
- Saute until fragrant (it should be about five to eight minutes)
- Toss in browned tofu cubes
- Toss in shrimp
- Toss in tomatoes
- Saute for about two minutes
- Toss in the vermicelli
- Add about half a cup of water
- Start stirring and tossing, from the bottom of the pan up, to make sure as little as possible of the vermicelli sticks to the pan
- It will seem a little wet at first but as the vermicelli soaks up the sauteed sambal mix, it will start to turn a light salmon colour.
- Stir and toss until it is almost dry
- Add the sliced spring onion
- Add the egg strips
- Saute until dry (it should be for another 10 minutes or less)
It might sound time consuming and there might seem to be a lot of ingredients but most of the ingredients are optional, depending on budget. With the basic ingredients (not including shrimp, one portion should cost anywhere from RM1.50 to RM2.50. Garnish with a sprinkling of SHF’s sambal udang kering.
Just because I’m on a budget doesn’t mean I can’t feed my friends. Besides, it makes me happy to see them enjoying my food. And that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?