Food shopping is a treasure hunt

In Canada, we often take for granted just how convenient life is. Large grocery stores with just about anything you can imagine are generally found in most neighbourhoods. More urban centres have some sort of shopping area where you can find independent shops so you can wander from vendor to vendor in a logical manner and pick up what you might need to make a meal. And most of these places have the holy grail – consistency. Not so in Penang.

There are a couple of grocery stores here that seem to adhere to a more Western aesthetic, stocking Waitrose (a UK based brand) products as well as Australian and limited America brands.  But truly – that is an illusion.

Consistency of product stock and delivery is completely hit and miss.  A favourite yoghurt brand may be there one week and not there for three weeks after.  In addition, items are often stocked in the most bizarre areas of the store – with cough lozenges in the candy aisle but not anywhere near the cold medication.

One feels these little thrills of excitement when something you happen to love or use suddenly appears on a shelf.  And as you experience the highs and lows of product availability – a weird kind of insanity sets in.  Hoarding.

Recently I saw for the first time Mrs. Ball’s Chutney hidden on the lowest shelf in the condiment section (they got that one right).  My hand quivered as I reached out to grab a bottle.  Then my brain kicked in.  What if this is never here again?  What is the expiry date?  Maybe I ought to get a couple more – because well – it may not be here again!  So I bought three bottles.  I was quite chuffed with myself when the following week that same shelf was empty.  Good move I thought – I have outsmarted the grocery store pirates who stock this item.  Then the following week – the shelf was restocked and has been so for the past 5 months.

I am heartened however, as a small community of us support one another as we see products come in we know others want.  Text messages go out “Bulla yoghurt in stock”, with immediate replies of “Get me two – I’ll pay you back!”

The only way I have found that I can cope with this is by following a few simple procedures:

  • Never go grocery shopping with your partner – you don’t want a full on domestic in the middle of a grocery store.  Trust me on this.
  • Wander, scan and search for different or new products.  Read labels – google translate can sometimes provide instant hilarity on product names and wonky translations are worth the giggles.
  • Try to find something new to try every week (seaweed crackers called Wanna Wanna have become a big hit).
  • Randomly talk to strangers in shops to find out what they are buying and what they use the item for – though I still can’t get my head around dried squid jerky as a delicious snack food.
  • Get to know the shop keepers.  My fish lady texts me with “salmon now come” and I can reserve some and pick up that day.  Given the aforementioned hoarding – this is a classic defence move to ensure you get what you need.
  • Plan dinner parties with at least three menus and be prepared to switch things up – because well – stock may be there or not!
  • Map the shops in your head so if you are in the area you can pick things up.  Conveniently our “nut lady” is located near the best pharmacy in town…and Baskin & Robbins.
  • Reward yourself with ice cream!  Food shopping is arduous work that may take all day – there needs to be an up side.
  • Be in the treasure hunt mindset.  Thrill in the victory of finding just what you need with a happy dance and don’t let the inability to find quinoa at three stores deter you from the ongoing hunt for it.
  • Live for the Happy Dance in grocery aisles!
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The honeymoon is over…

It has been a year since we exited Canada to become expats, setting up our new life in Penang, Malaysia. It is hard to imagine the process we went through to sell up and move out – but as I read back on the blogs I am reminded of the arduous task of completely changing our lives.

As we woke up this morning and looked over the Straits of Malacca – we asked the inevitable question – are we happy here? The answer was a resounding yes! The follow-up question was “Is this what you imagined”? The answer was a resounding no!

In fact, despite our planning and research, our travels to the region (though not specifically to Penang), and the great people who answered our questions before we arrived – this place, this life, is nothing like we imagined.

While we could envision living in a different country, we never thought we would find a place that has such incredible diversity.  The cultures, religions, beliefs, and people here intersect on a daily basis.  I was sitting at a stoplight the other day watching Hindu devotees carrying bowls on their heads and fronds in their hands dressed in lovely colours of orange and red.  They took their time to cross – and I sat and waited – wishing I could join them in their walk.  This morning I awoke as I do most days to the sound of the muezzin do the early morning call to prayer from the mosque close to our home – the reminder for me to wake up and get the foster kitten so he can have morning cuddle and play time.  This past week we saw cars, houses and money burning in the streets – all paper of course!  The Hungry Ghost Festival was just wrapping up as Buddhists and Taoists paid homage to their deceased ancestors.

In this diversity, there is a live and let live philosophy.  No one stresses if one has decorations up, and everyone seems to take advantage of every holiday with sales, time off, or celebratory meals.  It is an opportunity to celebrate, educate, and benefit from the commerce.

With the diversity also comes food of any type you could imagine.  This morning while going to our local outdoor market, I passed by all the interesting fruits and vegetables, beans and rice, and stuff I still know nothing about.  I love the interaction with vendors, who are more than happy to tell you what this or that is.  Language is rarely a barrier as we find ways to convey our needs.  My egg lady provides me with kampung (local) eggs that have the creamiest yolks ever.  I see the same older couple selling fruit who know I always ask for mangosteen – even when it is not in season (though they were delighted when it was as I was their best customer).  Today I discovered a woman who has a great variety of dried lentils and beans and she pointed to each to tell me what they were.  As I bought some yellow lentils a Chinese woman asked the shopkeeper what I use them for.  Daal she answered.  I giggled…I have no clue how to make daal but perhaps that will be my next experiment.

This is the “mundane” part of our everyday lives rather than the highlight reel.  The part where the newness of the first year has worn off and we are down to the business of just plain living.  It is not what we planned and it is better than we expected.

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Making Connections

I am a connector…of people, of places, of skills, of needs.  My brain and being happen to function in a place to seeing connections where someone or something might be beneficial for another.  It is not particularly a skill that I cultivate – it is just part of who I am.

Landing in a new place without my network had me somewhat concerned that that part of me may end.  I did not know of a great local for coffee, or the best place to get pastries, or a terrific country drive with lunch at a romantic spot just an hour outside of the city.  I did not know someone who could redo your garden into an idyllic oasis, or a great plumber, or a guy who could fix the pointing on your chimney.  It was all new to me – an exploration as I discovered new things for myself.

It occurred to me the other day that suddenly – a few people were coming to me for answers to pressing questions.  And surprisingly – I made the connections.  And I was thrilled.  I am feeling more and more back in my own skin.  No longer an outsider trying to figure things out.

When I looked at how I arrived at this place – I finally recognised some behaviours that helped me along the way which I thought I would share.

  1. I scan my surroundings.
    • In grocery stores, along streets I walk, in shops I walk into randomly.  I look around, check things out and make mental notes of what I saw.  For some reason, my brain registers weird stuff that “might” come in handy.  Sometimes I make notes, sometimes I chat with shop owners, sometimes I take business cards.
  2. I talk to people
    • I am always amazed at how many people have such unique skill sets.  Not only do I listen to what they say they do or did – I also listen for what they need (though they may no be overt about it).  I mentally file away bits of info – then when someone needs someone I can usually access that odd bit of info and make a connection.
  3. I am open about my experiences
    • I find the more open I am – the more I hear about the experience of others.  From this I can glean what worked for them and create a synergy that allows me to adjust and improve my experience to relay to others when they have a need.
    • One caveat however, I have also been stung by this.  Some have misinterpreted my enthusiasm or experience in a way that may create negativity or a perception of my criticism.  I have found it is necessary to be mindful of how your experience lands for others.  Having said that – I can only control how others want to perceive me just so much!
  4. Be ok if your connection does not work for others
    • As an extension of the above – everyone uses connections in different ways.  And their interaction with others or experiences will be coloured by who they are.  It may not turn out as well for them as it did for me.
  5. Generosity is key
    • I may be thanked for my help or not.  That is not why I do it.  Being a connector makes me feel good and lifts my spirit.  It is how I can give of my skill and talent in a way that feels right for me.

All the above to say that as an expat – things will be new and strange and different.  But with a bit of time and awareness, one can be comfortable and local in no time!  But it is up to you to make the connection!

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Food Glorious Food!

I have started a food blog on AHOY Penang where I am trying to slowly keep up with the delicious eats around this little Pearl. Here are the first two (and I will post here as well). I seriously don’t know how Anthony Bourdain keeps so slim!

Links to the food blog can be found here!


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At the Six Month Mark…

So here we are – six months into our crazy adventure of just doing life differently.  Looking off into the distance with the Straits of Malacca in front of us, and a full moon glowing orange as it rises and dances across the water we do our regular check in as a couple.

Glass of wine in hand I look over at Jacques.  “Six months now, eh.”

“Yup” he replies taking a sip of his wine.

“Regrets?” I ask.

“Not a single one” he states,  “you?”

“None, I love it here” I respond.

And that’s it.  The check in.  The conversation we have on a monthly basis to be sure we are where we want to be.  It does not take much except the diligence to ask and the courage to do something about it if one partner is not aligned.  I could go on about how important communication is in relationships, but the fact is we all find our own rhythm and what works for us.

A friend of ours, Keith Hockton, just published the article below on our experience here.  Keith is not only a publisher and a writer here in Penang, he has become a great friend.  Keith is an example of the many interesting people we meet here, who with his fantastic wife Lisa, choose to live with a passion and joy that is off the beaten path.

Give the article a read, get a feel for why we love it here from the practical side.  Know that on the heart side, it is the people here who make this place truly special.

IL Hockton Article 2017

Posted in Birding, Blog, Malaysia, MM2H, Penang, Togetherness, Uncategorized | 2 Comments