My wife takes a big, deep breath and smiles. 'Can you smell that?'
We are sitting on little plastic chairs at a little plastic table in an open-air hawker centre, a great al fresco food court, at Gurney Drive in Penang, Malaysia. The sun has set. The hawkers are setting up, unfolding the limbs of their metal carts. The sound of music and chatter in a smattering of languages, laughter mixed with knives chopping, water pouring, plastic plates being stacked. The preparation of every kind of food you could ever desire, Chinese, Malay, Indian and places beyond, of every part of every creature that casts a shadow, of everything that grows from the earth. The air is rich with spicy and savoury smells and the heavy scent of wet concrete from the afternoon's downpour. The air vibrates with energy, human and electric, fire and smoke.
'What does it remind you of?'
I know what she's thinking. Our first date. I took her to centre not unlike this one. Back before I started anything serious in the culinary world. Back when she was just another Dutch backpacker with an oversized camera.
I smile at my wife. I love her for this. Her memory, her nostalgia, for the fact that this smell reminds her of that day, and that she's the kind of romantic person who says stuff like this.
I indulge her and take a deep breath. I catch the scent of Char Kway Teoh. My favourite. A generous serve of pork fat to get the wok smoking. Handfuls of prawns, cockles, pork sausage, fish cake, spring onion, bean sprouts. Then the fresh rice noodles, chewy and flat and white. Chilli and garlic. Lashings of dark soy sauce, light soy sauce. But beyond the ingredients, there is a magic that binds it all together: The skill of the one who controls holds the wok and drives the flames. It's said that the best Char Kway Teoh is made by an old man, because it's only through years of experience that one can achieve that perfect, delicate balance of salt and spice, sweet and smoke. Only through study, practice, patience. Real zen stuff.
This isn't your average Char Kway Teoh I smell now. It's different. And this smell doesn't remind me of my wife or the first time we met. It reminds me of another her. The one before her, whose memory resides in a place that doesn't exist anymore, in a time buried by life and education and work.
I take a deep breath, filling my lungs with that scent.
And there it is: the medan selera, the hawker centre in Kuchai Lama in Kuala Lumpur. It's a run down mess of a place, an abandoned construction site overtaken by enterprising locals with their metal carts. Like a patchwork, pieces are added. Some tables, some chairs. A few people build an awning. Before long, there's 30, maybe 40, stands arranged in a square surrounding a sea of plastic chairs and tables and rainbow coloured umbrellas. There's a bar set up and laminated drinks menus get handed around.
Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, Kuchai Lama becomes the centre of the universe. Filled with locals, people who drive hours to get there, tourists who are brought by friends. The place is alive with colour - richly patterened abayas worn by the Malaysian ladies fanning their satay grills, the saris and punjabi suits worn by Indian vendors, the glittering eyes of fish caught fresh that morning somewhere near, resting on ice. Beautiful elaborate displays of sweets in unnatural colours arranged on bamboo leaves. Barbecued pork, roasted ducks hanging from hooks behind glass. Baine-maries of funky looking curries, sloppy dahl and Ghee-enriched flatbreads and parathas. The space is illuminated by fluorescent signs, fairy lights, floodlights and spotlights. A weird mix of warm and industrial lighting. Sassy waitresses strut between tables carrying giant crushed ice desserts. Cats and their kittens scatter between ankles and gobble anything dropped by accident or intention. Everywhere, everything is moving.
There we are, my uncle and I, sitting on plastic stools behind our deep fried mushroom stand. We have buckets of oyster mushrooms. We have buckets of batter, a proprietary blend of spices mixed in. We have vats of hot oil. I can't for the life of me remember the name of our stand.
There I am. I'm maybe fifteen or sixteen. A wide eyed skinny Indian girl. My name is Priya.
And there she is. Ji Ying. She works at the stand next to ours, at Boy's Char Kway Teoh. She mashes garlic on a huge, heavy chopping board with a sinister looking meat cleaver. Her short black hair is stuck to her forehead with sweat. She wipes away at it with the back of her forearm because her hands are covered with garlic juice. Her skin is milky white. Her eyebrows are straight. Her nose is small. Her eyes are tired. She wears a plain black t-shirt and jean shorts. She's skinny and has no chest. She's not pretty like a Chinese pop star or model. She's a tomboy, probably picked on by other kids in her school. Picked on by her parents for not being girly enough. But to me, she is beautiful. I can't help but stare.
She is illuminated briefly by the fire under her grandfather's wok. He is the man responsible for this heavenly smell, this old man on the very edge of death. He slaves over the wok and flame, in a once-white singlet and threadbare blue shorts, his bones visible under the thin tissue of his skin, hair grey and stringy, teeth rotted. His gnarled, scarred hands grip the wok like claws. His rheumy eyes, seeing and not seeing, sensing, the dance of ingredients. His ladle measuring by feel and intuition the perfect amount of liquid required. He is a man possessed. Like a bit of his life force is sucked out and into the wok. I salivate.
Ji Ying sees me and flashes a crooked-toothed grin.
Her grandfather shouts at her and she disappears from view, to reappear by the wok, instructed by him about something specific. He points his ladle here, there, then at the wok. She nods and says something. He laughs and nods his head. He talks to himself, happily, as she leaves him.
'What good is that?' There is Ambrose. Unfortunately he is also a memory caught up in the smoke of the magical Char Kway Teoh. 'Everyone knows a woman can't make Char Kway Teoh. Why bother teaching her at all.'
Ambrose's name is Chen, but he calls himself Ambrose. He wears navy shorts, boat shoes and a clean white polo shirt embroidered with 'Ambrose Brothers Char Kway Teoh'. Like he's come straight from his private yacht. He speaks with a fake English accent - everyone at Ambrose Brothers does - but I know he has never set foot outside of Malaysia. He is my age, just like her. Ambrose is not particularly attractive, with a flat face, wide nose and bulging eyes, which come to rest, with derision, on her.
'Ah, that's Jing Yi. She's syok, like really damn fine,' he says. 'Shame she's such a bitch.'
For some reason, maybe fate, our deep fried mushroom stand is sandwiched between the two most popular Char Kway Teoh joints in the region: Boy's and Ambrose Brothers. Ji Ying and Ambrose are rivals.
Boy's is a family operation, a grandfather, his sons and daughters and their children. Their stand is small and run precisely. Everyone has a role to play in preparation. But Boy, the grandfather, is the key. Their Char Kway Teoh is subject to the old man's moods. Sometimes it's salty. If he's in a bad mood, it's spicy and sour. If he's happy, it's a little sweeter. But it's always magnificent.
Ambrose Brothers has stalls in hawker centres across KL, with a main kitchen off Jalan Petaling in the heart of Chinatown. Their business is run by seven brothers and paid employees. They have an army grandfathers. Ingredients are shipped in, wok ready. They always play loud music, tell jokes and laugh and carry on, as though their main trade is entertainment, and Char Kway Teoh a byproduct. Their customers can order variations on the classic, with luxe versions including crabmeat and lobster, sometimes abalone.
Ambrose tells me, 'The goal is consistency. If you are consistently good, people will love you.' He is full of aphorisms like this. But he is right.
Boy's and Ambrose Brothers are exceptional. I know this from the lineups of people waiting to place their orders. The looks on their faces as their plates are delivered. The way the main roads leading to Kuchai Lama are rereouted, the intersection transformed into a car park seven rows deep. They are places that stop traffic.
It is weeks before Ji Ying speaks to me. I watch her at the wok each evening for a tutorial with her grandfather. Her face is serious, listening to his words, feeling, learning. She is always busy. Prepping spring onions, mountains of garlic, slicing chillis, refilling sauces and, worst of all, making deep fried shallots - peeling tiny shallot onions, slicing them paper thin, deep frying them till crisp. It's punishment you'd inflict on an enemy. I'm sure it's a kind of torture in one of the levels of hell. Your eyes water from the stench. Onion juice makes your fingers slip. The knife has to be sharp and you inevitably slice your fingers, deep enough for the onion juice to seep in. It stings and burns. I've done my time. I watch Ji Ying's determined face from afar. She doesn't give in. She grinds away.
'Can I make a suggestion,' I say one night.
'Okay, lah,' she says without looking at me.
I take the knife from her, and the onion and demonstrate as I instruct, 'First cut here, then you have a stable base. Next, curl your fingers under. Put the knife against the back of your fingers, like this. Then just cut down. You won't cut your fingers anymore.'
'Thanks, lah.' A quick study, she masters it straight away.
'Or you could just buy it ready made. My uncle knows a guy.'
'Now that would be cheating.'
We smile at each other.
'Are you friends with Ambrose,' she asks.
I consider my answer. 'Ambrose doesn't do 'friends' right? He does 'associates'.'
She laughs, the most beautiful sound in the world. 'What do you think of him?'
I shrug. 'He's so la-la.' If you look up the Malaysian slang dictionary, I'm sure there's a picture of Ambrose. His tasteless, preppy garb and his aphorisms and his put-on accent.
'He's so aiksy,' so arrogant, she says.
Exactly, I say.
Each night we move our chairs closer together behind the stands, so we can talk withot shouting. Bitching about the kids at our schools. Making fun of Ambrose. Talking about music we like. Things teenagers talk about . There is a certain freedom we enjoy together, having no mutual friends, the rest of our worlds separate. We can be our truer selves, in a way. I remember laughing the way I've never laughed with anyone else before or since
Occasionally we can take our breaks together, sneaking into the parking lot. She introduces me to many vices. We smoke cigarettes. We drink cold beer. One time, she brings me a styrofoam pack of Boy's Char Kway Teoh for me to try. Without hesitation, I break all the cultural and religious rules imposed on me since childhood for her, for that first taste of pork, of seafood, of real rebellion. It is a revelation, the salty, smoky noodles. I can still taste it - part of her grandfather's soul.
'I want to make Char Kway Teoh like him,' she says. 'But I also don't. I want a restaurant, not just a hawker stand. But I also want to prove everyone wrong. A girl can make Char Kway Teoh. I'll to go Penang, and I'll show them. You understand?'
Yes, I tell her, because when you are infatuated with someone, everything they say is true and real and possible.
'But I'm running out of time. My grandfather... he's dying. Really, lah.'
I don't know what to say, except I believe in her. I want to tell her I love her.
Ambrose saunters past my stand for a chat most evenings. He knows I am in love with Ji Ying, and he's clever enough not to make a big deal about it, especially when my uncle was around. He uses it as a way to bond us together. I always have the feeling he's trying to build up a rapport, so he can ask a favour of me, perhaps corporate espionage against Boys. What's their secret? Is Boy really dying? How good are Ji Ying's noodles? Do I need to worry? But he never asks.
One night, the air is still and thick. It's dry season. Unbearably hot. We all sweat, our clothes stick to us. The smoke from Boy's wok fills the air and doesn't rise. It settles and spreads, like smog on the horizon. We bathe in it. Ji Ying and I sit on the stairs near the loading dock. The space is empty. It's dark.
She opens a styrofoam container of Char Kway Teoh and I take a deep, intoxicating breath. Something about it is different. It's smokier, stronger than usual.
'I made this,' she says. 'I've never let anyone other than my grandfather try it. He says it's okay, lah. I want you to try it.'
Our eyes meet.
I can't remember the taste of the noodles because as soon as I swallow them, she draws me close and presses her lips to mine. My heart is in my throat, I am stunned into submission. Our tongues touch. She sighs. I touch her face and hold her to me. We kiss, and kiss. I'd imagined this moment for so long. When it happened, I was left gasping for air, shaking a little. She was too.
I tell her they are the most amazing noodles I've ever tasted.
We laugh at each other and hold hands.
As we leave, Ambrose is there, watching in the shadows, smirking. Ji Ying grips my hand tightly, and I love her more for not abandoning me.
'I don't care about the two of you. Whatever, lah,' he says. 'Let me try your Char Kway Teoh. You made it, right?'
Ji Ying thrusts the container at him.
He takes a bite with the plastic fork and chews attentively. He swallows and stares at her, differently to before. It's a long time before he speaks. 'It's good. I stand corrected.'
He walks away, taking the container with him.
My wife calls my name, pointing at a Char Kway Teoh stand, asking if I want some. I wave at her, yes.
The interruption jars me. The whole story ends abruptly after that night. It's a narrative full of loose ends, unfulfilled hopes, and my broken heart.
My whole world had opened up to possibility- Did I really, actually like girls? Yes. I had known this for a while. Did she really, actually like me? She must. Could a Chinese girl and an Indian girl ever really be together, here in Malaysia?
I never found out.
The night after Ji Ying and I kissed, Boy's wasn't open. A handwritten sign in English, Malay and Mandarin informed us Boy was ill. The night after, Boy died. Boy's didn't reopen.
Life went on. Ambrose swanned around the medan selera. Business was good in the wake of Boy's absence, I hate to admit. I was glad for the distraction, content to spend hours wallowing in mushrooms, batter and misery. I had lost Ji Ying - regardless of whether or not Boy's re-opened, or if I tracked her down and went to her house, or if our paths crossed some time in the future. I had lost her before I'd ever had the chance to have her. She would never be the Ji Ying I knew and loved then.
A few months later, the Kuchai Lama lot was sold to developers. We shifted across town to a brand new air conditioned facility. Ambrose Brothers opened a restaurant. Everything changed again. Ambrose pursued his ambitions. We kept in touch, oddly enough. He's not entirely a villain. But he's still la-la.
Tonight, here in Penang, the smell of Char Kway Teoh fills my lungs, like the smell of the noodles Ji Ying cooked, what I breathed in the moments before she kissed me. I imagine it's her hands wielding the wok, that she spent the years since our kiss working tirelessly, refining her skill, proving everyone wrong. It has to be her. That smell. No other Char Kway Teoh is like it. I know. I've travelled far and wide.
But I'm not going to look for her. I love her as she was. When I eat these noodles tonight, I'll be eating a part of her soul. And she'll always be with me.
'So? What does that smell remind you of?' asks my wife as she sits back down at the table.
I smile at her. She knows the answer.
'It reminds me of the day I met the love of my life,' I tell her.
It's not entirely untrue.