Mona's Meals | Sunday, 23 November 2008

A boy called Lu

I have been in laugh-out-loud fits all week and from what I can gather, I’m not mad and I’m not the only one. Just in case you were wondering, it is not because of some newly-discovered drug, although lord knows some people do need its invention; it’s all down to Guzè Stagno’s Ramon u ż-Żerbinotti.
Stagno’s books - this is his third - always take me back in time. That is, they would if I were a guy, now with two snotty kids and a wife in tow. As it is, I get to read what life was about for those idiotic boys surrounding my youth like a pimpled, hormone-crazed fug.
Ramon is firmly placed in the beginning of the 1990s. Stagno is an excellent writer and his Ramon is everyboy; engaging with his mates in competitive blaspheming; smearing his visage with copious quantities of the crème du jour, Clearasil; enduring daily rides with a reggae-loving, dope-head bus driver; putting up with bossy mother-instructing bouts of Saturday dusting bil-qalziet ta’ taħt użat tal-Pricesa (very credit-crunchy); and generally trying to come to terms with puberty by spending hours, and huge amount of used tissues, under the scratchy blankets.
The story reads like Adrian Mole, only in very heart-rending, streetwise vernacular. When I saw the special edition, a cover-less book which comes bound in a pencil case, the kind of which we used to lust over because they were unavailable in the eighties (yes, mine came from a furtive parental trip to the UK and is probably still at my mother’s, somewhere), I literally rushed over to the publishers to get my copy.
I’m an eighties teen; to us, the nineties were anathema. We looked down on those years like our sixties’ parents looked down on the seventies. The nineties were vacuous, their soundtrack was crap (Technotronic anyone?) and their fashion, if grunge could ever be so, could never live up to the previous decade. In the eighties we had the big hair, chemically treated of course, and the big cars, if any shape or form of Ford Escort could be termed thus.
My dad had managed - and until this day I still have no idea how he did it because a Japanese car was sort of verboten in those verging-on-the-communist-times - to get his mitts on a Honda Accord. It was white, had boy-racer stripes running along its side, plush blue bucket seats on the inside and a car stereo which ate cassettes. Like Ramon, there isn’t a country and western song I don’t know the lyrics to.
Every Monday - dad’s day off and restaurant day rolled into one - we would go out in the car to some exotic eatery. The car had one of those perfumed fluffy balls hanging on for dear life to the rear-view mirror and the sickly artificial smell of it, combined with sitting very low in the back seat next to windows which opened only three inches, made both me and my brother sick. Upon our return from the restaurant, there would always be some aficionado or other walking around the car and admiring its mega coolness, sometimes even taking photos.
I wish we took photos of the restaurants we used to visit. This being Monday, the choice was always extremely limited. Yet the décor, or lack of it, is as firmly imprinted in my mind as the prandial arguments which usually consisted of whether we were allowed to have both a starter and a main course, or even whether we could have the lobster. Guess who asked for the latter?
‘Jesus!’ The Writer exclaimed as we arrived at The Peak, ‘We’ve just stumbled on a time warp.’ The Writer is not given to bouts of expression unless written, so you can take his word on it: The Peak, once a posh-nosh kind of Chinese outlet when The Plaza first imprinted its high-rise status on the Sliema Ferries area, has not changed one iota.
The chairs are the high-back, spine-twisting, scotchguard-covered seat kind that every single hotel restaurant used to have. The décor is sparse, as if someone tried to bother doing the whole Chinese thing in the beginning, but then just gave up. Inside its bad enough, but outside, where the ‘terrace’ could be stupendous (it’s on the eighth floor and has views of, well, loads of other buildings but some glimpses of the Valletta bastions and what’s left of the sea) it is just horrible. To their credit though, the napkins may be frayed, but they’re cotton, rather than paper.
The eighties defined all of us, which is why The Peak is still superbly exciting to most people and on a Saturday night, it was packed.
The ‘terrace’ is surrounded by black, ‘panoramic’ aluminium-framed windows with ‘No Smoking’ signs emblazoned all over them, just in case you saw one and thought ‘Oh well, maybe I can smoke at the other window’ and found that the other window was admonishing you too. In fact, the best views, and some fresh air are actually available in the smoking area, which is decorated in the same lack of style as the ‘terrace’, only with no tables.
‘Home’ cooking in the eighties was weird. Nigel Slater described it sublimely: his stories of the seventies filtered through in Malta in the eighties. We discovered margarine and never looked back. We discovered packaging and plastic. We forgot that meat came from animals. Bird’s Blamange, in various sickly bright colours and e-numbers, was chic. I once made a real crème caramel for an ex and he said it tasted weird; having been brought up on the packaged stuff, it took him ages to re-adjust his taste buds.
Yet these days, things are very, very different. We only eat out as a social alternative. Staying in and cooking is a way to relax. We buy excellent meat and tweak it into Chinese and Indian concoctions, and we have become experts in our own little ways, in our own big kitchens.
Which is why The Writer could not understand why we needed to go to a Chinese restaurant. ‘Unless it’s good, darling’ he said ‘we are just wasting money on more crap. Wasn’t the ‘Chinese’ I made you yesterday good enough?’ He was right. It was sublime, and it was Shizuan-ese and not generic ‘Chinese’. This is, sadly, the problem with most Asian eateries: they have no identity at all.
I like the lady who runs The Peak though. She has good telephone manners and is extremely welcoming. We glimpsed, at various moments, the guy everybody calls ‘Manuel’. He really looks like the character from Fawlty Towers.
We both had dim sum to kick off with. My life is forever blighted by the amazing dim sum I’ve had in Singapore, thanks to my friend Michelle Wan; she taught me all there was to know about using chopsticks (politely) and eating anything ‘Asian’. TW’s pork parcels were acceptable although the cheapness of the pork stuffing came through like a dog through a hoop. My mushrooms, stuffed with prawn and pork and covered in cheese (Asians don’t do dairy) scored low in the flavour marks.
The half Beijing duck which followed was quite superb, the meat tender and the skin crispy. Plus there was enough to feed us for two days. I asked the Chinese lady for spring onions (Chinese restaurants including this one have got into the lazy habit of presenting normal onions as condiment) and she produced them with no quibbles and a smile. The plum sauce was thick, artificial, and as more-ish as a Micky D’s. ‘We should have brought our own’ TW said. Yes, this summer our plum tree was producing four kilos of fruit a day and we did end up making plum sauce.
By the time we got through the duck, we were fit to burst, but we had already ordered more. The Singapore noodles were as Singaporean as my dad is the Pope (popemobile or not), replete as they were with tiny frozen shrimps, slicked in oil and overcooked. The prawns in a pot were good for drama (the pot arrives sizzling at the table) but they came out of a freezer and the metal-flavoured bamboo shoots from a can. At least, Chinese Lady was honest enough to tell us the prawns had been in -18C heaven. After we asked of course; unlike in Italy, there is no law here to mark defrosted items as such on the menu.
The vegetables in coconut sauce were just weird and tasteless and somebody had shaken curry powder all over them. Pity, because there was baby bok choi in there.
The Peak makes an effort at dessert, even if most people go for the lychee or Banana Fritters anyway. So we had the ‘twistees’ which are little bits of twisted Chinese (?) pastry, deep fried and served with honey and walnuts. They were good, yet dry, so I ordered a blob of ice-cream to go with them. The ice-cream was artificially awful but it was cold and wet and so did its job. TW had the pastry wrapped around date paste: think a big, fat maqruta and you get the gist.
Would I go back to The Peak? Well, would I go back to the Eighties? The answer is no, in both cases. The difference between them is one: I remember most of the eighties, but I can hardly remember what anything at The Peak tasted like. Twenty odd years ago, that was to be expected; standards these days are higher.

The Mona’s Meals Eat Well Campaign
The credit crunch hasn’t hit us yet but I have been noticing that many restaurants are listing rib-eye, rather than fillet, on their menus. This means two things: first of all, they are buying the ‘cheaper’ cuts. Second, they are rediscovering the flavour which can only come from a cut that’s slightly more complicated than a totally fat-free slab of red fillet.
Joe Zammit at Arkadia’s butcher is always on the ball. His Maltese sausages - cheap, flavoursome and interchangeable every time a recipe calls for lardons - are superb. I always make sure I include a couple on my shopping list.
He also stocks the really, really cheap stuff, such as pig trotters, which I adore. Last week I made ham stock with two of them, and used this in a lentil soup. The whole pot could not have cost us more than €3. Now if that isn’t food for our times, then I don’t know what is.
[The recipe for the lentil soup is on’s recipe section]

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