Mona's Meals | Sunday, 19 July 2009
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Shatter the silence

Come summer weekend afternoons, I sit on my lounger in the garden, surrounded by birdsong and hanging rose, fat cat at my feet. And I plot, in meticulous but mad detail, the strangulation of a small child.
Throughout the rest of the year, our house and the area it is in are so quiet that people actually comment on it. “It’s so quiet, isn’t it,” they ask in that way which implies that this is actually odd. Considering this is the island of yells and bells, I suppose it is. Some even expected our Rottie, Mrs Mia Wallace, to bark the place down, but she’s as silent as death and equally terrifying. “We thought we’d have some security when we saw your dog,” the neighbours told me the first time we met. Bizarrely, we Maltese equate a barking dog with feeling safe, and conveniently forget the saying ‘all bark and no bite’.
The silence, so abundant in the winter months, is shattered by my bête noir, a possibly delightful, possibly genius, possibly gorgeous child of around four or five years of age, and her extended family, weekend in, weekend out, throughout summer. I only know her name because for years I have been hearing her parents shout: ‘Emma NO!’
These days, Emma’s family is joined by grandma, a few aunts and heaps of cousins. And Emma is growing, as expected, into their copy, shouting back, screeching with every move and every dive, from 11am to 7pm. When summer and the pool are concerned, the screeches are blood-curdling enough to make me draw blood from my own veins.
Emma will grow into another upper-middle class loudmouth, the same kind who spoiled my lovely few hours spent by the ‘appropriated’ piece of beach ‘belonging’ to a local 5-star hotel. The setting was perfect, the loungers comfortable, and the Piz Buin smeared on copiously. Yet for hours, I had to get non-stop earfuls. First up was a ‘weekend break’ Maltese couple who discussed everything loudly in that desperate way that you know people only use in order to attract attention to their boring lives. The man only quieted down when he sneaked off to surreptitiously amass as many imhar as he could off the rocks.
An hour later, four couples who simply could not stop malt-englishing in loud voices took the first couple’s loungers and the general aural space over: it was like listening to the comments, complete with paranoia, virtual knife-brandishing and righteousness, thrown into a soup of terrible use of language. The original couple stood next to them for a whole hour, possibly to ‘give’ them the message that their space had been appropriated. This did not work and so, in the way that only we Maltese can be territorial, the couples stuck to the loungers and the imhar couple eventually shuffled off.
The Maltese are a loud, strange lot. Only the Italians and Spaniards beat us at loudness. Yet Italians and Spaniards know and love their food. We, on the other hand, prefer ‘Chinese’ food over everything else, as reported in this paper last week. Even though I hunted desperately for an option which said ‘Mediterranean’ (there was none) it seems like the more than 20 per cent who jump at the opportunity of eating factory-produced wontons and spring rolls, cheap meat and sweet and sour sauce (sugar and vinegar) were adamant about it. I despair.
This is why many of them have flocked to a new ‘Chinese’ in St. Julians called Penang. The Writer and I were behaving as any tourist would, walking around Paceville and down to Spinola looking for somewhere to get some dinner. “What’s that?” we asked the LOVE monument, pointing across the road. “That” the LOVE monument replied, “is where you shall get ripped off tonight and laugh your heads off reading the menu.”
And forsooth, it was correct. The LOVE monument is very comfortable for the English-language students who sit inside its letters and now proved to also be an oracle. Penang’s décor is what I like to call ‘cheap pretend chic’: it is ‘modern’ in that the furniture is newly-purchased but you know for sure that it will age very badly because it’s made of faux materials.
Nothing is cheap about the prices though: they are all straight up St. Julians ones. Possibly, this could be because the dyslexic menu provides endless (well, ten minutes’ worth) of giggles: “When smoking pipes or cigars please be considerate for others.” “Please note some delays are inevitable due to all our food is Cooked Fresh To The Moment,” the latter part in larger font and centred. In the “Duck Speciality’s” you can have “Fried Duck Fillets Garnished with Chunky Pineapple’s” or “vegtables” with your Kari Duck. Just in case you’re pregnant, please note that “Fresh orienatal spices” are available with your stir fried duck with soya. The Set Menu offers a “Mixed Hors D’oufs Platter”. [Sic] {Sic] and terribly [Sic] and so funny if it did not cost almost €30 for a whole bird.
[If you read all of the above sentences and do not find something to correct in each, then I guess some English grammar and spelling lessons really are in order].
We stuck to the bare minimum: some fried dumplings for me and prawn fritters for TW. The dumplings were fried all right, made of a heavy pastry and stuffed to the gills with what seemed to be a bunch of tasteless frozen vegetables. Think of those ‘vegetarian’ pies that you get in the cheapo cafes, reduce them in size to two inches, and drop them in boiling oil and you get the gist. TW was not so lucky either: the batter was flabby and floury while the prawns came straight out of a freezer and were devoid of any flavour. Moreover the tail had been covered with the batter so you never knew if you’d get a mouthful of the inedible crust which gives crustaceans part of their name. On the side was a little pile of ‘decorative’ knife-shredded cabbage. Sweet.
The service is run by a woman of advanced years who seemed to need a few bottles of Bach Flower Remedies. Who doesn’t, really? After she noticed that the starters were obviously not going to be devoured, she came to clear the table, giving us back our dirty cutlery and placing it neatly on our right hand sides. “Do you want chopsticks” she asked, obviously with absolutely no interest in our answers. The reason is clear - the Maltese do not want the real thing, so these days Chinese restaurants do not even bother with real Chinese eating implements. If the locals want their own approximation of ‘Chinese’, then this is it, complete with twice-used knife and fork.
TW’s ‘spicy’ fried beef with mushrooms elicited a dour response: “Spicy my foot.” My aromatic duck, a bog-standard dish, the kind which Chinese restaurants are judged by, was reheated in what seemed to be a microwave, way overcooked and so dry it was dusty. It redefined ‘aroma’ of which it had absolutely none whatsoever. It seemed as if the aged duck had curled up inside itself and committed hara-kiri out of embarrassment of where it would eventually end up.
The pancakes were barely steamed and almost in the same state they had been in the packet they came from. The only good thing I can say about the dish is that for once the spring onions were actually so, rather than purple onions chopped in thin slices. Thich has become another lazy habit, proffered to those who wouldn’t know their spring onions from their autumn ones or their third toe.
There were ‘cold lychees’ and ‘fritters’ on the dessert menu, but we weren’t having any of anything, having spent enough of our money and scraped our stomachs in the process. I could not possibly think of a single thing I could recommend about Penang.
Nonetheless now I hear Emma screeching in the background, I realise that there was one very important contribution this restaurant has made to my life: for the two hours I patronised it (not including the time it took me to patronise it on paper), I was saved from a life in prison.

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