22 June 2015

Supermarkets in Ipoh

Getting groceries is one of those everyday activities that should be so simple but can be radically different depending on the country you are in. It is one of my favourite things to do as I find that visiting supermarkets tells you so much about a country and the people that live there, they condense a lot of what is important for daily life in one place.  Everyone likes to visit the market when they get to their holiday destination as it gives a colourful insight into daily life.  I find the supermarket does the same, albeit in a rather less glamorous and photogenic way and I often stop off at one, even when I am on holiday just to browse.  I can also say that while I love to visit  and get produce from markets wherever possible life is busy and sometimes a supermarket can just be easier, particularly with three children in tow.

Wet Market Section
In 1990s Diyarbakir (Turkey) we went to a variety of stores that reminded me of the type of all purpose ‘feed store’ seen in western movies.  We would stand at the counter and hand over the grocery list.  In Nigeria we would visit 4 supermarkets each trip as what was not available in one was potentially abundant in another (and this information would inevitably be forwarded to all friends leading to a shortage!), the butcher and fishmonger would bring meat directly to us in a rather foul smelling van.  In Venezuela we basked in an abundance of American produce, in Norway there was a shortage of fruit but an abundance of hot dogs and whale meat and in Kazakhstan I could pick up cheap caviar with my bread but had to go to a separate bazaar for good quality if seasonal fruit and vegetables.  The Netherlands (Albert Heijn) and The UK (Waitrose and Lidl) are, in many cases the gold standard for me – produce from around the world, available fresh and at my convenience. 

Beautiful Fruit and Vegetables
Shopping in Sarawak was bizarre as I could buy Waitrose branded products in my local supermarket together with Australian, Pakistani and American imports but for good quality fresh produce we had to go elsewhere. Shopping here in the Peninsula is even easier.  Just about everything is available from the local supermarkets with the exception (as in Sarawak) of good quality meat.  I have explored the meat markets in Ipoh but most of the produce is simply not really tasty.  I have been spoiled in previous postings as meat in Kazakhstan was ok (if you knew where to go) and in the UK we got it direct from source as my Father in Law kept his own herd of cattle.  In Venezuela as well the meat was melt in the mouth beautiful.  I find that meat here is expensive for what you get, I buy the expensive cuts and stretch a small amount by bulking out with extras.

Fresh fish
Other than the meat, however, I can get literally everything under the one roof and the quality is good.  Ipoh is well served for fresh produce, being near the Cameron Highlands we get local temperate produce as well as the inevitable tropical offerings.  I have never seen so many different types of Mangos on offer and I can buy three different types of cucumber and a huge array of tropical greens.  A lot of the fruit is imported from a variety of destinations; China and the US seem to be the most common.  No matter what the origin I always wash and sterilise it before eating, just to make sure. 

Malaysia has a love affair with instant noodles
Rice and noodles are staples here, in fact one of the biggest problems I have is tracking down a 1kg bag (which will last us 2 months or so) as most people buy gigantic sacks.  The array is almost bewildering, Jasmine, Basmati, Thai, Long Grain, Short Grain, Glutinous, Boil in the Bag, Red Rice, Brown Rice…… the selection for noodles, instant or otherwise is equally extensive.  Being a mixed race country I can get Indian, Chinese and Malay ingredients very easily and pretty much everything that I need to cook western favourites.  Unlike Sarawak, however, there are fewer western convenience foods and mixes available in Ipoh. I suspect that KL, where there is a large expat community, will have more.  It is not, however, a big issue because there is such other variety.  

Rice in huge quantities, it is the main staple
Malaysia has taken to the packet mix like a duck to water.  No need to make your green curry or sambal from scratch, it is all available premade and ready to pop into the pot, just add meat and vegetables.  These are an excellent shortcut; they make tasty meals but cut out the time with the mortar and pestle.  For when I am feeling as though I want to make a bit more of an effort but not too much I have invested in jars of ready-made ginger, galangal, garlic and lemongrass paste.  I am still looking for some turmeric paste – it dyes everything yellow when I make it up myself. 

Ipoh has a large Chinese Community so pork is readily available.
Like meat bread is often inferior in the supermarkets but many have a bakery either in the same building or just next door so it is not a big issue.  Baking stuff is readily available, even self-raising flour although I tend to just add baking powder and keep only plain in the house.  Fresh milk is also more readily available here than it was in Sarawak, because we use very little, however, I tend to buy the long life, shelf stable, cartons.  Baby formula is, like in Sarawak, readily available in a number of brands.  Ready made weaning foods are also on the shelves but there is a limited variety of options.  This is not a big issue for me as I tend to make from fresh in any event or just feed family foods but I do (gasp!) keep some jars for when we are out an about.  The baby is fed up of the two options, a pumpkin based slop and a carrot based slop.  

The supermarkets are always busy, particularly at weekends
Malaysians have a sweet tooth so the chocolate, sweets, flavoured yogurt etc aisles are extensive.  Because of the range of different cultures here there is always some festival or event to celebrate and the shops will have promotions for the festivities.  The main ones are Christmas, Chinese New Year, Ramadan and Eid but even away from these times there is always something going on.

There is always some celebration....
I have a selection of supermarkets to choose from.  The Malay supermarket, Mydin, is round the corner from the children’s school.  I have an hour between collecting my daughter and my son so we often pop in there to collect formula (RM15 cheaper than elsewhere) and top up any extras I need, there are no non Halal products available there.  There is a Giant just round the corner from our home which I also use for the odd corner shop run.  Both have extensive homeware sections so are good places to pick up tea towels, charcoal, Tupperware etc, it has a non halal section but it is limited to alcohol only.

Alcohol is easily available for those who want it.
We have the option to shop at Tesco here, it is significantly more expensive than the other supermarkets and much like in the UK I find the quality of their product fairly inferior for the price paid, their fruit and vegetables often look tired and out of date and many of the dried products on the shelves are close to sell by and stale, I do pop in for English style biscuits (Jaffa Cakes, Ginger Nuts and Chocolate Digestives) from time to time.  My favourite place to shop is Aeon, the fruit and vegetables are always fresh, the seafood is very fresh and high quality and the meat is the best in town.  There is a good wet market in store and I can even buy cut flowers (surprisingly hard to find here).  The non halal section does a good range of pork meats and imported products and a good alcohol selection although the meat is more important to us as we drink alcohol only infrequently. As with all non halal sections we have to purchase the products in section and there will be a non Muslim cashier available to facilitate that. There is also what appears at a glance (I have never really bothered with it in any posting) a good organic section and they have the best cheese selection in Ipoh, I can even buy hummus, easy enough but time consuming to make fresh so I prefer to cheat.

Even fresh flowers are available
All in all, outside of Europe, possibly the least challenging posting I have lived in for stocking up the larder.  

Click on the picture for more posts on life in Ipoh.

Ersatz Expat

11 June 2015

One Year In Malaysia

It is hard to believe but, in a few short weeks, we will have been in Malaysia for one year.  Time has truly flown, we arrived as a family of four and are now a very happy and settled family of five (plus pets).
Just before we left Kazakhstan I wrote about what I would and would not miss about our life in Astana.  It was certainly hard for me to leave behind the first posting I had shared with my husband and children, I cried when our plane took off and we left Kazakhstan behind forever, something I have only done with one other posting.  Reading the list back I was pretty spot on with what I miss and do not miss.

A new posting is always daunting, things that have become routine in the last place are difficult, at first, in the new home.  It can take time to adjust as well, to recognize that the old life is gone and you are living the new one.  This is particularly so for us because when we move we go directly from one posting to another with no holiday in between to cushion the blow.  We literally wake up one morning in the old home and the next in our new place.  Our move to Malaysia has been complicated by the fact that we had a fairly major in country move to contend with 9 months into our time here. Nevertheless I think we can safely say that we are now settled into our life here in Ipoh.  I have been thinking about what I like and do not like about our new home.

From this....

To this...
To this... life has changed dramatically in the last 12 months.

I like:
  • Our home.  We had a beautiful home in Miri, possibly the best house I have ever lived in, it fitted all our criteria as though it had been made for us.  The one niggle – slow wifi in the TV room and our bedroom.  This was the house we brought our new daughter home to, 10 weeks into our time in Miri and it will always have a place in our hearts.  Our home in Ipoh is also lovely.  The house itself is not as perfect a fit for us as the Miri one but the area is spectacular.  A river for the dogs to swim in, wildlife at our doorstep (I counted 10 separate close wildlife encounters on my last evening run); what more could we want.
  • Our car:  driving has always been important to me, it gives me independence and I love being behind the wheel.  Our car is old but does the business and is spacious enough that everyone is comfortable. 
  • The weather:  I miss the extreme seasons of Astana, there was something about the cold weather (and the stunning blue sky) that made winter there a magical time.  The hot summer was a glorious change and the dichotomy was simply magical.  That said I like the simplicity of having just one season to contend with.  The fact that I do not need to spend 10 minutes getting dressed for the outside (and a further 10 getting the baby swathed) clinches the matter. 
  • My hair:  the dry climate in Astana meant that static was the order of the day.  I spent 3 years trying to calm my hair down with tumbler dryer sheets and oil, I still looked like I had stuck my fingers in the plug. Humid frizz is a doddle in comparison!
  • The simplicity:  although English is not the first language here everyone speaks it to some degree and all banks etc are able to operate in it and have website pages in English.  This makes life much easier as I no longer need to sit down with a dictionary to work out what I am trying to do.  Films in the Cinema are also in English which is blissful.
  • My tan:  I will never be a brown nut as I have ridiculously fair skin.  The light here, however, means that I have graduated from deathly pale to looking as though there is at least a breath of air in my body.  I am still white enough to cause exposure problems in photographs (I am really not kidding) when standing next to other people though so I have some way to go.
  • Flowers:  cut flowers are not easily available here but when I did track down a florist that sells fresh rather than fake they are cheap compared with Astana.  This means I can enjoy the luxury of cut flowers to cheer up my home.
  • Fruit:  here in Ipoh we are a short drive away from the Cameron Highlands so I can also get  both the 'run of the mill' tropical offering and temperate fruit and herbs (which are expensive and exotic in other parts of South East Asia) quite cheaply.
  • Starbucks:  my local one is a drive though, this is bad for my waistline but makes the school run bearable. 
  • Visas: or lack thereof.  We, of course, need to have visas to allow us to live our lives here in Malaysia.  Our family, on the other hand, just have to turn up at the airport to be granted leave to remain for a whole 3 months on a tourist pass.  This means that it is easy for people to pop over and visit without the need for complex letters of invitation and visits to embassies to get the visa.

I am still learning to cope with:
  • Humidity:  I grew up in the tropics so I don’t mind the humidity as such but it would be nice to be able to wear my hair down outside from time to time without the back of my neck getting soaking wet in 2 minutes.
  • Driving:  Malaysian driving is an odd combination of passive and aggressive.  Some people will pull out onto a main road doing no more than 20kph and continue to drive a similar speed on the main motorway,  others will drive ridiculously fast, weaving in and out of traffic.  Don’t even get me started on the dreaded moped in the blindspot!
  • Loo paper:  Squirty water hoses are the norm here so the rule is, very strictly, bring your own wherever you go or do without!  Public loos in Miri were best avoided altogether, here in Ipoh they are pretty decent (if somewhat lacking in paper).
  • Ants:  these have the potential to be a problem anywhere in the world (Nigeria was particularly bad for them) so I can’t really complain.  We seem to have some pretty persistent ones, however so everything has to go in a Tupperware, even in the fridge!
  • Time Zones:  We have an awkward 7 or 8 hour (depending on the time of year) time difference with our families.  This means that it can be difficult to find a time to make a long call.
All in all not bad, we are enjoying our time here so far and looking forward to seeing what the next year will bring.  

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Ersatz Expat

7 June 2015

Tea from the Cameron Highlands

We have had a glut of visitors lately.  The other weekend two friends and colleagues from Astana, now based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, came to visit.  It was lovely to catch up and, in what I believe is the hallmark of true lifelong friends as opposed to posting acquaintances, we spent a lot of time talking about life as it is now.  That is not to say that we did not reminisce over shared memories, we would not be human if we did not do this, but we were interested and able to find common ground in our new, separate lives too.

Tea along the approach road to the Sungei Palas plantation
Picking with shears on the high slopes (where the machines can't reach)
We only had a day together so we decided to drive them up to the tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands.  We had tried to get to the plantation a few weeks before but been stymied by bank holiday traffic (note do not drive anywhere on a Malaysian Bank Holiday) so the sunny day of the visit looked like the perfect time to take them.  An added benefit was that the highlands can be difficult for visitors to access if they do not have their own transport so it was a place they were only likely to see with us.

Sungei Palas Plantation Village
There are a number of major tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands, they belong to the ‘Boh’ tea company, a common brand in Malaysia.  The most northerly plantation Sungei Palas is a short 2 hour drive from Ipoh taking in a spectacular mountain climb and the more northerly of the fruit farms and visitor attractions along the way.  The weather is noticeably cooler here compared with the lowlands, reminiscent of the English summer weather (ie it rains a lot but is pleasant when sunny).  As you move off the main road and down to the plantation itself the tea becomes the dominant crop on the mountainside.  The plantation is huge, stretching as far as the eye can see.

Visitor's centre and tea rooms
All you ever wanted to know about tea
As we drove down into the valley of the main part of the estate it was possible to see workers harvesting tea on the high, steep slopes that are inaccessible to the mechanised pickers.  The drive down to the visitors centre ran through the small village of estate workers’ huts complete with a prayer room and temple, playing fields, a school, community centre a café and small shop. It was just after lunch when we arrived so we went to the tearooms which are in a purpose built observatory platform giving a commanding view over the estate.  The rooms serve, not surprisingly, tea in many and various forms, pastries and cakes and is pretty good value for money. 

Factory weighbridge (and one of my favourite photos of
the two older children)
Sample testing
After a short break we took a walk around the information display.  The information provided was detailed and interesting, explaining the tea making process from start to finish and providing a lot of background and marketing information on the ‘Boh’ brand, our older kids (8&6) certainly managed to get a lot of information even though they did not read the full content of each poster.  We gave the gift shop (which sold packets of branded tea that are easily bought in our local supermarket) a miss.

Machinery as old as Granny and still going strong
Original brass cutting plate on display
 The real highlight of the visit, however, was a tour around the estate factory.  It was established in 1935 and much of the machinery in use is still original (in design at least if not in components), it was rather like walking into a living museum.  The guided tours were finished by the time we arrived but the factory is so small and the signage and information so detailed that it was not necessary to have a guide. 
Exploring the tea slopes
Once we had finished our brief tour we walked down through the plantations, enjoying a stroll amongst the tea and being out in the sun without the oppressive humidity that we get down in Ipoh at times.  The way back included an obligatory stop at a vegetable and fruit centre.  We will certainly be back (probably with more visitors in tow) and will also make an effort to drive down to the other, larger, plantation where the larger factory will offer a different insight on the tea making business.

Click on the picture for more posts on life in Malaysia.

Ersatz Expat