MARCH 22 — My family and I had been away for a few days practising our own version of social distancing; a long-planned holiday exploring the Mulu caves in Sarawak, away from crowds.
It was during this self-imposed exile with zero phone and internet connection that Putrajaya announced the movement control order (MCO) in order to mitigate the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country.
The fact that this happened was lost on us, and it only dawned on us that something was not right when the national park was shut down by order of the federal government on the day that we were supposed to leave.
It was only when we got on the plane to Miri that we understood the gravity of the situation. For all that is being said about the print industry, it was thanks to the daily Borneo Post that we found out the extent of the MCO.
Later, checking social media while waiting for our transfer to Kuala Lumpur in Miri, there was a slight worry that supermarket shelves may have been emptied due to the inevitable panic buying on the day after the MCO was announced — a common occurrence especially when the announcement itself had been vague and scant on details.
The next morning after we got back, I decided to take my chance at the supermarket. Our pantry, after all, was largely empty. Face mask, check. Only head of family can go out, check. No unnecessary detours, check.
I purposely chose a slightly upscale supermarket, assuming that it may be less crowded and better-stocked. (In a betrayal of my immense class privilege, I was later proven wrong — the humble Aeon Big turned out to be better-stocked and not crowded at mid-day.)
With all this preamble out of the way, let me share some observations about which food supplies had their stock depleted when I went shopping, as a totally unscientific and hardly representative analysis on some of our traditions and eating habits:
While pricier rice such as brown or red rice, or the short-grain sushi rice were still available, most stocks of medium- to long-grain rice such as Jasmine rice were already gone.
The fact that there were still many types of noodles and breads still available speaks a lot of the status of rice in our pantry.
Our love of rice cuts across all ethnic divides, with the simple white rice a staple carbohydrate that makes most, if not all, meals. Eating white rice with protein and vegetable dishes seems to embody the basic template of a meal, whether you are Malay, Chinese, Indian, or others.
And when there is leftover rice, making fried rice is such a convenient and quick way to utilise it.
Amid rows and rows of other green and leafy vegetables, there were several empty baskets. It took me some time to remember what used to be there, and it surprised me that they were broccoli and cauliflower. There were no potatoes left when I was picking up some onions.
It should also be noted that all three are not native to Malaysia. Most stock came from China, while the more premium or organic ones are from Australia. Similarly, a wide variety of potatoes are brought in from the United States.
But we seem to have developed a taste for it. Potatoes commonly feature in all sorts of dishes we call “curry”, including the Malay and Chinese versions.
Meanwhile, broccoli and cauliflower are easy to add on in stir-fry dishes. It also helps that they can last a bit longer compared to leafy vegetables.
Eggs shelves were perhaps the most affected by panic buying. There were zero eggs to be found during my first visit, not even salted ducks’ eggs or quails’ eggs.
It speaks to the versatility of eggs as a source of protein and a trusty “sidekick” to most dishes. They can shine alone during breakfast scrambled, or half-boiled the way Malaysians love it.
Similarly, dishes such as nasi lemak, lontong, fried rice and noodles, all seem much more complete when served with eggs.
Remember the rice above? Well, when cooped up at home, nobody would say no to a simple serving of hot white rice with crispy fried egg, with some soy sauce drizzled on top — which many would attest is the perfect comfort food.
Fun fact: The most common way to manufacture influenza vaccines is by injecting viruses into fertilised chicken eggs and incubating them for several days, before the fluid with the vaccine virus is harvested from the eggs. Basically, to produce a lot of vaccines, you really need many, many, many eggs!
4. Canned sardines
My wife loves canned sardines (specifically Ayam Brand mackerels) as it is easy to whip up a dish in a jiffy with it. Just sauté some onions and chillies, add the whole can and simmer, season and squeeze some lime juice over it and voila! For a fancier version, you can add chopped potatoes (see above).
Make it a bit drier and it can be a satisfying filling for sandwiches or French toast rolls or curry puffs or pastries... any leftovers can be made into sardine fried rice (also see above). There are many ways to eat it, and for many locals it is a much more familiar taste than canned tuna.
Unsurprisingly, I could not find any canned sardines left while there was still canned tuna available. Leaving me pondering how to explain to my better half that I could not complete our shopping list.
5. Instant noodles
Can you even call yourself a Malaysian if you don’t stock up a few packets of Maggi instant noodles? I myself cannot count how many of my late nights are fuelled by a hot bowl of Maggi kari, topped with half-done egg and a slice of processed cheese (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it).
True enough, there was no Maggi left for me during my first trip. In a sort of regional solidarity, the iconic and equally tasty Indomie and Mama were also gone (woohoo Indonesia and Thailand!) but not Myojo (boo Singapore).
Other more “premium” brands of Nissin ramen and Nongshim ramyun were also surprisingly untouched, despite our craze for them.
I found my packs of Maggi kari and asam laksa (the latter for my wife) later at Mydin’s, and suffice to say we finally felt like we are ready for anything.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.