Penang's fruit juices and lassis are beyond anything I've ever had before. Earlier in the day I ordered an orange juice, took one sip and immediately asked for another. At lunch my mango lassi tasted as though it had been made from an entire, perfectly ripe mango. So this evening what drew me from my room was the thought of something to drink. None of the stalls I passed had a blender and the restaurants boasted either coffee or Carlsberg. I was a little surprised to realize that I didn't want a beer and kept on searching.
Close to my hotel there are a cluster of food stalls and at one of them a man was making chapatti. There were a line of people waiting for him to make theirs and quite a few eating under a tarp near the street, so I figured they had to be good. As I waited, I watched and noticed the woman helping him had a big pot of yellow curry; when it was finally my turn, that was what I ordered.
"This pot?" the man asked in damned near perfect English, "this is mutton head curry. Wouldn't you rather have something else? Here, this one is chicken."
Maybe it was because he looked quite a bit like Michael Ondaatje twenty years ago, but I was damned if I was going to change my order, even though my stomach clenched just a little.
"Are you sure?" he asked and I said, "I want to try it. If I don't like it, I won't eat it."
As I watched the woman ladle it out, I felt a little annoyed. Why did he have to tell me? I would have been quite happy to eat in ignorance, as I often had at street stalls in Thailand. Perhaps, I grumbled to myself, this sharing a common language wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
There were four chunks of flesh and bone in the curry, which I thought was overly generous, and a plate of very beautiful rice. I poured a spoonful of curry over the rice and tasted it--so far, so good.
Feeling optimistic, I selected one of the chunks. Little bits of meat were in between bones that looked like part of a very small spine; I extricated some and was happy to discover it tasted like very tender goat. I managed to eat every elusive little scrap, only occasionally encountering a stray bone in my mouth. And when Michael Ondaatje came to see how I was doing, I was able to truthfully tell him it was good. He looked skeptical.
The second piece was a long bone with something along its side that looked--well I could say challenging but it was more like revolting--something with a greenish black color. I put it with the remnants of the small spinal cord and reached for the next. More little bits of meat but some of it looked a bit like tallow and tasted like fat. It also joined the pile of bones rather quickly.
The last chunk was the biggest and when I cut into it, it was gelatinous and an unappealing shade of pink. I tasted it, hoping it would be chewy like cartilage. It wasn't. The softness of it completely defeated me and I asked for my chapatti which at this point tasted like the most comforting and delicious thing I had ever eaten. I tore off bits and used it to scoop up my rice and curry without any cranial delicacies. If nothing else, I consoled myself, at least I can practice my using no tableware skills.
A flower stall across the way glowed on the dark street with garlands of marigolds and roses and orchids and jasmine. I watched men fashion loops of flowers and tried to make my mouth forget the texture of the gelatinous bit. It was orb-shaped and I remembered my friend Thanegi talking about goat's head and how she always ate the eye. I hoped I hadn't eaten part of an eye.
The rain that had been hovering over the city had burst when I was half-way through my meal and now was dripping through holes in the plastic tarp and bouncing back up when it hit the street. A coffee server was now using only one hand because the other held his umbrella. I paid and ran to my hotel, hearing the call to prayer from the nearby mosque and praying that Michael Ondaatje would think my pile of untouched mutton head was due to the raindrops dripping on my food and not because I am in fact a gustatory wuss.