Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Scrumptious English Fish and Chips

I remember when I was small going through Apak’s Andy Capp Book, a comic book featuring a bloke by that name.  In it, I remember seeing Andy Capp eating something hot and steaming out of a newspaper wrap. It made me rather curious. I didn’t know it then, but now I know Andy was having his fish and chips.

If there was one food which reminds me of England it is fish and chips. It is the quintessential English food. Typical of most food popular with the masses, the fish and chips started out as a working-class staple, especially popular with factory workers.

Fish and chips shops – or chippies as they are fondly called in the UK – began to spring up across the nation beginning the middle of the 19th century, during Victorian England. Diverse versions exist on the story of where the first fish and chips shop was opened in England. Some say it was in London. Yet another version said it was in Mossley which was just around the corner from my place of study, Manchester.

Fish and chips basically consist of deep fried battered fish and potato chips. It is prepared by first coating the fish in flour by dipping it into a batter consisting of flour mixed with liquid. The fish is then deep fried in oil –  most commonly vegetable oil  – until the batter turns golden brown. Cod and haddock were the most commonly used fish for fish and chips. Other fish such as plaice and seabass were also used, but I noticed that all of them were from the white fish variety. My personal favourite was always the cod.

The fried fish is accompanied with a generous portion of hot fried chips. Unlike the American-style French fries though, English chips were usually thicker – about the size and length of one’s little finger. This made them soft and fluffy as compared to French fries. The fish and chips combination is then served in a wrapping of old newspapers. I came to know later that this was to keep them nice and warm.

Although various condiments were available like tomato sauce, tartar sauce and so on, traditionally, the fish and chips were taken with salt and vinegar. The salt and vinegar was usually sprinkled over the fish and chips at the time it was served.

If one were to take away his fish and chips, just before the shopkeeper fully wraps it, it was customary for him to ask his customer “would you like salt and vinegar, then?”

At that point, I would always answer “yes, please” – because that’s the way I liked my fish and chips – and the salt and vinegar would be duly and swiftly sprinkled onto my fish and chips.

As I opened up the wrapping of the steaming hot fish and chips, I could just smell the aroma of the fish mixed with a whiff of vinegar. The batter would be crispy and crunchy but yet oily. As I pinched the fish, the crispy batter will crumble and expose the fish flesh inside which was white, soft and moist. With a quickly-said – and a barely audible – bismillah, the fish was already in my mouth. Mmm, absolutely scrumptious.

But one has to be careful, though. Newly prepared fish and chips is piping hot. If you were to hurriedly pop your steaming fish and chips in your mouth and try to swallow it down without thinking, you might end up with a burnt mouth and tongue. I know this for a fact since I have had the displeasure of finding it out myself – a few times, I might add. And I can assure you that it's not fun. So when consuming fish and chips served straight from the fryer, gobbling up your food like the Cookie Monster is definitely not a good idea.

A portion of fish and chips would have cost me just around one pound. Very cheap. And yet the combination of fish and potato chips was enough to make me feel full and to keep me going for at least half a day. I think that was one of the main reasons why fish and chips was very popular. It is such a filling food. But it was also a favourite for take aways and picnics because people could easily eat it without a knife and fork. It was a clear favourite for seaside day trippers and holiday makers. When I was staying in Blackpool, during the peak summer holiday season, the chippies along the promenade would shift into overdrive to feed the hungry tourists that flocked into town.

When I say that fish and chips was a popular take away, it is simply based on the observation that the fish and chips shops were on the corner of most streets. They were an ever-present feature of every local neighbourhood shopping area.

My first local chippy was on Norbreck Road where I’d been staying in Blackpool. It was called simply The Norbreck Chippy. It was just about fifty meters away from my flat. It had a glass shopfront and a glass door that allowed people visibility into the shop as they walked past by. Inside there was a fish and chips frying range with stainless steel finished panels and a counter as a serving area.  The were a few eat-in stools arranged for those who'd like to take their fish and chips at the shop.  

This was where I used to get my occasional supply of fish and chips. I remember that due to the heavy frying inside, whenever I entered the shop – especially during winter – my glasses would instantly get fogged up due to the temperature difference. Being a local chippy, it was not such a big shop, but it did its part just nicely to come to our rescue whenever my flat mates and I got a sudden attack of do-nothingness mood and decided against cooking. Sometimes, after coming home late from visiting a friend’s place, or after long hours slogging away at the study desk, it was a convenient source for a much welcomed late-night supper. 

In Manchester, while staying at the Cornbrook hall of residence, my local chippy was down at the Precinct Centre. It was a very small but popular chippy which was always full of hungry students and lecturers.

But there was also this place called Rusholme, a ten minutes bus ride away from Cornbrook. Rusholme was famous for its big number of Asian restaurants and take away food outlets. It was here that I learnt to enjoy fish and chips with curry. It was totally different experience and taste to the salt and vinegar version but still palatable and quite to my taste.

Away from home, fish and chips was my food of choice whenever I could find them. It was cheap and it was convenient to consume on the go. Once, on a university project trip Amsterdam, I still managed to get a fish and chips.

Chippies are a true friend of the masses, especially for the hungry and the not so well-heeled students like me. Travelling around UK, whenever I suddenly had the hunger pangs, I just followed the smells of  the fish and chips to get myself fed. For, the fish and chips has a distinctive aroma, and plus you could always smell it from half way up the street.

It remains one of my favourite smells of Britain.


Saturday, February 06, 2016

My Introduction to Islam as a Way of Life

In the 1970s, throughout the Muslim world, various social and political events were unfolding. One of the most significant was the Iranian Revolution which climaxed in 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini deposed the Shah of Iran and formed the Islamic Republic. This event in particular gave lots of encouragement and influenced many Islamic activists the world over not just in political activism, but also growing consciousness in social and individual lives.

But typical of the level of Islamic consciousness in Malaysia those days – or rather, the lack of it – to most of us, Islam was just the religion one was born into. Sure, we prayed every day. We also fasted during Ramadhan and then happily followed that with the Hari Raya celebrations. But these were more like rituals and traditions that we just followed and took for granted.

If I may say so, our understanding of the true meaning of being a Muslim was lost upon us. We never gave any serious thought as to what would be the implications of Islam on the way we lead our life, or the way we carry ourselves?

If there was one significant impact on me as a student in the UK – apart from becoming a town planner – it was my new understanding on Islam as being not just a religion, but also a way of life.

To be sure, the signs of Islamic resurgence in Malaysia were already there before I left for UK. I remember Chuck, my class monitor, regaling us with stories during prep-classes about a certain Anwar Ibrahim and his band of young Muslim supporters. And, for the first time, we were seeing young Muslim ladies adorning the tudung.

My journey towards a better understanding of Islam in the UK could be ascribed to the usrah programs organized by my seniors in Blackpool, and then in Manchester. Usrah, in Arabic, basically means the family. But in the context of one’s Islamic awakening, it is more a method for developing the Muslim character and preparation for da’awah responsibilities.

Living in a foreign land, away from the watchful eyes of our parents, it was just as well that we’d occasionally have our little usrah gatherings where we’d read the Quran and discuss some Islamic-related topics. It helped to develop our limited knowledge of Islam.

But it also served to foster our ukhuwah or bond of friendship and the sense of togetherness and cooperation amongst us. For example, to ensure continuous supply of halal meat for our little community in Blackpool, we worked out a duty roster whereby every fortnight two of us guys would travel to a city called Preston to purchase two weeks’ supply of chicken and mutton. We organized a prayer room for use by all Muslim students in the college which included arranging for the weekly Friday prayers.

Barely a few months after arriving in Blackpool, we were already onto our first project together which was to organize an exhibition on Islam at the college main hall. The highlight of the program was to be a talk by Cat Stevens, the famous British singer-songwriter, who a few years earlier had converted to Islam and assumed the name Yusuf Islam. Alas, Yusuf couldn’t turn up at the last minute.

The initiative for our usrah get-together could be credited to the Islamic Representative Council or the IRC. The IRC was an Islamic body formed by Malaysian students in the UK in the early 1970s. During its heydays the IRC was instrumental in helping new Malaysian students to settle down in UK. But more importantly, it helped the young impressionable students to cushion the culture shock by bringing them close to Islam.

I managed to join some of their programs in Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. Printing and binding of bulletins were some of the chores that were assigned to us younger students. In line with the Sunnah of the Prophet, it was common those days for the guys to grow beards – or at least tried to. Most sisters wore the jubbah which was an ankle-length, robe-like garment and complemented with the tudung labuh, or the hijab.

Another notable student body was the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, or FOSIS. This was a national umbrella organization for Islamic societies at colleges and universities throughout UK. FOSIS Conferences saw Muslim students of various nationalities getting together to discuss issues facing the Muslim world and plan programs. I followed my seniors once or twice to the FOSIS Winter Conferences held at Dewsbury in West Yorkshire. It was through such programs that I got to appreciate the Palestine statehood issues and the Islamist group struggles in various Muslim countries.

Living the life of a Muslim in a non-Muslim majority country had its challenges. For one thing, the liberal attitudes towards social life could prove to be a great, great temptation and a distraction, not just from our studies but our observance of Islamic values. For another, even doing seemingly simple tasks such as performing the daily prayers could be a real test on our resoluteness.

The Brits  they just loved to drink. No, not your mundane coke or the harmless orange juice. I mean alcoholic beverages. When I was staying at the university student hall of residence, during weekends there’d be lots of invitations to potluck parties. And where there’s a party, there was bound to be lots of alcohol. It’s their idea of having a good time. I did have a tough time at first explaining to my English friends that I just don’t drink. I was pretty sure that, initially, they took me as being anti-social or snobbish or something.

With no prayer room provided at public places, performing our prayers away from home could prove tricky. When performing ablution, for example, we had no choice but to lift our feet and wash them in the washbowls at public toilets. Often times we’d get stares and weird looks from the English for this. To pray, we’d have to be smart enough to look for some quite corners away from the crowd and passers-by. If that was not possible, then we’d just have to be bold and lay our jackets down on the ground to act as sajjadah and fulfil our obligations in full view of the public. This usually happened at train stations when we were on long distance travelling.

But for all those challenges, a lot more could be said about the interesting and rewarding experiences of being a Muslim in the UK.

Large British cities used to have a sizeable local Muslim community. They comprised mainly of Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants. Typically hardworking, most were active in retail, setting up sundry shops and halal butchers which was a boon for us Malaysian students. Interacting with these fellow Muslims and the camaraderie we developed with them was one of the best parts of my stay at Cheetham Hill in Manchester. One friendly Pakistani brother, Mohammed Afzal Khan – who was our butcher then – was active in politics, serving the local Asian interests. I learnt much later that he rose on to become the Lord Mayor of Manchester.

Our local mosque located at No. 443 Cheetham Hill Road was an exceptional place of worship which also acted as a community centre. It was run by the local Pakistani community and was affiliated to the UK Islamic Mission. The bespectacled imam, who wore a long flowing beard, was specially brought in from Pakistan.

During Ramadhan we’d all break our fast together down in the basement of the mosque and the iftar spread which was a combination of Malaysian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi favourites, was a sight to behold – very diverse as it was delicious. The fact that fasting in UK during summer was a tough test on our stamina and patience for the extra-long hours of abstinence from food and drink – sometimes up to eighteen hours – made the iftar sessions a very happy and jovial occasion for all.

Come Aidil Fitri it would be an even more joyous occasion. Everyone would try to be dressed in their best national attires. But if the auspicious day fell on a working day, it was a quick Aidil Fitri prayer at the mosque and then everyone would be on their way to work, or classes in our case.

It was through one of the Pakistani brothers that I also started dabbling in Arabic. Lessons were held at an old office block in downtown Manchester, not far from the famous Manchester Arndale shopping centre. I didn’t quite catch up and were miles away from becoming a proper student of the language. But it did further spur my interest in this language of the Qurán for me to continue my lifelong learning process.

As a norm, products of the formal British education system should be expected to return to Malaysia all full of poise and confidence, with a touch of Anglophile. But as fate would have it, I also underwent a life changing experience, one that would shape my whole outlook towards my religion, Islam.  And for that, I am ever grateful to my Creator.


Monday, January 25, 2016

GCE A Levels in the UK: Arrival at Heathrow

By the grace of Allah, I am one of a handful lucky young Malaysians to have been sent by the Government of Malaysia to study overseas. It was a life-changing experience. One that would shape my life.

I remember receiving a green coloured letter from Blackpool dated 19th July 1979. It was a letter of offer for admission to the Blackpool College of Technology and Art – to do GCE A Levels – signed by M.J. McAllister, the college principal. So, on a warm and humid night, on 9th of September of 1979, after bidding my family farewell, I boarded a Malaysian Airlines System DC 10 aircraft at the Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Subang Airport bound for London.

There was a tinge of sadness at the thought of having to be so far away from my family to stay in a strange new land. But if I was honest, for the most part, I felt very excited at the prospect.

After a long and tiring eighteen hours flight, which included a stopover in Dubai – and if memory serves, Frankfurt, we finally arrived at London Heathrow Airport.

Now, I had imagined that the world famous London Heathrow would be more modern-looking and breath-taking compared to our Subang. This was after all Britain’s premier international airport. World famous.

Was I in for a disappointment.

 As it turned out, London Heathrow was much, much older than Subang. That’s for sure. But what struck me also as soon as I had cleared the customs and immigration checkpoints was that it was one very cramped and congested airport, too. It was a hive of activity. You’d see streams of people walking up and down. Some, lugging their bags. Others just walking along, but looking very purposeful in their strides.

Being a bit of an aviation buff, airplanes and airports was the surest way to stir some excitement in me. Quietly, I declared to myself, “welcome to London Heathrow, the busiest airport in the world!”

As I surveyed the building and people within, I remember seeing clear way finding signage and information boards everywhere I looked. The standard colour and design theme was black letterings on yellow background. They were very effective in guiding us, a bunch of wide-eyed kampong kids who had just stepped foot in England, to find our way around the building and find the exit points and passenger arrival waiting area.

And then there were Mat Sallehs – all over the place! Heck, what was I talking about? This was England. This is where they come from.

Although they were all air travellers, most of them at the airport were dressed casually and in light clothing as it was still early autumn. In contrast, my friends and I had our suits on looking very business-like – or nerd-like, take your pick – and ready to get down straight to work as diligent government sponsored students should. In fact, on that inauspicious day, I actually had my brown coloured school prefect’s blazer on me. I must have looked rather smart, resplendent.

My first true encounter with a local happened within the airport itself when a lady came up to my friends and I peddling music records and cassettes.

I still remember it very clearly when she mentioned in her deep gruff voice that her name was Nina Simone, and that she was offering us to buy her record album and cassette. As I squinted my eyes and peered closely, it was her picture on the cover of the album alright. But being fresh out of KL, of course none of us knew her, let alone her music. So we just smiled at her sheepishly and moved along.

But Nina was not in the least disappointed and straight away turned to other passers-by instead. It was only much latter on that I found out that Nina Simone was actually a great American singer songwriter.

As was always the tradition, we were met at the airport by senior Malaysian students. Having been informed by the Malaysian Students Department in London of our arrival, they were there to bring us to our temporary lodging in London before our onward trip to our respective colleges at various localities in England.

The seniors – or brothers, as we would be calling them - were from Blackpool which was the place where we would be studying for our A Levels over the next two years.

I remember the seniors came across as being cool and confident as they went about their ways. I was deeply impressed. I guess it is normal the world over for juniors to look up to their seniors and be in awe of their style and mannerisms. Then again, I suspect the fancy, casual, autumn jackets which they donned, as compared to our mundane suits, had also contributed to that.

One thing that stuck to mind also was the fact that they were very approachable and so accommodating of us freshies. Some of them at the airport on that particular day were Amaran Abu Bakar, Saad Abbas, Khairul Anuar Hashim, Abu Bakar Sahari and Halimi Abdul Hamid. I noticed that most of them had goatees. Some had heavy stubbles, yet others just had a few miserable strands of hairs on the chin to show.  

All of the brothers were two years our senior. They had already successfully sat for their GCE A Levels and were about to enrol into universities to do their undergraduate courses. Most, as the case with Amaran, would be doing civil engineering. Yet there were also others who weren’t planning on becoming engineers – like Khairul Anuar Hashim for example, who was going into Physics.

We were led by Amaran, Khairul and the others to a waiting coach which would take us to London.  As we left the terminal building to walk to the coach whilst passing by rows of very odd, boxy-looking black cabs, I could feel the nice chill of the early autumn English weather. It was quite similar to the coolness one feels during subuh time in Malaysia, I thought to myself.

Now, if this is how the typical English weather would be like, then I’m going to love it here, I told myself.

A few minutes later our coach was well on its way, negotiating the morning traffic, steadily crawling into the heart of London.

I looked out the window of the coach. Nice weather. Nice new place. New friends. And the promise of a whole new experience. How I looked forward to all these.

And then, suddenly, I remembered Apak. This must have been exactly how he felt just more than twenty years earlier when he arrived in London to do his teaching training in Kirkby, Liverpool.

I guess history repeats itself. Once again, a whole new world beckoned for another kampong boy from Ipoh.