PUBLISHED 9 June 2015
Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
There we were again. Standing at that long intentionally yellowed plastic counter of KFC, staring at a pictograph depiction of the menu offering different multiples of fried chicken and combinations of sides.
‘I only eat street food’ like Dorothy’s mantra, is repeated over and over between the walls of hostel dorms. It’s a badge of authenticity, the only responsible eating when you travel they tell me. And yet I still find myself, about once a month, pushing through those familiar glass doors.
I used to prescribe to the same rhetoric. I once upon a time wore elasticated harem joggers in authentic batik style polyester too. I instinctively knew how to pose for photos so you couldn’t capture the authentic ‘I love Bali’ monogram on the ankle. I used to think that street food was the only way. I love the incongruous smells of Asia, where aromas are allowed to waft down the kerbs. The obnoxiously indefinably salty smell of umai united with an array of herbs and spices I can’t even pronounce. The vast mosaic of colour and shape complimented by the sounds of woks clattering on the gas stove, and cooks feverishly chopping everything with meat cleavers. The simplicity of presentation; small things skewered onto sticks, things served in bowls, or wrapped up in banana leaf pyramids, or happily slopped onto a plastic plate and served with a spoon. If I see a queue for food, I bound across the street to join it because I know that whatever treat awaits will be worth it.
I love food. I still haven’t let go of my puppy fat. I hold onto my spare tyre with passion for my next fix. But here I am again, clutching a rectangular brown tray full of junky brown bits and a side of post-mix coke. Without doubt the stuff from the gun is absolute filth. I waddle ashamed into the darkest corner of a tube lit white room and scoff the takings with my fingers like some untamed beast.
Back home I rarely find myself in the same position. In the year I spent living in Australia I can count on one hand the number of occasions where I ate at international fast food outlets. (Luckily for me, the walk of shame always led me somewhere independent and obviously less shameful) My attraction to fast food outlets in Asia is something else. Whenever I feel a little homesick, which isn’t often, the first thing I yearn for is comfort food. But there is nothing in Asia which even loosely resembles a roast. Roast potatoes, hot or cold, make me weak at the knees. But cooking them requires an oven, a double rainbow in wok-land. For similar reasons most of Asia recreates mediocre pizzas (by the way, those individual cheese slices are not, I repeat, not for pizzas) and pasta is generally served 12 minutes past al dente. So we finally come to the ubiquitous chip and its many many friends. And for consistency, nothing beats international standardisation, provided by the safety of the Golden Arches. My penchant for crispy fried chicken and dislike for clowns however, will always drive me to the Colonel. Even though at home I am an avid fruit-and-nuts-in-my-savoury-salad person who mainly cooks and eats Asian food, sometimes even I falter. Either way, the minute I place my hand on that glass door, I can be perfectly sure of what I am about to receive. A tiny piece of familiarity.
So the next time you see me sweating, tired, and a little lost, standing in a queue at KFC, leave the food shaming at the door.