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February 8, 2012

Sliced Bread

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – There are no “amber waves of grain” here in tropical Borneo, hence, no bread. The white air sold as “bread” in the very few stores that carry it does not even stand up to a knife spreading melted butter. It usually tears becoming an orb of gob.


There were three stores that sold decent bread, but each in succession went out of business. I believe I was the only customer, purchasing and refrigerating several loaves at a time. There would be tears of joy and handshakes all around as I entered the bakery, usually in a difficult location for me to travel.


Chicken and rice is the lunch favorite in many parts of the Orient. Cold chewy chicken with bone center is arranged neatly and served on top of glutinous white rice. A small dish of fiery chili sauce accompanies the order to add flavor to the meal.


Another lunch favorite, Laksa is dispensed in great quantities. This concoction is the pride of Sarawak, the state where I live. A soup bowl holds bean sprouts, shredded chicken and fried egg, prawns and thin rice noodles. The ingredients swim in a sea of fire, tasting like dirty dishwater. It is one of those many foods around here where you must acquire a taste especially if you are from a western culture.


When the last bakery that served any resemblance to western bread closed, I went on a mission to find a bread maker. I searched the stores, shops and asked for employees to check the back rooms. I even toyed with purchasing a large oven to place on the balcony as most homes lack ovens because of the heat.


I finally found a fellow teacher who sold them from a catalog, usually distributed at those home parties. She had to special order it from Korea and it would take a few months. That was fine with me because we would be traveling in the states.


I had forgotten about the machine and when I returned to school and blankly looked at her when she said it had arrived. My craving had subsided because of my stateside travels, and I began to wonder why I had ordered it in the first place.


I brought it home and pulled out the directions filled with recipes. Now where in Kuching was I going to find high protein bread flour, whole meal flour and powdered milk? Frustrated, I nearly threw the thing over the balcony into the Sarawak River which flows past my condo.


Every once in awhile, but rarely, an idea that actually makes sense will bubble up from the churnings of my addled brain. The Hilton Hotel is very close and I asked the baker where he purchases his ingredients. He directed me to a shop about 3.5 by 3 meters crammed full of all sorts of baking products. We hauled out about three large boxes with the necessary grains, fearing it would not be available again until the next ship arrived.


At my wife’s insistence and something I rarely do, we read the directions. We measured down to the last gram, added the correct liquid measure, pressed a few buttons and patiently waited the few hours. The thing did nothing for awhile, then groaned and buzzed. We watched through the window as the concoction rose and fell.


When it was finished, the largest loaf of bread I had ever seen emerged. It measured 15 cm tall and 10 cm wide. The texture was dense and heavy, just the way I like it and it was, and is, delicious.


I now take one slice of bread, cut it in half and add peanut butter and jelly. Deli meats, as we know them, do not exist here. We do make toast in the morning and have found a place that sells individually wrapped processed cheese from New Zealand.


I realize it possibly is the most expensive peanut butter and jelly sandwich ever made when everything is added up, but with a cold glass of soya milk made from corn, it can’t be beat.


. . . . .life is good. . . . .


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