a passing comment snowballs, and before you know it, four girls congregate on a footpath in ashfield, slightly giddy from all the possibilities knocking about their heads.
not even a block from the start, the chinee-style english writing on an awning called to us from across hercules street. “MR. WONG,” it said. we walked into the path of cars to get there, this little filipino grocery, full of powdered ube this and frozen ube that, those chocolates which seem to be made of flour, many sacks of rice, and even more tins of sardines in tomato sauce. there were three brands of cooked dried green peas in water, all in little golden tins. i showed great restraint, because it was only the first stop along the way, and so i only came away with a little packet of garlic flavoured cornick… and a ten-pack of individually wrapped blueberry cream sandwich crackers. “i know exactly how these will taste,” said sue, “the cream will be all sandy.” it was the clincher, really.
two bakeries later, we were standing in an aisle in go go chinese supermarket when the shopman came up and said, “can i helptch you?” in mandarin. he was most suspicious about the surreptitious photo-taking that was going one, and wanted to know whathowwhywhy?
“is this where we get kicked out?” we wondered. but then helen pointed feebly at the amusing row of tinned peanut octopus, and i thought about how i couldn’t explain blogs in chinese, and he eventually stomped off. this meant i could buy a package of pickled mustard greens and a bottle of hot dumpling sauce. more importantly it meant sue could buy a tantalising box of crab spawn biscuits (but i might let her tell you about that one).
the counterlady at the polish deli was much more welcoming, offering to explain all the sausages behind the glass and then handing slices all round when the words became inadequate. but there were more important things than meats! on the counter, polish doughnuts! on special! and cake!
“um, what is that cake?” i asked, pointing at the one that looked like cheesecake on a layer of poppyseeds.
“that is cheesecake, with poppyseeds,” she said.
“and this one?”
“ah. that is poppyseeds with things in it. like nuts. and apple.”
“and this one, is it cheesecake with apple?”
[ noise of affirmation ]
i came away with a slab of cheesecake, with poppyseeds, and two doughnuts — tennisball-sized with a modest filling of sticky red jam, and glazed in sugar, from wednesday, so they are not fresh, and that is why they are on special — and some sour cherry confiture: 70% cherries!
and then, at the first indian spice and video shop, a masala spice mix for tea; at the second indian spice and video shop, a bag of red rice, both with deb‘s seal of approval.
the calico strap on my shoulder was starting to sink deeper to the bone as the bag filled up, so it was with great disappointment that i walked through the fragrant wonderland of the enormous fruit barn across the road. all the greens were fresh and dewy, all the eggplants (of which there were five varieties) were glossy and plump. even the 99c jar of apricot and amaretti puree — all left on the shelf.
but we weren’t done yet. there was still the chinese grocery in the underground carpark, the one that had started all this. as promised, there were two trays of chang perched on the meat counter, and a bit anticlimactically, no-one bought any. i blame the voices of chinese mothers muttering in the backs of our heads. or maybe we were just hungry and distracted.
because of the way we are, we crossed four lanes of main-road traffic to get to shanghai night for dumplings. and, as it turned out, pan fried pork buns, with crunchy brown oily bottoms. and red bean pancakes. oh, and did we want noodles? under the ‘cold noodles’ heading, we pondered.
“what is the smoked fish like?” we asked the waitress.
“orh. the fish… it is cold. and hard. and the noodles, they are cold.”
“and what kind of fish is it?” prodded deb.
the waitress gazed off into the distance. “hmph” she exhaled thoughfully.
“too many questions! we’ll have the new year cake in XO sauce… um, what’s that like?”
“ah!” beamed the waitress. “it is favourite in shanghai!”
there has not been a luncheon of starch so happily devoured before this, and after, with the grit of the last-minute crab spawn biscuits still on our tongues, we went our separate ways into the afternoon.
for me, that was straight into the bbq shop on the way back to the station, for a cup of sugar cane juice, half a soya chicken and a side of siu yoke. “anything else?” asked the shoplady. “you want to try this mochi? red bean, custard and… huasheng jiao shenme? for you, special price.” alas, graciously, i had to decline.