Growing Up In Trengganu

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Growing Up In Trengganu #3273


Rose Syrup, sweet since the 1930s. By late afternoon the pavement in front of the pasar was lined with blocks of ice, some covered in saw dust, others wrapped in gunny sacks. The rasping sound of the sharp saw-teeth meeting the shimmering face of ice, cutting deep cuts in parallel rows in the ice block, then another line cutting the rows in half again in a cross-cut. Then a sharp hack with the cleaver down the clefts would break those smaller blocks free, to the delight of street urchins and errand boys sent out to buy this essential balm for the dry rasping throats of adult fasters; and ice too for the milky, syrupy drink that'd quench the thirst from a long day's fast.

Children fasted too, but most of them were given special dispensation to break at noon. In our household this was considered infra-dig, so we braved it out in a full day's whine, salivating fiercely as the afternoon drew on, when the aroma of the akok or the bubur lambuk bubbling in mother's kitchen became just too irresisitible.

This was Kuala Trengganu before the 'fridge became the white good for the plebs. Selling ice blocks by the road-side was a source of extra income for the boys for Hari Raya (Id) clothes, for a jaunt after Raya prayers to the Capitol or the Sultana, two local cinematic flea-pits that incessantly rolled out old films from the Shaw Brothers and the Cathay Keris stables.

By those ice-sellers in the Tanjong market as the shadows were lengthening and the sun was turning a different shade of yellow came the kuih sellers. These were womenfolk who worked over their hot stoves since the break of day, incessantly stoking the fire with coconut husks or fire wood, brows dripping in sweat and eyes ever watchful that the products of their labour were not burnt to cinder. By 5 o'clock in the afternoon they'd be ambling out of their domestic workshops, round woven baskets balanced precariously on their heads and filled to their brims with veritable delights, and fancy cakes. There were stalls and stalls for these sellers, all arranged in a row.

This is the roll call of Trengganu comestibles - Nekbat, Apam Sakar, Beronok, Perut Ayam, Wajik, Lompat Tikam, Asam Gumpal, and of course, the Puteri Mandi, the Princess in a bath of shaved coconut and palm sugar. In this age of the fruitcake, who remembers them now? Recently, while sampling the Turkish Imam Biyaldi, so good as to make the Imam (person who leads the prayer in a mosque) faint, I was reminded of the Trengganuesque Encik Abbas Demam a culinary product so good that the eponymous sampler (Encik Abbas) ran hot and cold.

But not everything was sweet and sickly. There was rojak (a Malaysian salad) of green papaya shaved into thin strips, covered with a sauce of fish and chilli and coconut sugar mixed in vinegar, there was of course the famous Trengganu Rojak Kateh, not strictly a salad, but a chilli-hot vinegary preparation of cow's trotters, and the ceranang, a true salad of blanched vegetables (mainly kangkong), bean sprouts and tofu, covered in a thick dollop of peanut sauce.

Just before sunset, before lilting cries of the muezzin came forth from various little prayer halls in the community, before the cannon roared from distant hills, before the Trengganu Bell, the Genta sounded out its doleful chime from the Bukit Putri by-the-harbour to mark the time for iftar, the breaking of the day's fast, the kids would roll up their gunny sacks for the day, stash the day's takings in a Milo tin, and head for home to unravel a fierce weapon, the bedil buluh - the bamboo cannon - that fired volleys of carbide power, much to the consternation of elderly village women who'd be shocked by the booms into a fit of uncontrollable verbal diarrhoea (mostly pertaining to the pudenda).

To melatah is a peculiarly Malay and Eskimo affliction, and is recognised as the Eskimo hysteria. All that ice on the pavement, there must be something there.

November 11, 2003

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