Growing Up In Trengganu

Thursday, November 27, 2003

Growing Up In Trengganu #9513

One day, at the precise time of the noon prayer, there was a rain of agar-agar on our little community.Life's a beach, then you fly.

This was no ordinary agar-agar but of the finest variety. They were green and red and yellow and blue, crinkly cut in bite-sized diamond shapes. It sent Mother rushing out in her prayer shawl, punctuating her rapid movement to the window with words that I still remember: "My beleda! My beleda!"

This path to disaster began ordinarily enough some hours back when Mother was labouring over her hot stove, peering and stirring in a brass kuali that contained a transparent and bubbly goo. Trapped in it, like a fly in ember, was the long green leaf of the pandan tree. The scented, blessed pandan of the ubiquituous presence in Malay cookery.

When the mixture was ready, with the desired viscosity, she poured the fluid in as many trays as she could pull from the kitchen cupboard (which wasn't many), and into any other tray-like things that'd serve her purpose. These being mainly old Huntley & Palmers biscuit tins, food-trays painted with a smiling nyonya extolling the virtues of some local tea, or the lids of any old tins that could contain her gelatinous stuff in sufficient depth and quantity. Before pouring them out into the various trays she'd mix in just the right amounts of her magic drops as would make the agar-agar glow in transluscent gold, or red or green or blue, filling the whole kitchen with the sweet scent of vanilla.

Early in the morning, just as the sun was rising, I watched her use a serrated cutter to slice the jelly into into inch-long shapes which she arranged neatly in two large food trays to put out in the sun to dry. For the children, the agar-agar kering - the sun dried sweet with the crystallised sugar coating that wrapped the internal translucent jelly - were the colours of the Trengganu Hari Raya, the feast Eid to end the fast, the bulan puasa, (fasting month) of Ramadhan.

A window in our house looked out to one aspect of the local community, especially the surau, the musolla or the prayer hall, that stood cheek by jowl with our house in the huddled way that kampung houses stayed together. Ours was a tall house, much taller than most, that literally looked down on the daily life of the community. In the moonsoon months there peered through the window a menacing sky and the belinjau trees swaying from side to side looked extremely supple. As a child I stood for hours looking out of this window, listening to the roar of waves on the distant shore.

Mother looked out of the window too but with a purview of shorter remit. It was the corrugated iron rooftop of the surau that she was interested in, especially as it was sloping gently past our open window, and within easy reach. When she looked to the sky, her mind was set: it was a right, bright day for putting the agar-agar out to dry. Out went the trays onto the sloping rooftop, held in place only by their tenuous hold on the protruding heads of the roofing nails. The midday heat would crystallise the agar-agar pretty quickly.

But with noon-time also came the call to prayer, and in Trengganu then (as now) it would start with the beating of the beduk, a massive drum of cow hide hung with stout ropes to the lower end of the roof in the back of the surau. Beaten with growing intensity, it preceded the muezzin's call, the boom-boom-booming sound that shook the rafters, awoke the dozy, and sent the trays tumbling down from the rooftop, agar-agar and all.

I happened to be in the back of the surau just when this technicolored rain began to fall, sitting by an old curmudgeon who was a distant blood relation. He was a surau regular who was quick on the draw with acid retorts about the slightest thing that irked him so. When my mother's distressed call was heard between the booms of the beduk, he deigned to give the briefest look at the scene of devastation. Then, without batting an eye, he walked silently back to the inside of the surau to prepare himself for prayer.

It was not the sight and sound of my poor mother in her prayer shawl that became the defining moment for me in this comic episode but the unbemused expression on the old curmudgeon who bothered to even look at all. You needed to have lived on this earth for quite awhile to be able to look at diamond-shaped jellies of many hues showering down from the sky on a clear day and yet be able to dismiss it without so much as a sigh.

November 27, 2003

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