Growing Up In Trengganu

Saturday, July 31, 2004

Growing Up In Trengganu #37920

In his head he carried songs from a very long time, from his hands came the fruit of recipes long forgotten. In the morning he baked roti paung, a sweet roundish bread baked to golden brown, and the beluda, which is probably best described as the local Trengganu muffin. There are people everywhere who bake sweetish buns as golden and as brown, but I have not seen a beluda since.

Pak Mat's beludas were baked in cigarette tins, if you remember what cigarette tins were like. They were roundish, about three inches in diameter, and stood as tall as the cigarette was long. It had a lid which had a catch that had to be prised open to keep the contents fresh, and once emptied of its contents, Pak Mat filled them all up with his secret recipe, scores of them, brimming with the dough that rose in the evening and now pushed well back into his wood fired oven.

I sometimes wonder about the fate of those Trengganu men and women who smoked those nefarious cigarettes that gave Pak Mat his beluda tins by the dozen.

The beluda, when pulled piping hot from the oven, had a spongy consistency and a mien that delighted a child's fancy. I ate many beludas on my way to school, and if I was lucky, there'd be some left when I returned home from school. I'd stood many hours, before school time, waiting to be served while Pak Mat sweated in his baking shed, pulling this tray out, shoving another in, and all the while giving orders to his kith and kin to wrap this up or take the money from somone who's had his or her turn.

The beluda in a cigarette tin was the stuff of childhood dream, and the art was not just in the baking, but also in the ability to make it pop out of the tin, still steaming and unbroken. Even when cold the beluda was still the bolster of dreams.

Maybe, in my recollection, I've beludad Pak Mat for too long, and made light his other talents. Pak Mat baked two varieties of bread, maybe seven, it was a long time ago, you understand. Then he also stirred a huge pot of a Trengganu gulai with bits of meat bobbing up and down in a thin, darkish sauce which was also his other feat of renown. The sauce was poured over his nasi minyak, rice cooked in a quantity of grease, gleaming and steaming in the cauldron, then made merry with grains that were coloured red and green.

Some mornings Pak Mat would rise at the crack of dawn and to the occasion, and baked beludas and buns, then, at other times when the mood took him, he stirred the gulai in his pot, and doused a little of the sauce onto portions of steaming rice portioned out on papers lined with the banana leaf, waiting to be adorned with chunks of meat and chillied condiments, then wrapped and taken hurriedly to the famished at the breakfast tables of many a home in this littoral town.

Then one fine day someone found an old gamelan in the recessess of the Palace of Kuala Trengganu, but no one to beat out the tunes from this ancient instrument. So Pak Mat pushed aside his boiling cauldron and his oven that was wafting with the smell of burning wood and the aroma of the beluda and the paung, and made merry music for a while on this ancient instrument with tunes that he must've learnt when he was young. Pak Mat, I haven't told you, was also known far and wide as Pak Mat Nobat, a royal player in the nobat ensemble of old Trengganu.

The nobat, you see, is royal music, played only on special occasions by men who beat a drum, blew on a Malay trumpet, and a few other insturments that I've now forgotten. Only a few states in peninsular Malaysia had the nobat, and Trengganu was one - and the nobat gave some quaint lamentations that have been attributed by some to mysterious sounds heard by men far out at sea. The nobat music was not written but kept in the heads of selected men.

So you can imagine our Pak Mat pulling out the beluda and the bun while, in his head, ran the wailing and the bleating of the nobat winds and its wild, ancient drums.

July 31, 2004