On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Let Them Eat Cake

The idea of food as a palliative runs through many cultures, from the Jewish chicken soup to the pisang bakörang that Mother used to pull out piping hot from the fire to comfort us every time we had a fever. There were other items too from the cooking pot that made their way into our domestic pharmacopoeia: halba (fenugreek), for instance, and ginger, and that appalling paste that came, via many Indian tongues, into our language as inggu or hinggu (asafoetida). In French, that most diplomatic of tongues, inggu is known as merde du diable or turd of the devil.

Sometimes in our midst in Trengganu were kids with puffy cheeks glowing in the brightest of blue. This signalled a malady that was know in Trengganuspeak as bekök keng, swelling of the jaw a.k.a. mumps, and the coat of remedial paint was a mixture of vinegar to shrink the swelling and indigo for the same effect perhaps as bells did for those poor lepers in days of yore. And then there was that cold poultice of dried tamarind soaked in water, pasted on to your forehead (with a shock that made you jump out of your skin) when you were fiercely burning with fever.

This last Ramadan, incapacitated by some virulent bugs, I had a brief respite when a friend brought lompat tikam, which I quaffed down in one heroic therapeutic dose as soon as we reached iftar. It made me feel a lot better. And then I got this email from someone I know as Abang Pin of Kemamang, that proved the old Trengganu adage about cakes and their remedial powers.
"Tapi rama orang kkabor Abg Pin, obat diabetes ialah Tape Ubi Kayu. Abg Pin cuba gak 2/3 kali, tapi kesang dök berapa sangat, sebab Abg Pin makang sikit — sa'mas je. Orang hök kkabör tu dia makang serial sekali makang. Abg Pin takut makang banyak, sebab makang obat spital."*
I am of course stretching my definitions by classifying tapai (sweet fermented tapioca) as a cake, but the point I am trying to make is that there’s nothing in Trengganu that cannot be taken on the excuse that it is medicinal. There are as many illnesses in our daily lives as there are foods that clash with your pains and ague: nangka (jackfruit) for instance, is contraindicated for someone with muscular aches, or any food that has gone through the irik (vigorously stirred) is to be kept away from someone recovering from the demang (fever) for fear that he will suffer a betang (relapse); but then the patient himself or someone with a kindly heart will come forward to say, ”Dök apa eh, makanglah sikik, buat ubat!”**

When I told our Abang Pin in Kemamang of my happy tryst with the löpat tikang (lompat tikam=flying stab?) with a caveat that he, with his diabetes, should perhaps steer clear of this syrup-bathed angel, he popped back another email:
”Balik ke löpat tikang, Abg Pin makang jugök, le ning orang jual ddalang bekah plastik hak bulat, seringgit sa. Tapi hak abg suka, Mek Berembat tabor dengan tahi minyak di atas (kköleh sagu) yang dibuat oleh Mek Munah hök dudok dekat rumöh Mök Som, sabelah rumah Ma Wan Itam buat keropok. Le ning ta'dök döh.”***
So there you have it in a brief paragraph: a short history of Trengganu cakes, a street map of our old kampung, and a stout belief that cake conquers all. It nearly brought tears to my eyes.

* “Many people told me that the cure for diabetes is tapai. I tried it a few times with negligible results because I ate only fifty-sen’s worth. The person who told me this ate a ringgit’s worth at each sitting. I am reluctant to eat too much as I’m on hospital medication.”

** ”Never mind, just take a little as a medicine!”

*** ”Back to the löpat tikang, I do still eat it. Nowadays it is sold in round plastic tubs, at a ringgit each. But what I like is Mek Berembat sprinkled with fried desiccated coconut (kkoleh sagu, sago paste) made by Mek Munah who lived near the house of Mök Som, the neighbour of Ma Wan Itam the keropok maker. No one makes it nowadays.”

The contents of this blog is given for information only. The remedies mentioned have not been approved by the FDA. If you have health problems please consult your own shaman, cake-maker or health practitioner.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Growing Up In Trengganu #197,632

At the little shop diagonally across from the occasional whoops in the Kelab Pantai and the mellow sound of billiard balls constantly clashing with each other, was a hand-painted signboard with the letters IBRAHIM standing bold over the eponymous man’s other lower-cased designations as electrical contractor and wizard of the domestic wire. This was well before neon, when the weather-worn paen to Ibrahim stood the nights under a glow of chili-shaped bulbs, hand-painted in garish blue and green and red, lighting up and going out in unison on a garland of electrical flex, coupled and sheathed by their makers in China.

Ibrahim’s was a strictly business shop with little for the children’s pleasure, even if on occasions like the Hari Raya his chilli lights flashed on and off till late, throwing tinges of primary colours on passers by and wayward members of the Kelab Pantai, adjourning late after a day at the table. On the shelves behind the counter of his dark shop were boxes of bits and parts, electrical wires coiled in their spindles, and sockets and plugs and things we called ba or bo of varying wattage trapped in clear or pearl tinted bulb-shaped bottles. There were long glowing tubes of lampu panjang under whose glow we read books at night, or sat to eat, or read the Qur’an in turn under the instruction of our genial teacher named Che Yi.

Everyone was Che in those days, Raya in Trengganu. [l to r] AK, AM, A, AG. Photohosting:Photobucketmen and women, and so it was to Che Ibrahim that I was sent on occasions when our flourescent long lampu flickered or refused to light up at all, for a little magic tube called the starter. On another occasion Father himself went there to buy something in a flat box that he pulled out in a long string of green tendril that grew on it the tinniest of tinny bulbs of bright colours, encased in plastic sepals. Leaning out of a window in the front of our house that we called called the surung, (a use I’ve not found in any dictionary), he hung it across the breadth of an old frame that once draped our front windows with the flowering branches of the tikam seladang (standardspeak: bunga kesidang; canangrium scortechinii). This was tujuh likur, the joyous night of the 27th Ramadan when house compounds were brightened by the flickering lights of kerosene lamps and children emerged from dark corners of our village with their candle-powered lanterns to make merry or watch the faces of other well-off children glowing in the bursting stars of their magic sparklers.

When night fell Father flicked the switch and we knew from the bulbs that burnt into the darkness their intermittent lights of red and green and blue that it would soon be Hari Raya.

We had a tall house overlooking the pasar and the sundry shops of Tamil merchants who put on their pristine best for Hari Raya, sarongs of white Indian cotton and white Indian shirts that glowed in the morning sun. In the Masjid Abidin they tied white handkerchiefs around their heads to keep their hair in check before they knelt down in prayer. They were stalwart men with sad eyes, their heads in business and their hearts in Mappalaikuppam, and their feet on the hard earth of Tanjong and in the frequent high tides that sank their shops in sea-water.

Behind our house, from the little window that looked down to the roof of the surau Tok Sheikh Abdul Qadir, we saw bright Malay shirts coming out from the houses, ladies in floral bajus and Trengganu batik and men and boys with new songkok hats shaped from the finest velvet, probably by the hands of Che Awang, our village hat maker. We had, if we were lucky, Malay bajus tailored by the inestimable Ku Su, the tailor who worked from within the kota (the grounds of the palace). I say luck had a part in it because the business of Ku Su was such that even in the first week of Ramadan he was already turning away customers.

By the time our great bell — the genta — pealed forlornly from atop the Bukit and the chorus of takbir began to rise to the rafters of the great mosque, the quiet Jalan Pantai that cut through our community was already beginning to fill with people from Ladang in the far end, and from the bowels of the many Tanjongs on the coast, and Kampung Nisan Empat on the other side, a sandy place that I remember for its creaking bamboos. This was Kuala Trengganu unlike on any other day: men and women in their fineries, Trengganu songket catching the glint of early light, rushing trishaws and cycling Hajis and fresh-faced boys in bright colours, brushing past men and womenfolk stealing glances at the varieties of unworkaday apparel on this bright day of Hari Raya.

As Ramadhan was a month of fasting, it was the food that made our Hari Raya &mdash: our Trengganu nasi dagang with tuna fish, and the glutinous pulut rice of many shapes and flavours, and the agar agar jelly, cut and dried in the sun throughout Ramadhan until they were encased in crystallised sugar. There was buah ulu which I think came from the Portuguese bolos and my favourite akök of duck eggs, and flour and sugar, baked in the glowing heat of coconut husks in a special brass mould made by our Tanjong people. I have my other favourites too like buah gömök and the quaintly named perut ayam which is neither chicken nor entrails but which is probably extinct now.

The bright lights burned on even after Raya, and even on the night itself after all the eats and visits were done and we were all home again to wind down in our private corner, it filled our hearts with melancholy to be looking out to our Ibrahim lights in their bursts of colour over the abandoned street and the pasar below. The genta was quiet again now for another year on Bukit Putri that we could see by its flashing beacon that marked out for ships at sea that here beneath this descending hush was our little town of Kuala Trengganu.

Eid Mubarak to all!