On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Early Drums, Holy Month

Ayöh Löh walked the short distance from his house, through the dim yellow light of the street lamp, round the corner fencing of our house and into the dirt lane that took him to the surau in this dark hour.

He took the the beater and beat the drum, and all at once the sound of clattering plates and the tinkling cups died and the spoons stopped stirring the tèh oh.

It was near the end of the night, but not yet the appointed time, but Ayöh Löh had supped and smoked and belched quite a few times and he was beating the first geduk sounds for the day.

We were sitting around our dining table then, fighting our sleepy eyes and forcing down the food of sahur. Sahur was breakfast time for the Ramadan months, the last meal before the fast that started with the dawn prayer. But this time the beat of the geduk made everyone stop and Pök Wè jumped down the stairs of his elevated house that was just by the surau.

Pök Wè was an amiable man as Ayöh Löh was a character, and in the ensuing exchanges that we heard coming amid cackles of laughter near the stairs - that of the surau and that of Pök Wè's house - Ayöh Löh had this to say: "Ingak ke döh suboh döh!"*

When I looked down from the window of our house that looked down to the surau I saw Ayöh Löh standing there scratching his bare back, and then he scratched his head underneath the semutar.

Prayer times were greeted by rolls of drums in our Tanjong, beaten out of the geduk of every surau. The geduk is the beduk in standardspeak, and it gives a deep mellow sound through the length of its body of hollowed out trunk that has a stretched out buffalo hide on the side of the beater. These drums are found in prayer houses throughout the peninsula and in East Malaysia too, and their beats are heard even in faraway Indonesia. It is the sound of the prayer call of the Nusantara, before the muezzin stands up to make his human call.

In Kuala Trengganu we had three sounds in bulan puasa, the prayer month. There was the sound of the geduk and then there was the clanging of the big bell - the genta - on the hill that were bracketed by the rumble of the cannon of Bukit Besar.

Puasa was a happy month and a dry one when most coffee shops were closed but those that did not shut their doors had curtains to hide the wayward people. There were gunny sacks unfurled by the roadside in front of Bhiku's cafe when the hands moved closer to four o'clock, when children trying to earn Raya money sold blocks of ice for fifteen cents to cool our sirap during bbuka. There was cendol, coloured green like the snot, and beleda kacang, off-white and quite pointless for its lack of taste, to the child.

Ramadan is for the children too even if it's adult country. We made cannons from hefty bamboo in Ramadan and delighted from their carbide fire, we fasted half the day - some of us - though in our house we fasted the day through. Mother cooked dishes and baked cakes that were not seen on ordinary days, nèkbak and the akök cooked in thick brass moulds and the chicken-centred buöh ulu, and the sirap water so blood-red and bubbling in a big cauldron to last this whole month, the scent of pandan and the sweetness of white sugar in the air.

There were new clothes to be ordered from the tailor - our bajus were made by Ku Su in the grounds of the istana, and new shoes most certainly from Bata. Oil lamps with wicks of jute strings in bodies of milk cans, and lanterns and sparklers to brighten up the night hour.

But that's towards the end of the fasting month; now it's time to tighten the belt and abstain ourselves in the daylight hours.

Marhaban ya Ramadan kareem, marhaban ya shahrun nuur!

*"I thought it's time for the dawn prayer!"

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Monday, August 02, 2010

Happy Repast

Sunrise hands in the gok, the chicken coop beneath the house. All houses are on stilts, and for many uses: to raise the floor above the flood, room for the storage of chattels, and as space beneath the gaps in the floorboards for emergency relief in the night.
Shafts of light shinning through the bamboo slats fencing the house, as dusts fly and airborne feathers catch the light. A freshly laid egg is grasped in the hand, a brisk walk to Pök Löh's house of roti canai, or Bhiku's more elegantly laid out coffee shop. Roti canai is flat bread, fried on the griddle in a bath of ghee, but if you bring your own egg, Pök Löh's roti maker in chief will crack it in an enamelled iron mug, and whisk and whisk its yolk and white with a fork before pouring the gunge onto the dough, laid out flat now like a damp white cloth on the marble surface of the kneading table. He hums some Tamil tunes, the roti man, as he folds the sheet into a square, the egg mix smeared evenly now within the fold, and he lays it down on the hot plate while he tends to other matters.

Roti telor, the roti canai with the egg, turns golden yellow in the sizzler and the man tosses it now in the air, calculating precisely for it to land pale side down on the hot surface, the egg mix now seeping out and coagulating through cracks. Dabbed on sugar the roti will go well with hot Ovaltine or Milo.

Far into the pantai area folk are gathering around the nasi dagang stall of Mök Söng - a mountainous heap glistening white from the bath of coconut milk, poured in as the grains of rice are steaming hot - a mixture of the glutinous and the ordinary - flavoured with fenugreek and thin slices of ginger. In another enamelled basin, tuna heads are soaking up the mix, of coriander and fennel and lengkuas, and ginger and shallots, in a sunny melange held together by coconut milk, tempered by the tongue-tingling taste of chilli.

Mök Song - or Mök Nöh, or Mök Nab or Mök Pèr - and a host of other gallant ladies who wake up at the crack of dawn to make us rise to the whiff of nasi dagang in the air, and they will soon scoop a ladleful of rice into a banana leaf funnel, and pour into it the thick sauce of the gulai, coconuty and chunky with the meat of Trengganu tuna, cooked now into succulent layers. "Mitök kerapöh sikik Mök Söng," give me some kerapöh please, someone will say, for the kerapöh is the true art of the cognoscenti, softened cheek bones of the fish, or the bony structures from its head that have softened in the boil and wallowed in the juices and the spices and mellowed in the hotness of the chilli. Crunching the kerapöh gives the nasi dagang a special flavour, and then the residues are spat out again for the delectation of cats down below.
At home a fisherman stretching his legs out in the warm mat on the verandah peeks an eye out from his batik head cover, to see his wife already tinkering in the dapor (kitchen). "Buak gök lèpèng sikik!" - Make us some lèpèng, please! - he says, for lèpèng is stuff for the hungry seafarer, for today is Friday, the fisherman's stay-at-home day. There's lèpèng nyiur and lèpèng sagu - coconut and sago pancakes, and the ordinary lèpèng gandum shaped out from your ordinary flour. Lèpèng goes with anything that's available, shaved brown coconut sweet or the ordinary cane sugar; left over gulai from the previous night's meal, or just coconut shreds with a sprinkling of salt to lift the flavour.

From another kitchen drifts the aroma of garlic and the throat burning odour of belacan fried in chilli. There's left-over fish baked over the fire last night, there's enough left for another meal as the flesh is now being separated from the bones, and torn into little shreds, and thrown now into the hot mix in the kuali (wok). Soon the cold rice from the pot will join them too, and there'll be nasi goreng on the table.

In the market there's already a brisk trade in morning fare, pulut cawan, glutinous rice cooked and shaped in a cup and teased out to stand in a tray, then topped with brownish red serunding meat strands to make them look like volcanoes. There's pulut lepa too, rolled in banana leaf and cooked over the fire. I only know of lepa when it is used to describe lack of vigilance - the standardspeak alpa - when your quarry runs away with your goods, your shirt or your shopping bag or your gold, your wife or your precious daughter. Perhaps the lepa in the pulut is a reminder for you to be always on guard when it's steaming hot and ready, and its banana-leaf covering is charred in the edges and browned from the bake, and the pulut inside is waiting in its own steam, to be released by eager hands at the table. Perhaps it is like those foods with names that tell a tale, like the Turkish Imam Bayldi, which the Imam ate and collapsed under a surfeit of delight and shock in equal measure.

These are early morning foods, savoury and sweet and piping hot in the coffee shop or at your breakfast table, for it is breakfast time in the land, and even the hen that laid the egg is now scratching the earth for things to peck at the beginning of the day.

Photo: Se badang pape...From bottom, clockwise, jjala mah, hasidöh, and a puzzler. Any ideas?

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