From Life to Plate: A Story from Georgetown Street Food
Wandering around Georgetown, you can't help but notice (or imagine) the stories of locals that lie behind the bright, touristic portrait of the capital of Penang Island, Malaysia.
Noise flooded the air, as inviting as the scents that lingered amongst the particles in the atmosphere, as dense as the complicated harmony of sweet, spicy, sharp, and fragrant that wafted in and out of the night market. Excited chatter from your standard tourists. Couples on a romantic getaway to a place filled with provoking stories etched into the building foundations and street pavements. College students, gap year-ers, early 20s on the lookout for adventure, thrill seekers painting their visions with the first steps they take in this world so green to them. Families that come for the memories, often life-long souvenirs they can cling to, bonding time and a break from school and work. Locals call to each other, know their way around easy enough, and smartly maneuver their way weaving through the usual crowd of foreigners. These rowdy tourists, with their cameras, sandals, baggy elephant trousers, backpacks, fascinated by everything, pressing their faces into the space of each cart, peering at the local food, squinting at the local prices, placing an order with the local hawkers.
The local hawkers, with their small treasure chests each filled to the brim with an array of family jewels in the form of recipes; golden spears and turrets in the form of woks, spatulas and knives; and maps to find hidden riches in the fine shape of culture. This culture, passed on from the generations of immigrants—Chinese, Indian, as well as native Malays, cured into the marriage between customs, the emergent sub-culture of the Nyonya, and many more. The tourists get a glimpse of it through their language, their practices—getting a bite, a sip of it through their foods.
And the food—what a feast it was! Laid out on the concrete sidewalk of this small corner of Georgetown, a small walk from Love Lane. Curry mee, char koay teow, ice cendol, spring rolls, wantan mee, fruit juices, radish cake, penang laksa, nasi kandar… Aromatic, rich, colourful and fresh. Fit for a king.
Yet the grandness of it all (though how ironic that this street food, which grew from the grassroots of this area seemed grand in anyway. One could speculate it is probably the excitement of trying something new. And the work of the Malaysia *Truly Asia* Tourism Board—kudos to you), the lights, shrill voices, the fire underneath the pans, the mere illusions of a hive buzzing with activity… Peel it back a little, like the designer wall paper over a tarnished surface, or a translucent curtain. The sight of quiet, pure focus and burden is another side of the coin. Another façade is lifted yet again.
Head straight out of Love Lane and take a left. Pass all the initial hustle of the pubs to the right, across the street from 7-Eleven, and walk right past Old Trafford’s Burgers and coconut shakes. I know it’s tempting—but keep moving. Keep walking down the street, pass the chee cheong fun and the lok-lok stall. You’ll see a narrow street right in between two buildings, squeezed in the middle, like a precious child on a crowded bus bench. Yet it is lined with more food stalls and plastic round tables with backless stools. Leading you to the second stall on the left.
She kneels behind her stall, inspecting the laksa noodles she keeps in plastic, willow pattern bowls. The fish-based broth is bubbling on the stove, a vibrant, dark orange. A roll-up poster hangs on the wall behind. It beckons passersby with affordable prices and delicious pictures of penang laksa and pop piah.
She sees customers have come, and heaves herself up, puts on a smile, a mask that conceals her fatigue and worry. “Hello!” she begins. “Want to try Penang Assam laksa? Poh piah?” Some walk away, nodding politely, apologetic smiles on their lips as they head deeper into the alley.
A young girl appears by her side. She wears squared-off glasses, denim shorts and rubber sandals. “Excuse,” she says in a voice as light as floating cirrus clouds, as she nimbly works her way through the crowd. She addresses the stall-keeper as "Ma."
“These are done,” her mother hands her two bowls of the ordered laksa, steaming with the aromatic tamarind, lemongrass and chili. “Take them to the customer sitting over there,” she gestures, “You’ll recognise them.” Her daughter scurries off, her hands full with the bowls plus two sets of chopsticks in thin plastic wrapping and two spoons.
The observant woman notices a customer watching to her side. She turns and says warmly, “Hello! What would you like?”
The customer returns the friendly gesture and replies, “Can I have one bowl of Penang laksa? And also, one poh piah?”
“Of course!” The cook is delighted by more orders. She begins to work the skills she has mastered.
From a pile, she peels off two pieces of the fresh spring roll skins and delicately places them on her work surface. On her right is a range of fresh ingredients, and she reaches for them without even looking. Her muscles have already imprinted these actions onto their memories, like preachers with the Bible.
She takes a spoonful of velvety, deep red hoisin sauce and streaks it on the base of the crepe. Next to it lands another streak of mustard yellow. Reaching for the familiar vegetables, she sparsely chops up bean sprouts, French long beans and lettuce leaves. The result- a mass of greens that seem to breathe energy from their fresh colours.
She notices the customer still standing off to the side. Raising her head, she says kindly, “You don’t have to wait here. Where do you sit? We can bring it to you when we finish.” The girl responds with another smile. “That’s okay! I don’t mind waiting. And we sit quite far away,” she waves her hand vaguely in the opposite direction of the alley. “It’ll be difficult to find.”
The woman notices a glint of curiosity in the girl’s eye as she watches her work. She goes on to grab small pinches of grated carrots, jicama and shredded fried egg. The customer moves closer.
“There isn’t meat in this, is there?”
“No meat,” the cook replies with certainty, as she finishes the poh piah with a roll and a fold. On top, she sprinkles chopped peanuts and perfectly fried shallots with the same finesse a fairy godmother dusts her finishing conjuring with glitter.
Sweat, beads reflecting the hard work she endures each night, runs down the sides of her round face. Without thinking, for there is much more on her mind than being self-conscious of her appearance, she lifts her sleeved shoulder and catches the perspiration on its cloth. Her brows furrow with focus as she turns her back to the customer to finish the second half of the order—the Penang laksa.
The broth is already simmering on the stove behind, rich with colour and flavor. Unbeknownst to the loud world around her, the mother retreats to a quiet place at the back of her mind, whilst spooning the fish broth.
She mentally calculates the amount she’s earned tonight. So, 18 bowls of laksa, 15 plates of poh piah, 4.8 RM each equates to… Her heart sinks a little, as she reaches the conclusion: not enough. The lists of needs flood her head, submerging her hopes of having no financial worries. Her little girl is starting school again a month later—the business will just be enough to get her through. And housing? The rundown building in which they live fits with the historic element of Georgetown, but it isn’t always the most practical in comfort a family. What now?
The mother takes a deep breath as she switches off the stove, the scented steam engulfing the air around her. The succulent fish, the layers of flavor from the cucumber, onions, tart pineapple, exciting chilies, and crisp mint and ginger, swallow her tears of overwhelm for a moment. That’s her relationship with the food she cooks: the time she spends procuring it with all her effort, the food gains strength in flavor and taste. Vice versa—the food, in return, gives her strength, forces her to keep soldiering on, gritting her teeth, determination in her bones.
With care, she ladles the soup into the bowls of snow white rice noodles, the tantalizing broth dances and leaps in between the ribbons, swarming the bowl with renewed life.
Placing the bowl next to the plate of poh piah, she lays them out in front of the customer. A shift in the customer’s dark eyes has happened since she last looked. There is something much more tranquil than pure fascination, unlike many tourists.
The customer is indeed filled with compassion and a concoction of sympathy and empathy for this working mother. As she fumbles in her wallet for money to pay, she sees this plain stall-keeper in a different light than initially. The way her rounded shoulders heave, as if literally carrying the weight of a mountain above them. Or the way the smile on her face momentarily pulls away the shadows under eyes. Or the way her plump frame has trouble shifting around the cramped stall, yet she still does it anyway?
The reason appeared again, light-footed and carrying the change from the previous customers in her small hand. This small daughter, not so immature anymore at the age of 11 or 12, is the fuel to the mother’s fire of dedication that keeps it burning.
This working mother is the boulder that protects her daughter, solid and unmoving. The wind, rain, sharp waves and piercing hail storms of endless needs and financial necessities attack her with no mercy, flinging at her with all their might. However, she does not waver. She stands firm in love, unconditional, shielding the small patch of untouched sand behind her.
I take my bowls of delicious food, thank her, meaning it from the bottom of my heart. Then I walk back to our table down the street, tears just leaving.