Saturday, August 28, 2010

Arab Street

My sister, niece and I just got back from Kandahar Street. Adjacent to Sultan Mosque (the oldest mosque in Singapore), this street is famous for putting up a street of hawkers during the month of Ramadan. Muslims will come here to buy food in the late afternoon and take it home for the sunset breaking of the fast. We bought chicken biryani, lontong, prawn vadai and ayer bandung. The vadai (or choo choo wareh as I called it long ago) was so good. The vendor sold three for S$2 and they were just fried and piping hot, came with fresh green chili. Yum! I wanted to be sensitive to the Muslims around me who were fasting, so I really had to discipline myself from eating right away.

Coincidentally, I had plans to whip up biryani and lontong from my mother's recipe collection this weekend. But we got derailed by a designer sale at nearby Suntec City that took up three hours of lining up (thankfully, we came out of the sale pretty financially intact, i.e. empty handed). My grocery list got stashed in my bag and by 5pm, I was too exhausted from queueing to be shopping and cooking for the evening.

My dad was nonetheless thrilled that we came home with biryani. It brought back memories of his days as a salesman for Fraser and Neave. For me, it was a nostalgic visit to Arab Street where as a child, I would follow my mother through the fabric shops. She bought yards of fabric and took them home to sew her own clothes. She also had her jeweler there and as I was telling my niece in the cab, I distinctly remembered accompanying her to the shop one morning, only to see the jeweler's photo on the front pages of the papers the next morning. He had been robbed right after we left his shop.

Another note: I recently took a walking tour of Kampong Glam as the area is known as. Considering that I grew up in Singapore, there were facets of the history and culture of the Arabs and the Muslims that fascinated me.

Here's an excerpt I wrote about our Muslim friends:

My father was a sales manager for Fraser and Neave, bottlers of Coca Cola and producers of the local Tiger beer. He had several accounts that ranged from replenishing supplies at company offices to servicing the needs of restaurants. He forged close friendships with several of his restaurant clients, including a famous Indian-Muslim restaurant called Jubilee. In exchange for my father’s tips on upcoming company parties to cater for, the original Jubilee owner offered to teach my mother how to cook his restaurant’s signature dishes such as Nasi Biryani and Chicken Korma. My father would drop my mother off at the Arab Street location so that she could observe what they were doing at the back of the restaurant.

Of course, after half a day of class in the backstreet kitchen, she would walk a block away to the row of jewelers and treat herself to a nice gold bracelet or locket. There, they served her F&N Orange Crush in its glass bottle with a green straw, up the flight of creaky wooden stairs to an air-conditioned room. Later, she would shop for a few yards of fabric for dresses she wanted to make for herself, haggling the Indian-Muslim salesman half to death before he could snip the textile from a ream and fold the piece of cloth several times into a floppy square. Those were her activities during her Arab Street excursion, often with me in tow.

My mother also befriended a network of Arab and Indonesian ladies who were renowned for their cakes and Malay dishes such as Soto Ayam and Lontong. She sought to be mentored by them. The Indonesian ladies were experts at the Lapis Spekkoek and my mother was always open to new tips on how to improve on baking them. Their names are legendary to us – Chek Wan, Khatijah and Rabeah being the ones we recall the most, their names scribbled at the top right hand corner of their recipes. Their baking classes took place in their kitchen on many lazy schoolday afternoons, an intimate homely affair in a tree-lined residential street with children cycling outside or picking pebbles. There was no frenzy of an organized class in a formal cooking school scheduled by computers and paid by credit card.

We used to attend the lavish wedding banquets held by a few of these Arab and Indonesian families. They were actually related by marriage. The patriarch lived in Telok Kurau, not too far from where my parents and grandparents had once lived. These elaborate wedding affairs demonstrated the ladies’ talent and dedication because the meals, pastries, costumes and crafts were all home-made. I recall as a child, attending their wedding celebrations in their extensive garden compound. The lawn was filled with dining tables and endless food was served on three-foot long platters. It just came without ceasing, laden in beautiful platters for the briyani rice and meat, and dainty glass dishes for the pickles.

My most vivid images of those receptions are of the thirty feet long tables displaying countless figurine cakes and colorful fruit gateaux. The cakes included a telephone, a doll and there was often a particularly delicious and fragrant orange cake. It is amazing how childhood memories stay with you forever. To this day, I am always trying out an orange cake recipe, complete with orange flavored frosting, to re-create that special cake I first tasted as a child in that long hall, on that particular table.

The womenfolk took days to prepare the feast. Literally hidden behind the glamour of an impressive banquet and a delectable spread of gloriously frosted cakes, were the bedrooms where I peeped in to witness groaning women who were aching tremendously from the strain of having cooked for a week straight. They were crying out in pain while the elder ladies were massaging them with nutmeg oil, all this taking place while the festivities continued outside on the lawn.

These are indeed of days past. The patriarch soon died in the late 1970s and the house was sold off. A new developer came in and carved the lawn into lots, built on each lot its own five storey behemoth overshadowing a tiny concrete garden, with a Mercedes Benz squeezed in between the walled fence and the tiny garden patch. The original family that lived there then broke into their nuclear units and moved into apartments. Without the generous kitchen space afforded them in the old house, they would never re-create the scale of such a banquet ever again.

Similarly, the original owner of the Jubilee died too and left his restaurant to a son-in-law. Over time, the restaurant changed a few hands but with the years and the new management, my father lost touch with them.

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