Most wonderful ways of retailing fresh food in Penang (all South East Asian countries)…street hawkers and vendors, licensed and regularly checked. At your street doorstep service! Cycle man brings around fresh bread, buns, cake, local coconut jam kaya. Rest of the pictures depict various kinds of popular street fare…fine rice or moong noodles, ice-kachang, lye-chi-kang, chendol, rojak, and best of all perhaps the soybean milk products man parked at vantage point with his portable push cart…retailing exclusively fresh hot or cold soybean milk, curd (laced with palm jaggery syrup). Don’t miss the cut fruit in…(sigh)…plastics.

By Tara Narayan

HOW to get the best of food at your doorstep? Let me tell you. During this unsustainable coronavirus break I was more or less cooking at home with whatever in stock. Once early morning I’d go out to one of the urban farm vegetable vendors squatting down at pavements around about Taleigao-Caranzalen. Then one day I got a message that Rasoda in Panaji had opened for business and were offering such things as “chola bhatura (150), rajma- chawal (200), dal tadka-chawal, paneer sabzi-chawal (250), aloo paratha, paneer paratha, gobi paratha, paneer paratha” and meal deal of paneer sabzi, 2 roti, chawal (380)…plus, I like their fafda crunchies.
Anyway this is to say I got tempted to go get some chola-bhatura and paneer sabzi-chawal and came away with these dreadful plastic pocketed tray packs! Nothing to rave about – it was oily chola-kulcha in two pockets of the tray and the usual messy salty Punjabi pickle, a twin pair of salty fried green chillis, dollop of seasoned onion kachumbar in other minor pockets. Terrible, I thought, I couldn’t eat the leathery bhatura (most vile of Indian fried so called bread) and found the parsimonious chola portion inadequate, spiced overly, pickle and green chilies I chucked along with most of the kulcha.
So much money down the drain, I grumbled, while washing up the designer plastic platters before putting them in my big black bin for dry waste (the worst of all waste). Once again and anew telling myself what a bloody hypocrite I am.
On one hand I hate buying food packed in mod con plastic ware but there I was still buying it for second rate and third rate food…just because may be I’m too lazy to cook at home. Never ever again, I vowed. But that’s something I’ve vowed over and over again! True, most times I do take my own stainless steel tiffin when buying home food, but there’re occasions when I forget. Okay, no excuses, must keep the dibba in the dickey of Blue Angel bike. I’m just not serious about what I want to be serious about. Of course I flay myself in irritation afterwards with all the plastic food containers filling up my black bin…but this is also to say plastics are back with vengeance in the food industry small and not so small. Somehow our civilization and Mother Earth is cursed by our plastics industry.
BUT this incident during one of the coronavirus days got me remembering and reminiscing about some of my most cherished memorable moments of life as a schoolgirl growing up on the island of Penang, off west coast of Malaysia, in the 50’s and 60s… my family of parents and five children lived down Penang Street in the old quarters of Georgetown (UNESCO protected heritage town now) for several years. I still remember vividly the food hawkers and vendors, men and women of Malaysia’s multicultural heritage (Indian, Chinese, Malay, Eurasian and more), who would come calling down the street at various times, either on foot or on bicycle…there were also all the places I stopped over for a bite of something irresistible while bicycling to primary and secondary schools near and far.
I remember the Ceylonese appam-man squatting by coal sigdi at the frontage of a Chinese pavement side restaurant doing steaming hot appam on a couple of terracotta chatti placed one on top of another, appam cooking within…deftly he would scrape off the appam and serve them on banana leaf pieces with accompanying creamy coconut or tomato-onion chutney, some days even sambar; he would also have stainless steel contains packed with freshly made idli and medhuwada (very home-made I assure you). If more money was warming my pocket I would order appam with egg atop it. Since these appam were made with toddy-fermented batter they were utterly yummylicious.
DOWN Penang Street would come various foodie vendors. The call of the ice-kachang man pushing his handcart was irresistible and we’d rush down the stairway to buy and cool off with bowls of ice-kachang – finely shaved ice scoops piled atop a cache of red beans, boiled peanuts, palm hearts, candied nutmeg fruit, colorful assortment of jellies…the icy snowy pile further embellished with rose and sarsaparilla syrups, a smattering of Carnation condensed milk (not sweet) by way of a final artwork. It was a treat like no other treat. Ice-kachang is quintessential Malaysian favorite across the communities. I can both live and die for it.
Then down the street would come a Chinese amma with thick bamboo stick balanced on her shoulders, two containers dangling at both ends – she’d musically yell “Bee-hoon, bee-hoon!” Fine savory rice noodles seasoned and tossed with large, cruncy soy sprouts (taugey), chopped spring onions, some leafy lettuce green…and “if you want more chili or soy sauce here, take!” She would also have rice kanji. Yummylicious, of course most yummylicious and absolutely to live for. Then there was “footmayon” man with his basket on head filled with austere white rice vermicelli, he could take out a few rounds on a banana leaf and top it off with a dark aromatic choon or combo ball of fresh grated coconut and palm jaggery. Using our fingers we’d mash up the vermicelli with the choon and tuck in.
Came the popiah man, laksa man, Hakka noodles man, rojak woman – and there were these cut fruit vendors with papaya, pineapple, jackfruit on a stick, rambutan on a stick, Chinese pear peeled and quartered…other ready to eat fruit placed enticingly on ice blocks covered with clean white cloth, in sparkling see-through cabinets. Well, I can sing hosannas for these honorable street food vendors who got up early to make their preparations at home and to retail them down the streets through the day.
To make a reasonably modest living. I’d say their various foodie preparations are far superior in comparison to all the vile industrialized junk food we shove into our mouths from packets and packets and packets these days! There was very little junk food when I was growing up in Penang. Only these lifesaving fresh food carts with all kinds of snacks and food of the honest, nourishing, desirable kind.

Meal deal snacks from Rasoda, Panaji… non-appealing food and tucked in plastic designer ware!

IN THESE days of coronavirus fears and even otherwise dare I suggest we return to the old vendors system operating down every street but yes, food vendors have to be educated in hygiene and sanitation, licensed and checked regularly. Penang’s Food Department authorities were very strict and I don’t think I ever got sick eating street vendor or hawker food before or after school! I remember relishing “nasi pulut” in triangular fresh green banana parcels (that is sticky rice topped with choon ball), mouthwatering “mee goring” packed ingeniously in banana leaf and tucked into place with little stick…and so much more. Steam-cooked Chinese buns with all kinds of stuffing within, “bubor chacha” which was my favorite breakfast, and “lye-chee-kang” …a bowlful of swirling tinkling in ice fruit like lychee, papaya, Thai mango, tender coconut ribbons. Oh for a lye-chee-kang on a hot afternoon…
I don’t mind returning to Penang one more time to have my fill of all these street vendors’ food one more time…before saying goodbye kind or cruel world! But the thought of writing some of my foodie memoirs here this week is to say during these coronavirus times it would be a good idea to promote old-fashioned food vendors plying the streets so that one may buy whatever one wants to feed mind and body, heart and soul; not for fancy but reasonable aam aadmi pricing. There’s a decent living to be made somewhere in all this, okay. And walking or bicycling never hurt anyone!
How about a decently made “batat-poha” or “bhelpuri” or “pongal-avial” or even stir-fried rice and Manchurian balls served up on a bed of fine cut cabbage…how about “sannam-choon”, “amboli-choon”, zitt coddi, all freshly made food to be sold out the very same day? CCP can take a call on this or the Food Department of Panaji city! CCP Commissioner Sanjit Rodrigues could very easily swing this idea through. Think how much less plastic litter there would be for this would be like retailing food in your own home dibba or bartan…whoever wants to think about it may think about it, including the powers-that-be up there where it counts to make a difference to the quality of public life at street level in Panaji. Come on, set a good example!
ARE the street vendors of my Penang memories still there some 50 years later? Well, my resident brother and family there tells me most have been told to take up permanent rented out space in the organized collective eating food courts attached to public recreation places, but now I’m told there’s a Penang residents’ movement afoot to get foodie vendors back plying their food down and up the streets…the authorities are also considering giving some interested vendors license to ply their fresh food item numbers in the interests of getting children off plastic packet junk food from supermarkets.
I would say good-luck to any such movement to bring back freshly prepared food and snacks into people life the easy way! We would be eating better at street level and it’s a livelihood for those who want to take their chances in a competitive area which makes a difference to life for young and old alike. I mean if the local poder bakery produce can get around, why not other kinds of freshly prepared traditional foodie item numbers?

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