At the Kedah town, Alan Teh Leam Seng savours a second helping of cendol and walks on to discover more local favourites
WOOSH! A wave of hot air hits me in the face the moment I step out from the cool comfort of my friend's car. The afternoon sun bears down hard from an almost cloudless sky, baking everything beneath it. I quickly bid Yusri farewell and make a dash for the nearest shop to seek shelter.
The afternoon heatwave is a stark contrast to the cool and cloudy weather we had enjoyed just a little more than an hour ago. In fact, we had even thought that it was going to rain earlier. The weather does seem to change quite fast here in Sungei Petani.
It feels so good standing at the shop entrance directly under the air curtain. I remain there for quite some time allowing the blasts of cool air to bring down the body temperature considerably. Unfortunately my presence soon attracts the attention of the salesgirl on duty. She starts walking towards me. I begin to worry.
“Have I overstayed my welcome?” I begin questioning myself. Yet I refuse to budge, unwilling to give up my luxurious spot even as she gets closer.
“Uncle, panaskan hari ini (it’s hot today, isn’t it)?” the petite Indian girl states the obvious regarding the weather. We soon strike up a casual conversation, with the unbearable heat being the focus. I heave a sigh of relief knowing that I will not be asked to leave.
I end up telling her about my visit to Yusri's house to view his collection of vintage Malay movie posters earlier in the day and that I would soon be making my way to the train station for my journey home.
A few minutes later, another girl wearing a similar outfit appears with two packets of what look like cendol in her right hand. The girl, who was talking to me earlier, suddenly breaks into a wide grin. Now I know the real reason why she approached me at the entrance.
She was actually waiting for her friend to return. I laugh at myself for being so apprehensive earlier. The duo politely invite me to share their dessert after noticing my unwavering gaze transfixed on their recent purchases. I sheepishly shift my eyes away and ask where the cendol stall is located. The girls point to the left before disappearing to the back of the shoe shop to enjoy their cool treat.
Images of the two girls enjoying their icy cold dessert at the shop pantry becomes too much for me to bear. I decide to leave the cool comfort of the shop and brave the sweltering heat in search of the cendol stall. Fortunately I do not have to look far.
SWEET AND COLD
A little further down the road I notice a small crowd hovering around a push cart with a tarpaulin roof. From a distance I can already see people holding blue-coloured bowls in their hands. That must surely be the cendol stall the girls were talking about earlier. I quicken my steps and make a beeline for it.
A few minutes later I have a similar bowl handed to me by the stall operator. At a glance the dish looks quite simple. Apart from shaved ice, the bowl contains a generous amount of green jelly bits made from rice flour, red beans and gula melaka (palm sugar).
I take a long look at the bowl, revelling in the thought that soon, I will be enjoying it to my heart's content. Today seems to be the best of times to enjoy this refreshing dessert. I know that after my first mouthful the hot weather will no longer be a bother any more.
I mix the contents thoroughly with the stainless steel spoon to give them a uniform texture. My first mouthful is pure bliss. Then before I know it I am already scraping the bottom of my bowl. A very good excuse soon comes to mind. Surely such a hot weather warrants another bowl. I turn to the seller and unabashedly ask for a second helping. He gives me a knowing smile and in less than a minute shoves another bowl of the tasty treat into my waiting hands.
The crowd has already dissipated by the time I finish my second round. I strike up a conversation with the stall owner while returning the empty bowl back to him. I learn that Sivalingam Karpiah has been selling his homemade cendol at this same spot in Jalan Dewa for the last 40 years. He usually starts business at 10am but his closing hours vary from day to day.
“I start cleaning up when I run out of cendol to sell. Sometimes I close as early as 2pm while on other days it can drag to as late as 5pm. However, most of the time my stock depletes by 3pm,” Siva, ashis friends call him, explains.
A day typically starts early in the morning when Siva heads off to the Taman Petani Jaya market to pick up his regular supply of coconut milk. He reiterates that the coconut milk needs to be prepared fresh daily as it turns sour quickly if kept at room temperature for more than half a day. Even at the stall here he has to keep the coconut milk in a specially designed cooler. The low temperature helps to keep it fresh longer.
Siva's wife helps out by preparing the rest of the ingredients at home. She uses the pressure cooker to soften the red beans. After cooking for nearly 40 years, experience has taught her that 30 minutes is the optimal cooking time to produce beans that are soft but firm enough to maintain their kidney-like shape.
“The beans will still be tough if the cooking time is too short and if we leave it in the pressure cooker for too long then they turn mushy and easily dissolve in the water. We have to make sure that they are perfect or else our cendol will be ruined,” confides Siva as he begins to clean his work area.
Siva's wife prepares the green jelly bits using premium rice flour and water infused with pandan leaves.The latter is obtained using chopped mature pandan leaves which are then strained with a fine muslin cloth.
“The easiest technique to determine the age of the leaves is to bend it slightly. It is old enough if it holds its own and does not break into two. The reasons we prefer older leaves are because their sap is more fragrant and provides a more intense colour,” Siva adds before turning his attention to a customer who wants two packets of the green jelly.
Looking at my watch I realise that it is time for me to get going. I thank Siva for his refreshing dessert and promise to be back again when I return to Sungei Petani next time.
The Kommuter Station is just a short walk away and I am glad there are sheltered walk ways along most of Jalan Ibrahim.
GARLANDS AND KUIHS
Fifteen minutes later I arrive at the station located along Jalan Market. Looking at the latest train schedule, I suddenly realise that I more than have half an hour on my hands before the train bound for Alor Star arrives.
Heartened by the weather which has started to turn cloudy again, I decide to make the most of my time in Sungei Petani by exploring the nearby places. I walk towards Jalan Market and Jalan Kuala Ketil. I remember my father using these roads each time we drove down from Alor Star to visit my late grandfather in the 1980s.
If my memory serves me right, the places around these roads have not changed much over time. The little stall selling flowers in front of Arked Niaga Pekan Rabu is still there.
It seems to be doing well now, judging from the wide variety of colourful garlands and blooms on sale. I also notice the new Urban Transformation Centre beside the old bus station. It is good that the federal government has decided to build this multi-service centre at such a convenient and accessible location.
A little further down Jalan Kuala Ketil, I come to a row of prewar shop houses which used to be quite rundown. While most of the old businesses are still there I realise something has changed. The coffee shop that used to occupy the two middle lots is no longer there.
Judging from the facade, it looks like the place has undergone conservation. I love the carved panels on the main doors and vintage Straits Chinese-styled floor and wall tiles. Unfortunately I do not see any signboards to indicate the use of this place. I surely must make it a point to come back here again to find out more.
On the way back to the station, I come across an stall selling traditional Malay kuih along Jalan Market. I succumb to the delicious aroma wafting in the air although I know that I do not have much time left to linger. I buy some sardine curry puffs and fried bananas.
While giving me back my change, the friendly Malay woman tells me that the stall adjacent to hers sells wonderful vermicelli soup and ais kacang. Wow! It looks like I have to come back to Sungei Petani soon. There is still so much waiting for me to experience here.
Pictures by Alan Teh Leam Seng