lessons at the night market

I don’t know whether it’s the heady wafts of durian or the insistent undertones of fermented tofu, but I’m partially relieved that for once it’s not the usual reeking stench of belacan that fills the air. The aggressive smells bludgeon my olfactory nerves, sending my synapses snapping with confused messages wavering between repulsed disgust and voyeuristic fascination. From the moment I step out of the car I know that this is a Pasar Malam (night market) with a difference.

After the initial impact of the heavy undertones of this particularly strong smelling symphony I start to pick out other odours – grilled meat, hot vegetable oil, warm notes of burnt sugar. As I pass a man in a sweat stained t-shirt beating a frenetic gamelan rhythm on his wok the acrid bite of fried chilli pepper hits my nose, then my throat, then my eyes.

Oversea Union Garden (whatever that means), more commonly abbreviated as O.U.G., is a predominantly Chinese neighbourhood on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, an unassuming area just uphill from the Old Klang Road, with a tightly knit community where ‘Aunties’ still take the time to gossip and neighbours actually know each other. In O.U.G. you are far more likely to hear Cantonese, Mandarin, Hakka and Hokkien than Malay or Tamil. The local MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) hosts many classes in different styles of Tai Chi and Qi Gong - though when it comes to election time the population of O.U.G. usually vote against the incumbent MCA, which is why, some locals complain, that the neighbourhood roads are poorly maintained.

I like the word Oversea – expressed in the singular; so representative of the stubborn refusal of the locals to conjugate anything in its plural form. Oversea(s), like outstation, fetch or fellow is one of those wonderfully archaic, ever so British words that has managed to remain in circulation in Malaysian English while in most other English speaking countries these words have made a decorous decline into desuetude, just like the empire that once claimed Malaya as its own. There are many echoes of Britannia in Malaysia, but most of them are just that – mere echoes, half heard and mostly misunderstood.

Those faint echoes are utterly drowned out in OUG on a Thursday night - by the steady throb of smoke-belching generators, the cackling cries of the stallholders, and inevitably, the thumping techno-beat from purveyors of illicitly encoded media files. “Support music piracy!” comes the cheerful call from a chubby young man as I pass along the narrow passage between the busy stalls. The market is crowded and any indication of an economic downturn is conspicuously absent. Young couple hold hands and test the texture and textiles of the colourful clothes on display. A couple of strategically placed beggars sprawling on the ground are studiously ignored by the majority. Families cling to their children as they weave through the throng. The younger generation speak a locally flavoured version of Mandarin, a curiosity in itself, given that very few of the original Chinese immigrants who made Malaysia their new home in the last century spoke Mandarin as their mother tongue. In an interesting social experiment school children attending Chinese medium schools are taught in Mandarin in an attempt to homogenize Malaysian Chinese as a common people with a binding language. This belies the ethnic complexities and it is not unusual to hear parents speaking Cantonese or Hokkien together while addressing their children uniquely in Mandarin.

The ethnic Chinese in Malaysia retain many of the Confucian ideals and Taoist beliefs of their pre-Mao-era grandparents, whereas in China itself, those same traditional values have suffered the idealistic excesses of the cultural revolution and the materialistic temptations of the twenty first century. Just like the archaic echoes of ‘oversea’, many cultural values imported several generations ago still hold firm in Malaysia while they have often lost currency in their homelands. For the next generations satellite TV and internet may put an end to all that, as millions of youngsters thread themselves into a weave whose warp or weft their grandparents, or indeed parents, may never understand – though it goes without saying (despite which I will anyway) that Malaysia is hardly unique in facing these challenges.

There are pork products for sale – sausages, deep-fried pigs ears, bacon… and these for Malays (who are all Muslim) are Haram (forbidden), making OUG night market pretty much off limits for most Malays. There are no tudongs or kopiahs, the traditional (though technically not traditionally Malay) headwear that the Malay women and men wear respectively. There are very few dark Tamil faces either. OUG pasar malam is resolutely ethnically Chinese. And yet still retains a distinctively Malaysian character.

Everywhere are things to touch or taste. I sample a crispy Appam Balik – a miniature smooth pancake stuffed with sugary sweetcorn, grated coconut, ground peanuts and a knob of salty butter. Delectable, and at 50 sen, an economic miracle in itself, though hardly a Chinese delicacy. The sharp smell of Laksa issuing from a steaming pot on a rolling boil, brings saliva streaming into my mouth, again a truly Malaysian dish, unknown in China. For the umpteenth time since I arrived in Malaysia I feel a slight twinge of regret about my vows of vegetarianism and my long standing renunciation of eating the flesh of other animals.

Though the sun has set it is still hot and humid and I can understand why these markets are held in the relative coolness of night. After half an hour or so, I feel myself wilting like a tired lettuce and prop myself up against the counter of a stall selling young coconuts and freshly mangled sugarcane juice. The merchant taps a knowing finger on the coconuts, listening to some hidden harmonic I cannot detect, before choosing one for me. A shiny cleaver flashes and slices open the coconut and I slake my thirst, sucking its sweet fragrant water through an unromantic plastic straw. When I am finished the man takes back the empty carapace and with another sweeping slash rends it in two. He gives me a spoon and I scoop out the soft, almost jellylike flesh that slithers, soothingly cool, down my throat.

Refreshed, I face into the fray again and peruse the displays of sports shoes, household goods, fruit stalls. I pass racks of t-shirts - one of which bears a bewildering slogan that stops me in my tracks. “DON’T AND MIND” it says in white capitals on a dark blue T-shirt. I understand the individual words, but not their juxtaposition. The author is obviously a fiendishly clever individual, who like the ancient scribes of Zen Koans and Vedantic Nyayas, clearly intends to push the reader’s mind into a place beyond rational analytical thought and into the enlightened field of pure intuitive perception where all unwritten knowledge is revealed to mankind. Somehow I don’t quite get there and instead am left pondering this mystical injunction as I stumble past the glistening ice blocks and bubbling cauldrons of the Fat-One Steamboat with its dizzying display of skewered meat and entrails and fish and seafood. There is a saying that the Chinese will eat anything with four legs, except the kitchen table. The steamboat display supports this more than adequately.

I feel a bit overwhelmed and perhaps a little agoraphobic - remembering that Agora means the marketplace. I’m sure the ancient Greeks felt a similar sensation of sensory overload when the peasants came down from the hills with their carts and barrows loaded with produce and wares and the crowds thronged gossiping in the marketplace as they shopped for bargains. I buy a kilo of New Zealand apples. I’m a little ashamed of the air-miles, and apples seem terribly pedestrian compared to the tropical delicacies on the fruit stand, but there is something reassuringly familiar about apples. I bite into the crunchy flesh and let its sweet juice sooth my jangled nerves.

People look at me as I walk around the market. They double-take when they see me. I’ve heard the words Gwai Loh a few times already and know that they refer to me, since the only other white person I have seen was in a mirror at one of the clothing stalls. The words are never said aggressively though. I know I am probably as exotic to the stallholders as they are to me. Don’t and mind, I tell myself.

I contemplate buying a handheld battery-driven fan. There is a stall with an appealing display of them made from moulded plastic in the shapes of a choice of Japanese cartoon characters. I relent and decide I don’t really need Digemon blowing air at me. Another stall sells rattan switches, which the stall-keeper – a wizened old man with liver spots on the back of his hands – explains are used for disciplining recalcitrant children. I pass a display of butterfly knives, monkey wrenches and folding pocket hammers (every man should have one).

Deep fried chicken, freshly popped corn, lurid marshmallow skewers and even live puppies all have their place on the OUG pasar malam. Japanese schoolgirl porn is sold openly alongside toilet brushes and accessories for gas cookers. All the latest movie releases are available for a fraction of the price of a cinema ticket. There are cakes and buns and dim-sum dumplings and plastic boxes of delicate sushi. Jackfuit, a cousin of durian and a little more removed than cempedek, is eased from its sticky matrix by hands clad in polythene gloves lubricated with vegetable oil. A man fries small cubes of white vegetables in a large flat pan, making, what a small cardboard sign announces as, ‘carrot cake’ - though there are no carrots involved and it is patently not a cake. Poo’s ice-cream strikes me as an unfortunate and unappetising moniker. Despite this the old man with the ice-box strapped to his motorbike is doing a brisk trade in cones. A burly green-eyed man, who I take to be Kashmiri, squats on the ground behind his display of fake silk scarves and pashmina shawls. He is the only non-oriental merchant I have seen all evening and doesn’t seem to be doing much trade - the tropical climate undoubtedly rendering his wares superfluous - except perhaps for those who live in air-conditioned environments or who travel frequently to the highlands. He looks a little forlorn and I give him an encouraging smile. He just stares right through me.

“Vey gu, vey chee,” quacks a short dark-haired man as he shows me his display of branded baseball caps. It sometimes takes me a moment to understand the clipped pronunciation of Malaysian English which so often eliminates or truncates word endings. There are also familiar words used in unusual contexts, like can - which means ‘yes’, or got - which fills in for ‘have’. Only can mean nearby – he only lives there – i.e. he lives right there. One of my favourites is Awleddy – a deformation of ‘already’, which signifies anything in the past tense and whose use cunningly avoids the whole cumbersome business of conjugating verbs. For example, instead of saying that I bought apples, a Malaysian may simply say ‘buy awleddy’ and if I enquired whether he had mangos, he might reply - ‘also got’ (though generally the final T would be silent). There is a beautiful, if crude economy of language and I must admit that the longer I stay in Malaysia the more often I find myself using the word ‘already’ and wondering whether I have actually employed it in the correct context. I smile at the man with the baseball caps and can’t resist replying - “Go(t) awleddy lah!”

A little further on I stop to buy a cob of sweet-corn. A red-cheeked woman offers me a choice of boiled, charcoal-grilled or steamed. I opt for the latter and she momentarily disappears behind a cloud of vapour as she lifts the stainless steel lid of her steamer. She extracts a yellow cob with a tongs and then takes a short paintbrush dabbed in a tub of ‘butter,’ though I suspect that it is probably margarine or some palm-oil derivative. She deftly paints the melting fat onto the cob, a shake of salt and she drops the corn into a transparent plastic bag, which she in turn places in another red coloured plastic bag. I tell her I don’t need so much plastic, but she ignores me or probably doesn’t understand my accent.

Malaysia is plagued by plastic bags – usually red or orange in colour. They are one of my pet hates and I sometimes get inordinately upset when I find them discarded on remote jungle trails or see them floating down the Klang River towards the ocean. The Bunga Raya - the national floral emblem - which is actually the hibiscus, should be changed to red and orange plastic bags, as they are a far more ubiquitous and representative blossom of modern Malaysia.

While I’m on the subject - if there’s one thing that irks me more than plastic bags it’s those terrible polystyrene takeaway boxes that take several millennia to decompose. I believe it is a national tradition to burn them at picnics, sending out noxious black fumes – a practice I have witnessed all too often throughout the country. In fairness, at least chemical smell of burning polystyrene partially masks the putrid stench of Belecan without which any picnic would be incomplete.

As I carefully extract my corn-on-the-cob from its multiple layers of plastic sheathing I contemplate the possibility that I may be turning into a grumpy old man. I bite into the corn, bending forward awkwardly in an attempt to avoid drops of molten butter (or whatever the stuff is) dripping on my shirt. I like corn-on-the-cob, though strands of it tend to get caught between my teeth, reminding me of my receding gums and the fact that, yes, I am getting older. As I stand in front of the stall the crowds squeeze past me, making eating all the more difficult, so I step behind the stall and am startled by the sudden hot breath of a petrol powered generator at my ankle. As I lurch forward in alarm, I manage to splatter grease all down the front of my shirt. Embarrassed at my involuntary slovenliness I look around to see if anyone has seen the mishap, but no one seems to care about the Gwai Loh muttering to himself with a corncob in one hand and a red plastic bag of apples in the other.

I finish my corn and decide that I’ve just about had enough of the pasar malam for the evening. I think I have covered almost all there is to see, from lucky red women’s underwear inscribed with the auspicious symbol ‘fook’ (I could think of more appropriate syllables for underwear - though… well let’s not go there.) to portable DVD players, to nail-varnish and hair-bands. As a cultural experience it certainly has been enriching, but having wandered slowly for more than an hour my legs are tired.

I have just one last stop to make before I find a place to sit for a quiet beer. I brace myself to step over into the dark side. Actually its not that dark, though the street lighting is a little dimmer, it’s just that this particular stall is on the edge of the market - and for a good reason too.

Again my nostrils are assailed by the putrid odours of smelly tofu. This is fermented soya bean curd with the nauseous stench of blocked drains which is deep-fried until it attains the texture and consistency of the dreaded polystyrene. I don’t consider myself unadventurous, but I have never been brave enough to taste it, though I’m working up the courage to do so sometime in the not too distant future. On the other side of the street is my goal, the highlight of my evening which I have been saving until the end. I make my way towards the durian stall.

The first time I ever saw or smelled durian was twenty years ago in London’s Chinatown where I had arrived as a fresh young immigrant straight out of college in Ireland. The smell repulsed me and I couldn’t fathom how anyone could eat anything that emanated so foul a stench. Ten years later on a trip to Singapore I tasted my first tentative mouthful. I remember discreetly spitting (you have to spit discreetly in Singapore or you can get into all sorts of trouble) it into a paper napkin that I hastily disposed of. More recently, I was in Thailand and for some reason that escapes me, thought it would be clever to try durian again. My palate had matured over the years, having endured many odiferous unpasteurized French cheeses, and this time I found the taste of durian quite interesting. The creamy custard texture of durian is something I had never really properly appreciated and I find it hard to compare it with anything, except perhaps cream cheese, and even then that’s not quite it. The flavour was interesting enough for me to finish a several segments of the fruit, but for the next few days I couldn’t get rid of the taste or smell of raw onions. It seemed to exude from my every pore and I swore that was the last time I would ever eat durian again.

Never say never has always been a personal motto - though of course like anyone I draw certain lines. But rarely when it comes to food - unless it walks or swims or flies, and even then I’ve been known to be selectively flexible, particularly regarding corn-fed geese - but that’s another story. It took me time to get over my mental reservations about durian, but a few months back I found myself in the company of some avid amateurs. As the old story goes, one thing led to another.

At the O.U.G night market there are several varieties of durian on display, including the celebrated D24 variety. I watch the vendor as he selects a suitable fruit with a gloved hand and carefully opens it with a curious wide-bladed knife. The segments inside are a lustrous yellow-orange and more fragrant than offensive in smell. Passersby smile as the Gwai Loh gorges himself on durian – not an everyday sight in the neighbourhood. I crush the creamy flesh between my tongue and my palate, coating my taste buds with indescribable, and possibly immoral, sensations. A fruit so sensually overpowering must somehow be sinful or at the very least addictive, something I am starting to increasingly believe as I get more and more hooked on durian. As a vegetarian I reassure myself that durian is full of nutritious goodness and try to convince myself that I shouldn’t feel guilty about so much pleasure. I alternate between mouthfuls of durian and water until I have finished the whole fruit. I mull over the fact that I seem to have some sort of deep-rooted block in relation to excessive pleasure, undoubtedly a subliminal remnant of my Catholic Irish upbringing. Durian may just help me get over that. I am tempted to buy another, but durian is not particularly cheap and I’m on a budget. Besides, I still want to sit down and relax and have a beer.

A little further down the road, closer to the hustle bustle of the market, I find just the place. I sit outside on a plastic chair at a round plastic table and order a bottle of beer from a smiling young man who tells me he is from Myanmar. He brings me the big green bottle, like champagne, in an ice bucket. The street is still flowing with shoppers and most of the tables on the pavement are full. Hawkers ply back and forth with dishes of noodles, bowls of soups, plates of fried rice or barbecued chicken wings… I savour the cool tang of my beer while I watch cockroaches scuttle about with their waving twin antennae and observe daring rats darting from drains to snatch fallen morsels of food. I have grown inured to this urban fauna and am just thankful that there don’t seem to be any mosquitoes about.

I have heard that durian and beer don’t mix. Durian is heating, beer is heating… mix them together and you get too much heat. Gwai Loh don’t really classify food in terms of their heating or cooling properties, though there are telling phrases in English such as ‘cool as a cucumber’ or ‘red hot chillies.’ Young coconuts are supposed to be cooling, while older coconuts make you ‘heaty.’ I don’t take these things so seriously. I usually have to learn things the hard way.

I’m warm certainly, but Malaysia is a hot country - it’s almost on the equator after all. I drink more beer to slake my thirst and my already stained shirt starts to stick to me with sweat. I rub my neck and forehead with an ice cube from the beer bucket. So hot, so thirsty. I order another beer, belching durian as I sit sweating, watching the world passing by. I nibble on a bag of boiled chickpeas from a vendor across the road. They go well with the second beer though it utterly fails to cool me down. I can’t believe how hot it is. There must be a storm brewing. This was what I thought, while all the time the storm was brewing within me – a fiery mix of durian and beer.

Later, I lie on my bed without even a sheet. I turn the air-conditioning on high. I take two cold showers and still I am burning up. I feel as if I have fever and hardly sleep a wink. When I finally do I drift through uncomfortable dreams of volcanoes and demons tormenting me for having indulged myself so sensually with this wicked fruit. I wake the next day, still belching putrid durian breath and solemnly vow that I will never mix durian and beer again, and I promise never again to question the ancient wisdom of what is cooling and what is ‘heaty’. There are lessons to be learned at the night market.

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