We remember a place because of the people we know, we remember a place for the food we love and we also remember a place for its cultural lifestyle. Muar town of my early days had all these elements.
Growing up in Muar town in the late fifties gave me two fundamental components that made me understood both worlds of urban and kampung upbringing. While I was raised in Muar town, I was not deprived of tasting the kampung life. Just nine kilometers away from home was the house of my grandmother (biologically she was my great grandmother) in Parit Bakar, a small village surrounded by secondary jungle. I used to sleep with her when the house was lighted by kerosene lamps and I used to follow her looking for herbal leaves at the back of her house. I was so immune to listening to the hooting of owls in the middle of the night and the pecking of woodpeckers in the early morning.
My grandmother Tok Jilah as she was fondly known in her village adopted three children and they became her companion when all her children had left to start their own family. One was a Chinese whose surname was Chen and we called him Pak Hussein while the second was an Indian girl who adopted a Malay name of Fatimah. The third was her grand-daughter Esah whose mother died at a young age. Later she adopted another grandchild named Ungku Nai. It was from Pak Hussein that I learned few things on Chinese culture and he was a very good cook. Fatimah also could cook very well inherited from the hands of my grandmother.
In the mid-fifties, Parit Bakar was a small village. I would visit this village practically every week with my mother (biologically she was my grandmother) and it was here that I knew my many cousins of the same root. When I left Muar town in 1967, I left behind many priceless memories and I will not depart a single memory that had made me rich in my knowledge of the past. Today’s generations are oblivious of the many good values the past had given them. The foods we crazed today are from the recipes of the past, the cultural heritage that we proudly present today has its root from the past and the traditional songs we sing today originated from the past. Let us not forget the past for what lies ahead depend what had been stored in the past.
In this article I am going to present some of the food Muarians of my time crazed for and the lively Ghazal music.
Muar town of my days served quite a number of authentic cuisines that are still in demand by the present generation. We have the famous Mee Bandung, the Laksa Johor, the Lodeh ( Lontong to most from other states ), the Botok-botok, the Otak-otak and the most sought ‘Sotong masak hitam’. I must admit that Muar’s Mee Jawa is the best there is. Of course not forgetting ‘Satay Wak Santano’ ( sounds Italian doesn’t it? ). If you think that Malacca has the best ‘asam pedas’, then you have not tried the Parit Jawa ‘asam pedas’.
Our Chinese ‘orang kampung’ likewise serve the best Chinese cuisine sought by most Murians. The beef steak oriental style served by Eastern Restaurant is most unique., Muarian Malays call this ‘bisstick’. Before the steak is grilled, it will be hammered and you can hear the hammering sound from the dining table you are seated. When it is served, you can smell your tender and juicy steak. The Mee Hailam is second to none, most authentic in its taste. You can get this at the Sin Sin Restaurant. At night take a stroll along Jalan Ali and there you can find the best fried oyster in the country, no joke. As for the Muslims, you don’t have to worry because it is halal. Muarian Chinese are very cautious and attentive when serving their Muslim counterparts.
These foods have their own branding each producing its own authentic taste. Laksa Johor normally uses ‘ikan parang’ for the gravy. Those days the Laksa was from the rice cake but now it is spegetti. My wife uses ‘ikan tenggiri’ as it is too tedious to remove the bones of ‘ikan parang’. Those selling Laksa Johor for commercial gain use ‘ikan kebong’ which is cheaper but the taste may not be good. Lodeh is almost similar to Lontong except that Lodeh uses the ‘ketupat’ instead of ‘nasi empet’ as in Lontong. The gravy of Lodeh is mixed with satay’s gravy. Botok-botok may sound alien to many but not to Johoreans. It is a delicious dish made up of various herbal leaves with a specail ingredients (rempah) placed on top of a slice of ‘ikan tenggiri’. Then have it wrapped with leaves and steam it for about two or three hours and the aroma will soon fill the air ( you can find this recipe in some of the blogs ).
Otak-otak and Mee Bandung need no introduction. Some may ask whether Mee Bandung originated from Bandung. No, it is not. Mee Bandung has its origin right here in Muar town. Why is it called Mee Bandung then? Let me tell you the story which was told to me by my very close elderly friend Mohammad Mahmood. Nobody in Muar town of my time knew Mohammad Mahmood, but mention to them Atan Kitang, they will immediately remember the most notorious and playful Muarian the town had ever produced. Yes, Mohammad Mahmood is Atan Kitang and this is his story:
“A year after our country gained its independence, our Prime Minister the late Tunku wanted to foster closer relationship with our neighbours Indonesia and Singapore. Among the activities proposed was the exchange of cultural shows among the three countries. I remember attending to one of its shows that was stagged at the Rex cinema. The Indonesian troupe consisted of the legendary Bing Selamat and Titiek Puspa. The Singaporeans too presented their talented artists. Our late legendary Tan Sri P. Ramlee was beginning to shine and was not included.
Across the road where the Grand Paradise stood was a small row of shop-houses fronting Jalan Sisi. The Malay word for ‘sisi’ means ‘beside’ in English and Jalan Sisi was beside the railway track for locomotives that was once a part of the history of Muar town. These shop-houses were opened for business twenty-four hours and Muarians called this place ‘Kedai siang malam’. Amazingly, you could get almost anything you need, even to repair the tyre of your car. Among these traders, there was a man we called Pak Ma’il and his assistant Taib Tenuk. They both served the best Malay noodles with no specific name. It was simply called ‘Mee Kuah’. Muarians flock at his small restaurant to enjoy this specially cooked noodles throughout the day and night.
In 1958,a new cinema was built called the Cathay Organization. It was a walking distant from these shop-houses. Sometime in that year, there was another cultural show performed by troupes of the three countries and this time they had it at the Cathay cinema. The tickets were sold almost immediately the counter opened for business. It was a fantastic show of cultural music and dancing. At the end of the show, the troupes sang their own country songs; the Malaysians sang ‘Rasa Sayang’, the Singaporeans sang ‘Geylang Sipatu Geylang’ and the Indonesians sang ‘Ole Ole Bandung’.
When the show was over, it was time to fill their stomach and the only likely place suitable to go was at Pak Ma’il’s little restaurant. Most of the troupe members went back to their hotels and the Rest House while few others mainly the singers from the three countries took a stroll to ‘Kedai Siang Malam’. While walking they all sang the three songs repeatedly.
When they reached Pak Ma’il’s restaurant, all of them ordered that special noodles with no name. While waiting for their meal, they kept on singing these three songs in a jovial mood. When their meal was served, they began to enjoy their indulgence and somehow the Indonesians liked the taste so much. One of them asked Pak Ma’il the name of this dish and Pak Ma’il simply replied that the dish had no specific name, just noodles mixed with the ‘kuah’ of pasted shrimps and bits and pieces of other ingredient such as slice meat, cuttle fish and vegetables. He said just to call this as ‘Mee Kuah’. The Indonesian then suggested the name Mee Bandung because they were singing ‘Ole Ole Bandung’ when their meal arrived. They all laughed and agreed that this lovely noodles be named ‘Mee Bandung’. So it was, and from then on this special dish cooked by Pak Ma’il and his assistant Taib Tenuk became known as ‘Mee Bandung Muar'”.
Later Pak Ma’il and his assistant taught some others to cook this dish and eventually many restaurants began to serve Mee Bandung. So the next time you pass by Muar town, try this lovely noodles and when you begin to enjoy it, remember this story. And don’t forget Atan Kitang because we should all thank him for preseving this historical event and sharing it with us.
THE SRI MAHARANI GHAZAL
The music of Ghazal is very unique and constitute blends of other cultures connected forming its own significant identity. Many suggest that the Ghazal has its origin from the middle-east, some say Turkey, some say Yemen and some say Egypt. The Ghazal of Muar was the brain child of Dato Musa who was once a Colonel of the Johor Military Forces and of course he had a nickname…Pak Lomak. However, when he died the Ghazal almost lost into oblivion until in the early fifties when a group of young Murians decided to revitalise the Ghazal and called themselves the ‘Sri Maharani Ghazal’. The players were Atan Buntal who played the armanium (an accordian like musical instrument still being played in Sikh temples), the vilionist was Atan Kontot (because one of his toe was deformed), the tabla player was Hassan Tenuk, the guitarist was Pak Long Ibrahim and the gambus player was Salleh Tempang. The singers were Zainurin Mohd. Dom and his wife Asiah and Rosiah Chick.
Later when Atan Buntal passed away, his place was replaced by the legendary Ahmad Jusoh better known as Mat Godek. When Salleh Tempang the gambus player passed away, his place was taken over by Fadil of the ‘Dia Datang’ fame.
During my time, the Ghazal group would perform only during weddings and some other special functions. Without a Ghazal in a Muar Malay wedding, the atmosphere would be quite dull as Muarian Malays term it as ‘macam tak cukup sifat’.
They will normally begin when the guest starts to arrive and before the arrival of the groom. They will normally play the Ghazal while sitting and when the groom arrives,the most suitable song will be ‘Dia Datang’. It is a very lively song and many modern singers today have recorded this song according to their own style. Our prominent female singer Dato’ Siti Nurhalizah has one in her collections.
The scene will become more lively as the night grows and will last as late as one o’clock in the morning. While playing their instruments, they will drink au kau (guniesse stout) to keep them awake.
The most famous songs of my time were ‘Pak Ngah Balek’ by Zainurin Mohd. Dom, ‘Sri Mersing’ by Rosiah Chick and other songs like ‘Gunung Banang’ and ‘Puteri Gunung Ledang’
The Johor State Government has done a wonderful job in preserving the Ghazal through the Badan Warisan Johor. If you attend a Malay wedding in Muar town, you will surely be entertained with a Ghazal performance.
Where are we today if not because of the past? I will always treasure my past, particularly from the past where I grew in a small town called Muar.