Grandpa and grandma were very quiet people and they seldom talked especially grandpa. We need to ask him a question to make him talk otherwise he would be very silent. My uncles and aunties would always talk to grandma first before getting whatever messages they had wanted to relay to grandpa. In spite of him being a very quiet man, all my cousins were very scared of him and they would always avoid passing in front of him. If he disliked something that you have done, he would just utter “no common sense” whenever he saw you but he would only say it once. I mean he would really say “no common sense” in proper English.
Much as I can remember, grandpa’ s younger siblings have great respect for him. I remember once when his younger brother we called Tok Ajis wanted to pay him a visit. Tok Ajis would send a messenger first a day before the visit and when grandpa gave the approval only then Tok Ajis would come. Before Tok Ajis arrived the next day, grandpa was fully dressed with his Baju Melayu Johor complete with the ‘kain sampin’ ‘butang kancing’ and a songkok. When Tok Ajis arrived, he was likewise fully dressed just like grandpa and both brothers would talk with courtesy to each other. Grandma would only join in when requested, otherwise she would be doing something away from the place where the two brothers talked. When Tok Ajis left, grandpa would relate to grandma what their conversation was all about.
That’s how discipline people of the older generation was.
One morning, I saw both grandpa and grandma sitting together and discussing something and that was extraordinary because they seldom did that. So obviously I would join in to listen, I would always do that even when not invited. From their conversation, it was very obvious that they wanted to invite some close relatives to the house and they were discussing what would be the best meal to serve. The last time they invited some close relatives for a feast, grandma cooked ‘botok botok’, a peculiar Johor dish of various edible leaves with good nutritional values and ‘ikan tenggiri’ with a special ‘rempah’. The fish will be stuffed with these leaves and wrapped with some bigger leaves and will be steam until cooked.
This time they decided to make Laksa Johor and I ‘d better tell my three ‘sisters’. Off I ran as fast as I could looking for them. “Encik nak buat laksa lah”, (Grandma is going to make laksa) I shouted to my three ‘sisters’ as I saw them playing at the front portion of our house. My cousins referred grandma as ‘Encik’ and grandpa as ‘Encik Jantan’. They were all very excited because it was quite sometime when we last had laksa Johor for our meal.
Laksa is quite common among Malays, in fact by all Malaysians. There are varieties of laksa such as the ‘Laksa Penang’, ‘Laksa Sarawak’, Laksa Terengganu and ‘Laksa Kelantan’. Johoreans too have their own version obviously known as ‘Laksa Johor’.
‘Laksa Johor’ during my younger days were made of rice flour (beras tepung) instead of today’s spaghetti. The rice flour will be boiled and having done so, it will be mashed. The mashed boiled rice will then be placed inside an oblong container made of brass (tembaga). We called this in Malay as ‘Kebok’. At the bottom of the ‘kebok’ are few small holes while the top is hollow. Inside the ‘kebok’ at the surface of the inner wall is a spiral design just like the one we use to fit in a screw driver. When the mashed boiled rice is put inside the ‘kebok’, it will be pressed by using its head which has the design of a screw driver as well. At the top of the head is a handle just like the handle of a tap but longer and also made of brass. The head need to be pressed and as it goes inside, you have to move the handle in circle and the rice will come out from the bottom holes like spaghetti and of course it is white in colour.
“When is Encik (grandma) going to make laksa?” asked Kak Fuzi. “This Friday, and she is going to invite many sedara (relatives) to eat”, I answered. We all shouted with great joy because we were going to have another ‘carnival’ because many sedara would be coming.
The next morning grandma again told me to look for a beca because she need to go the town market and of course with me along. She must look for ‘ikan parang’, taugeh (bean sprouts), daun kesom, onions, cucumbers, limau purut and the special rempah suitable to make the gravy. It was very early about 7.30am because she need to catch hold of the fishes because without the ‘ikan parang’ there would not be any Laksa Johor. Most old folks of my time insisted of making laksa using the ‘ikan parang’, nothing less.
As usual I managed to get a beca within five minutes and we both sat onto the beca heading our way towards the town market. It was a Friday morning and a weekend for Johoreans. We passed the government building which was empty and very quiet, then we passed the Tangga Batu where the ferry service was being operated. It was not as busy as the weekdays but the two boats were fully used bringing the people from the northern side of Muar town to spend their weekends in Muar town of Bandar Maharani. Finally we reached the town market and grandma paid the beca man seventy cents.
It was a wet market and many people were already doing their bargaining. Grandma headed straight to the area where the fishes were sold. In the late fifties fishes were very cheap while chicken on the other hand was more expensive. However, ‘ikan parang’ was quite seasonal and we don’t really get this everyday. There were about five or six fishmongers but grandma went straight to one particular guy and said,”Towkay, semalam saya punya suami ada jumpa awak suruh simpang ikan parang” (Towkay, yesterday my husband met you and requested you to look for ikan parang). “Ya, ada ada” (Yes yes), answered the fishmonger and he showed grandma a number of big ‘ikan parang’. She bought five ‘ikan parang’ as many sedara would be coming for the laksa. Then she went looking for the other ingredients which were available in abundance.
Back home, our maid-servant Mak Yang, Mak Wor (grandma’s adopted woman) and Mak Chu were busy at the kitchen. Mak Wor was from Indonesia and came to Malaya with few others as a ‘slave’. She must be adopted first before she could find a job in any family she was given to and it was grandma who decided to adopt her. Since then, Mak Wor became a part of our family until her death of old age.
The rice must first be crushed and eventually turned into something like flour. To crush the rice, a huge round stone was used to put these rice and it would be crushed with an equally big round stone. Then we need to put some water onto the rice and while being crushed the watery rice would be poured into a container and that was how we got the ‘tepung beras’. Malays of my time called this process as ‘kisar beras’. This operation was conducted by both Mak Yang and Mak Wor.
In the meantime, grandpa began preparing the ‘kebok’ to produce the laksa. In most cases, Wak Jis would be grandpa’s assistant. The ‘kebok’ must be placed on a strong metal pole and underneath would be the ‘bekas’ (container) where the laksa would be placed.
Grandma had just finished her marketing and it was almost 9.00am. We then walked towards the main road to look for a beca but along the way I saw a ‘toy car’ hanging at one of the stalls and so I demanded grandma to buy me the toy which she obliged. I was grinning and could not wait to show my toy to my three ‘sisters’. As usual on the way home, we stopped at my mother’s graveyard and after grandma had done some cleaning at my mother’s tomb, we headed for home.
When we reached home, a number of our women sedara had arrived and they would be assisting at the kitchen. Timah Keling and Che Chah came all the way from Parit Bakar to give their auntie (grandma) some helping hands. It was time to prepare the necessary ingredients. As for me, I was busy showing-off my toy car to my three ‘sisters’ and I would let them play with my toy.
The five ‘ikan parang’ would be boiled and once it was done, the bones would be removed leaving only the flesh. ‘Ikan Parang’ is very boney and to remove the bones is a tedious job and need proper attention and care. Mak Yang and Mak Wor were given the assignment and they did it meticulously. While they were removing the bones, Mak Yang related to Mak Wor of the sad ending of a story she heard in one of the drama programs over the radio. When Mak Wor noticed Mak Yang was about to cry she consoled her and Mak Yang was back to herself.
Next was to cut the leaves of ‘daun kesum’ to small pieces and for this job Timah Keling and Che Chah volunteered. Grandma peeled the skin layers of the cucumbers and later have them cut to small pieces. In the meantime, the ‘kebok’ was already in place ready to produce the laksa and Wak Jis was eager to do the job.
While everyone was busy with their respective jobs, Mak Wor noticed Mak Yang while doing something was seen wiping her tears and so she approached to console her again. “Sudahlah Yang, itu kan cerita aje, bukannya cerita betul” (Please stop the crying, it is only a story, not a true story), Mak Wor said to Mak Yang. Then Mak Yang looked at Mak Wor smilingly and said, “Bukan saya menangis, potong bawang ni pedih buat mata saya berair” (I wasn’t cry, cutting these onions make my eyes watery), and Mak Wor was relieved.
By 12.00pm, most of the sedara had arrived and grandma had started to cook the gravy. The flesh of the ‘ikan parang’ was mixed with the special ‘rempah’ and coconut milk. If it was observed to be too thick then grandma would add a little bit of water and minutes later the aroma began to fill the air. In the meantime, the taugeh (bean sprouts) were washed and left to dry.
Grandpa and Wak Jis began to make the laksa. Wak Jis stuffed the mashed rice flour into the ‘kebok’ and grandpa began to wind the tap in circle and the laksa came out from the holes at the bottom of the ‘kebok’ while Wak Jis monitored the movement of the laksa into the ‘bekas’ (container).
My great grandmother Tok Jilah and her cousin Tok Enggor (my grandma from my father’s side) arrived and they joined some womenfolk sitting at the ambin. They chewed some sireh (beetle leaves) and began their conversation while waiting for the laksa to be served. At the staircase, my three ‘sisters’ and me were busy playing with my new toy car.
When the production of the laksa ended, grandma began to portion them into one helping and normally they could produce about fifty to sixty helpings. One helping is known as ‘satu chap’ in the Malay language (see photograph above).
By 1.00pm, almost everything was ready and both Mak Yang and Mak Wor began to prepare the dining table. The laksa was placed on a big plate, the gravy was hot and so inviting, the cut cucumbers, the daun kesum, the onions and the fresh taugeh were likewise placed on the long table and not forgetting the ‘sambal lada’ Everyone had their eyes at the table and I was first to catch hold of my first helping followed by my three ‘sisters’.
Tok Jilah was given the honour to be served first and the rest began to flock at the table. Each helping would be mixed with the cut cucumbers, onions, daun kesom, taugeh and the gravy would be added and finally a scoop of the ‘sambal lada’.
Not many of us know that eating laksa Johor is normally with our hands, not by using the fork and spoon, just like eating our rice. That is where you can get that ‘finger licking good’ taste of the lovely Laksa Johor.
Everyone had at least two helpings and enjoyed eating them with their hands. Mak Yang had three helpings and later sat at one corner massaging her bulging stomach and controlling her eye lids but she made sure that she would not sleep because last week’s drama would be continued this afternoon and the story was beginning to be more exciting and if she fall asleep, she would be grumpy the whole day.