Waking up at the break of dawn in my hometown during the fifties was truly a breath of fresh air. The silent atmosphere would be broken by the crows of roosters throughout every housing area. These roosters were our natural wake-up calls, there wasn’t any need for alarm clocks. The call of azan from the town mosque would follow suit with its smoothing melody from afar reminding Muslims to serve God as a gratitude to the Almighty for another blessed day. Sometime the sound of the soft windy wind pushing every tree branches swaying gracefully to its tune would be added to enhance the splendored serenity. As the sun began to rise at the eastern horizon, and as every household would rise to begin another day, there could be heard the voices of hope, the voices to earn a living and the voices to bring cheers to those in waiting. These voices were those from the nasi lemak sellers.
As early as 6.30am, these nasi lemak sellers would begin their daily routine passing through every housing area carrying their rattan baskets full of hot nasi lemak wrapped with banana leaves. Each had their own way of wooing customers, crying out loud with a big hope, a hope to continue living, a hope to keep their kitchen at home alive and a determination to be able to get good education.
They were once a part of my hometown’s traditions, a culture that had taught many the harmony of living. Waking up without hearing these voices simply meant that you had overslept and had missed the opportunity of observing a culture that had survived and preserved since more than a hundred years ago. Today, you can hardly hear any more of these voices passing by your housing area as early as 6.30am and you can never ever hear again in the future. But I am still living to share with you of those moments when hearing the voices of these nasi lemak sellers would bring cheers to fill an empty stomach during breakfast time.
Literally nasi lemak means fatty rice but it is taken in this context to mean ‘rich in’ or ‘creamy’. The name is derived from the cooking process whereby rice is soaked with coconut cream before being cooked or sometime steamed. Traditionally, nasi lemak is served with sambal ikan bilis (spicy sauce mixed with small anchovies), boiled egg cut into half and a few slices of cucumber. It will then be wrapped using the banana leaves which will add to the authentic taste and aroma of nasi lemak. But today’s nasi lemak has undergone many changes with few other varieties of side dishes.
During the days when I was growing, nasi lemak was sold with only the sambal ikan bilis as the main side dish and must be wrapped with banana leaves. The price then was ten cents per packet and a few years later to twenty cents. It was sold only during breakfast and sometime the unsold packets would be extended till lunch. We never had nasi lemak for dinner.
Nasi Lemak selllers of my time were mostly young boys, aged between twelve to sixteen years old. Most of them were school children who would attend school in the afternoon. They would normally wear a baju melayu (traditional Malay dress) and a songkok (headgear). There were some who had no shoes or slippers on, so you can imagine how poor some of these nasi lemak sellers were. They would normally begin their round between 6.30am to 7.00am and would cry out with the words…nasi lemak, nasi lemak accompanied with a common melody amongst them. I can still remember that pensive melody sounded with a tinge of sadness. I can’t express into words the flow how that melancholic, heart-breaking melody sounded. When two or three nasi lemak sellers neared your house, you could hear their competitive tones reaching a crescendo in their effort to sell their products. Sometime they would bring along other complementary products such as tepong bawang (puff stuffed with spicy meshed potato), apam (steam rich cake), etc.
Preparing the nasi lemak may take about an hour, therefore they had to wake up very early to prepare. Banana leaves were in abundance those days and these leaves must be washed before using it to wrap the nasi lemak. When they left their houses, the nasi lemak would be very hot and by the time we bought these for our breakfast, they were still hot. They could however last until evening.
One morning after the break of dawn, I was already at the tembok of our house immediately after having performed my dawn prayer. It was still dark but I could see some dim light afar at the eastern horizon. 6.30am in my hometown was so quiet except for some crows of few roosters from our own livestock and those from the neighbouring vicinity. The flickering dim street lights were still on and would only be off by 7.00am. Some lights coming from the neighbouring houses were on one after another. I was waiting for my usual nasi lemak seller as I had planned last night. One or two bicycles could be seen passing by maybe on their way to the wet market. The still of the morning was still dampened by the showering of dews and it was so cooling and fresh. Occasionally I could feel the morning wind passing by that made the morning even cooler. Then the melancholic melody of the nasi lemak sellers could be heard and became more audible by the minute.
As the day moved on, the day light however seemed to shy and as I looked up at the sky, it was so because the clouds above were thick and dark. I could now envisage that it would soon be raining. It was almost 6.45am when my usual nasi lemak seller reached the junction quite near my house and I immediately waved at him. The young boy walked faster after seeing my waving hand and was still crying out that melody that could break your heart. As he neared me, I could see a drop of rain over my shirt and it could well be raining heavily in a minute or two as the clouds above began to rumble. I bought six packets costing ten cents each with two for my immediate consumption. There were some tepong bawang costing five cents each and I bought five pieces. I paid him with a one dollar note and told him to keep the change. As I was about to enter my house, the rain began to pour and although it was just drizzling, it could well be followed by a heavy downpour.
The young boy began to run slowly towards the main road when I thought it would be good that he take a shelter at my house and to wait until the rain subsided. At first he refused my offer as he needed to sell the balance of what he had but the rain suddenly began to pour aggressively and there was no way he could find any shelter on the road. Then he came back running to my direction and I invited him into the house. Hassan (fictitious name) was twelve years old and went to the Sekolah Ismail School situated along Jalan Temenggong Ahmad, the same school I attended during my primary education. During this brief conversation we both had, Hassan lived with his mother and his two younger siblings. His father was killed in an accident while cycling to work. His mother was illiterate and could only do some errands to earn some money. To survive, his mother worked as a washerwoman for few households within the neighbourhood. He had two younger sisters who would sometime help their mother doing the washing to some of these houses.
The rain was still pouring heavily while both of us were sitting at a table inside the ground floor of our house. I offered him his own nasi lemak for breakfast which he refused as he had his quite early before leaving his house. While having my breakfast, I asked him few things about life as a nasi lemak seller. It was tough in the beginning but now he began to like it. He had found new friends while selling his products and most of his customers were good people irrespective of race. He had many Chinese and Indian customers some of whom would wait diligently for his arrival in the wee hours of the morning. I asked him whether his morning routine would affect his studies to which he answered with a positive no. But whether he liked it or not, he had to do it in order the family could move on.
Hassan would normally sell about thirty packets a day costing 20cents each. He would bring home six dollars and gave them to his mother who would do the necessary planning. Almost half of the proceeds would be used to buy ingredients for the next day’s production. The balance would be saved for school fees for the three siblings. At the end of every month they would have just enough to survive to keep on going.
Today nasi lemak has become a daily consumption for many Malaysians particularly during breakfast. In every state of this beloved country, there will surely be nasi lemak selling in every corner of food courts and even in five star hotels. The side dishes too have been added to attract customers.
As time moves on, more and more memories will be created. The longer the period we left behind, the more precious these memories will become. Now whenever I enjoy my indulgence of nasi lemak, those memories of the nasi lemak sellers of my time would display the wonderful and glory days when hearing their voices on the street where I lived would enliven my days. The past has given me so many precious memories and among them would surely be the nasi lemak sellers.