When I was young, I used to accompany my Wan (grandmother) to the market. We lived in a predominantly Chinese community, thus the first thing we would notice at the market is the Chinese prayer altar and the smell of incense intermixed with the smells of fresh appam made to order by the Indian auntie.
Certain times of the year, there will be a Chinese opera stage blocking the entrance to the market, and the whole place will be abuzz with Cantonese and Hokkien dialects, of actors running around in costume with their faces half made up, and runner boys zig-zagging among the crowd to run errands.
The market was a humble single-storey building with a zinc roof, and was divided into sections for poultry, meat, vegetables, seafood and spices. You could find all the typical market fare, with a gerai babi hidden at the side.
Each Raya, Wan would fuss over the amount of chicken she would need to make her famous nogori-pedaih-but-with-a-Penang-twist rendang. She was also particular about the santan: It must be from that particular stall at the Chinese market as the coconut was freshly grated daily. At the front of the market steps is where one gets unlimited choices of breakfast fare. From roti canai to muar chee, chee cheong fun to putu mayam, and nasi lemak from either the Chinese auntie or the Malay makcik – one is always spoiled for choice.
Sometimes, there would be peddlers selling frogs and snakes as indulgent delicacies to the adventurous gastro-enthusiasts. On those days, I would make a beeline to the provisions store located on the row of shophouses in front of the market and refuse to even enter the market steps. My Wan would have to be convinced by the apek manning the provision store that he would keep an eye on me while she does the shopping. I would make myself useful by ticking off the grocery list or getting provisions that we needed from the store. Other times, I would simple idle around and counted the colourful display of biscuits stacked in high tins at the storefront.
On days when I do take my Wan’s hand and helped her carry the initially-empty basket into market though, the scene that I greeted me was one of a wondrous buzz of activity. I vividly remember that at the poultry section, the chickens were marked with a yellow dye if they are not halal, but these chickens lay next to the halal ones.
The worker was Malay, but the stall was owned by a Chinese, hence the options. Next to this section, there were stalls selling spices such as chillies and other spices ground using a batu giling. The santan kelapa would be grated using an apparatus that’s hard to find nowadays, seen perhaps only as a sketch in Lat’s comics.
As I grew older, so did my Wan and there came the day when my Wan took my hand instead while I led her through the market to do our usual rounds. Later, I would cycle to the market alone, parking my bicycle next to the appam auntie and did the grocery shopping on my own.
I stopped going to the market completely once I entered boarding school, and my mum took over the family groceries duty. She preferred the market at the predominantly Malay neighbourhood in the next suburb, known as market orang kaya among locals, citing hygiene as the reason for her choice. – By Lyana Khairuddin