March 06 2005

Bakar ... and the good things in life

UP the slope, towards Lintang Permai in Brown Gardens, Penang, one of the side lanes leads to a row of low-cost double-storey houses built in the early 1970s.

By Kalimullah Hassan

On some evenings, at the end of that road, bordering the upscale Minden Heights, cars and motorcycles are double-parked in front of the second-last house, and if width permitted, there would be triple and quadruple parking.
Oblivious to the hangama (thatís Hindustani for a chaotic and noisy situation) caused by him, an old man, in his 70s, focuses on doing what he has done best for the better part of half a century ó cooking probably the best mee mamak (Indian noodles) in the country.
The people are queuing up to buy mee rebus or mee goreng and they do not mind waiting, really. Because Mamak Bakar, the old man, is an artist of sorts, and no matter how long the wait, it is always worthwhile because the mee is really good.
Itís excellent. Furthermore, they do not know when old man Bakar is going to sell his mee again.
When he was younger, Bakar used to run his stall at the confluence of main roads at the beginning of Jalan Permai, in front of the childrenís playground, a very visible spot for any one entering Brown Gardens.
That is where, in 1983, my wife first introduced me to Mee Bakar, (Bakarís noodles) as the gourmands of local fare knew it.
But just a few years later, Bakar decided that he was too old to run the business. His children were grown up and working and with no one to help him, save his equally ageing wife, Bakar retired.
But people kept turning up at his house, pestering him. For the last decade or so, Bakar has been obliging his loyal fans, cooking now and then, when he feels like it.
And when he does, word gets around and people come from near and afar.
People phone him to find out if he would be selling his mee that evening (he starts about 6.30pm) and if he is, they make sure they are there early.
Bakar does not take telephone orders for that would be unfair to those waiting in front of his house.
He may sell his noodles every evening for weeks, or he may sell twice a week, or, when the mood sets in, he will not sell for months.
For those outstation people "in the know", they say it is like striking a lottery when they chance upon Bakar preparing his noodles when they visit the island.
Last Saturday, my friend Patrick and I went to Penang for a dinner.
We reached Penang at about 6pm and I told Patrick that we should have some good food before we faced the dreary hotel fare at the dinner. I had Bakar in mind, of course.
And there he was. Our lottery came in.
For Patrick, it was his first time and he could not understand why we had to wait 45 minutes to get our first bowl.
"That good, ah?" We had to wait because someone was ahead of us and had ordered 10 packets for takeaway and Bakar, like I mentioned earlier, is an artist.
He cooks each serving one at a time, meticulously measuring out each ingredient and adding the right amount of peanut and squid sauces, rather than cook four or five servings together
But when the noodles came (we ordered two plates each, one mee goreng and one mee rebus), Patrick was silent until he chewed the last taugeh and slurped the last bit of sauce.
As is typical of a Kuala Lumpur businessman, his first question was: "Why doesnít he franchise it or sell it in a place where there is critical mass? He will make more money."
A reasonable question that many would ask, but those who know Bakar would look at people like Patrick with a smile.
First, Patrick assumes that Bakar would want more money; just like all the people we know who are always on the edge, looking for new opportunities, new projects and "unique" ways of creating wealth.
If it is not the dot-com craze, then itís an unregulated business or a monopoly.
Even those who have more than enough to last several generations do not seem satisfied and slavishly burn the candle at both ends for the sake of money, and more money.
Second, it was only natural for Patrick and many others to assume that Bakar could, if he wanted to, move to a better house than that low-cost unit and buy a better car than the 1980s Proton Saga in the driveway.
But the fact is that Bakar came to this country as a child, from India, long before Independence and worked long hours almost every day of his life.
And never in his wildest dreams would he have thought that he would one day own a car, a house and have children who would have a good education and earn enough to move out of the clutches of poverty that he lived through.
Bakar is, to answer Patrickís queries in one word, contented.
I have asked many people I know, including some of the most successful businessmen in the country, when will enough be enough? None can give a good answer.
For Bakar, that low-cost house is probably already too big, now that the children have their own homes and families.
And when his kids come in their Hyundais and Hondas, they have to park outside, alarms set against burglary and theft.
Selling Mee Bakar is now a pastime, to occupy the hours and to keep loyal and new customers happy.
To all intents and purposes, Bakar is a happy man. He looks perfectly healthy, does not wear the perpetual frown of the worrier and, most of all, does not seem to care too much that he does not wear the latest white gold Daytona on his wrist or has a Cayenne parked in his driveway.
That night, at the official dinner at the Equatorial Hotel, which I rate as one of the friendliest hotels in Penang, Patrick and I almost regretted having had the two plates of noodles.
The guest of honour was Penang-boy Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop, the Second Finance Minister, whose penchant for the simple pleasures in life, like roti Bengali, nasi lemak and nasi kandar, are well known to his friends.
The main courses were dalcha (dhal with mutton, brinjals and potatoes), fish curry, fried chicken in thick soya sauce and large helpings of roti Bengali, piping hot and fresh from the ovens of Patchee Bakery, an offshoot of the famous Ismalia Bakery.
It was the first time all of us at our table had the pleasure of such a meal at a five-star hotel.
For the food fiends among us, even that was not enough and late night, after all was over, many descended on the 24-hour restaurants, running into each other at Line Clear Nasi Kandar (opposite the old Odeon Cinema), Chowrasta Market, off Penang Road, and to the nasi kandar stall next to the Kapitan Kling Mosque in Pitt Street.
One thing that we noticed at the dinner at the Equatorial was how the guests derived such pleasure at breaking pieces of roti Bengali, dipping them into the dalcha, and wiping every smudge of gravy off their plates.
They were all doing it, from Governor Tun Abdul Rahman Abbas to Chief Minister Tan Sri Koh Tsu Koon to the younger guests at the tables.
It only goes to show that for a good life, you do not need a costly chandelier hanging over the dining table with the finest German cutlery and crystals on hand.
A plastic tumbler full of water and trusty fingers will do just as well, thank you.
I try to imagine myself reaching Bakarís age, provided the nasi kandar does not get me by then. Would I be content with good health, good children, a little house with a little garden, a small but reliable car in the driveway and enough money for a little trip to Phuket or Bali with my wife now and then?
Or, maybe, the question that should be put to those who enjoyed their food so much that night is whether they would be willing to give up a lifetime of good nasi kandar and Swatow Lane ice kacang for the X5?
Not much of a choice, really.
Give me the ice kacang and the nasi kandar.
The X5s and Daytonas are perks but the good things in life, like Bakar knows, need not be expensive for which you donít have to take part in the rat race.

Parent site: "The World At Your Fingertips"