“Long before I see or smell my familiar friend, I hear it coming. It begins faintly from a few alleys over — a jaunty, treble knock fumbling through the haze of twilight. Tok. Tok. Tok...”
And then... silence. “And I’d be like ‘Nooo, who’s buying eight packets today!” wails Gerald Tan, flinging his hands up in the air with a dramatic flourish before breaking into a hearty chuckle. “Because you know when you don’t hear any noise, he’s making it. And when there’s a long pause... well... someone’s buying a lot!”
The dapper TV presenter, reporter, food writer and now author of the delightful tome, Tok Tok Mee — A Portrait of Penang Street Food, is revelling in his childhood memories, peeling away at the years as he reminisces a time when street vendors trawled the back alleys of neighbourhoods on foot or bicycle with their wares. Just next to him is the book’s editor, publisher and Tan’s childhood friend, Alan Lau, listening intently, nodding every so often at familiar episodes in their shared history.
The ‘tok tok’ sound that had become music to his ears as a child growing up in the neighbourhood of College Square (Medan Maktab) is that of the percus¬sive beat of bamboo reed flicking against bamboo stem.
Remembers Tan: “I lived in a terrace house whose kitch¬en looked out onto a back lane where the longkang (drain) was. And that’s where the housewives would come out to gossip in the morning. This was also the time when the vegetable sellers and food peddlers would come. My favourite was always the Tok Tok Mee man.”
Smiling, he adds: “I’d hear him com¬ing from far away. And I still remember the sense of anticipation as I waited by the windowsill before dashing out to the back alley and lying in wait for him.”
This particular vendor sold fresh egg noodles with dumplings, a Cantonese staple, explains Tan. “But I never knew the name of the man who sold me my favourite childhood supper. Nor do I remember when he stopped coming.”
But it was an eventuality that was inevitable as hawkers began to settle into permanent locations. “Over time, street by street, the ‘tok tok’ calling cards of the wonton noodle vendors grew fainter, until one day they fell silent and vanished from the island,” writes Tan, in the book’s poign¬ant prologue.
Tok Tok Mee, a loving homage to the author’s hometown, serves as a portrait of Penang’s vibrant dining culture; one that has inculcated Tan’s love and appreciation for food from a young age.
The book, says the proud Peranakan, invites everyone to discover and rediscover the myriad flavours that Penangites take pride in. “But most of all, it’s a personal homage to the street vendors who have fed generations of my family and friends, and become an insepara¬ble part of our lives.”
Preserving a legacy
Sad as it may be but the days of the old guards are becom¬ing numbered, laments Tan, who left Penang for the US as a teenager and has spent more than half of his life abroad, working as a journalist at NBC, Al Jazeera and CNN, and stationed in places like Doha, Wash¬ington and even Kuala Lumpur.
However, he makes frequent trips home (his parents are here) and without fail, makes those pilgrimages to the food stalls he grew up frequenting “... paying a visit to the ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ who used to serve him coconut milk crepes, soya-bathed vermicelli and heady prawn stews since infancy...”
Adding, Tan, who started his career as a political journalist before becoming a food journalist (he presented Al Jazeera’s AJ Eats), points out that some of the custodians have either retired or passed on; with some never getting the chance to pass on their skills to their next generation. There are also those who have tried but the young are not interested.
Unsurprisingly, shortcuts are pre¬ferred over laborious processes in today’s cut-throat business environment and as a result, machines and pre-packaged ingre¬dients have become de riguer. But at what expense, wails Tan before adding: “The charms of those cottage industries are definitely slipping away.”
It’s this very premise that triggered the idea for the book. Tan was on one of his visits home and happened to be reminiscing with his high school friend, Alan, about the food they used to enjoy, the places they frequented, and collectively lamenting how they’d probably never see them again one day.
“Then Alan suggested that I write a book,” recalls Tan.”I was enthusiastic about it because I wanted to capture everything before they truly disappear. This idea was triggered in 2015 and it was only in 2016 that I started doing all the research and got him to scout for locations. As the project took form, I brought on board my long-time col¬laborator and director of photography, Ben¬jamin Emery, whom I’ve known for 11 years.”
Lengthy discussions ensued between Lau and Tan and soon one thing became clear — Tan was adamant that the book wouldn’t be your run-of-the-mill cookery book with recipes to attempt. Instead, the people or ‘culinary artists’ would take centre stage.
Recalls the bubbly 37-year-old: “Three things came to the fore; that it should be about the food, about the food in its natu¬ral environment and of course, the people. That’s what’s important to me because street food is kind of cheap and dirty but GOOD. I want people, especially travellers coming through and have never experienced street food, to experience the authenticity. It’s really quite romantic!”
Continuing, Tan says: “Just imagine.. sitting under a tree and the breeze coming through. You’re watching the uncle making your food as you sit there on your plastic chair, your table with the plywood all ripped out, and holding mismatched cutleries... That’s THE experience!”
With a chuckle, he adds: “Do you know these people don’t have any set recipes? Everything is just agak-agak (guess work). Some of these street cooks have been doing the same thing all their lives. They start off as children helping their parents and at 75, they’re making the same wonton noodles. And the taste is the same! They stand there for 8 to 10 hours a day. There’s a commit¬ment but also behind that, is a skill, a craft. It’s something I could never master.
The making of the tome
Once it was decided that it was all systems go, the trio (including photographer Emery), embarked on a journey across the Pearl of the Orient, capturing the people, places and plates that make up the island’s rich and diverse cuisine.
“I was rediscovering Penang through Ben’s lens,” recalls Tan. “We initially went around for eight days, from 7am to 10pm, just eating, taking pictures and talking to the vendors. Alan had this whole schedule drawn up for us.”
Nodding, Lau, who had hitherto been a silent albeit attentive party to this animated session, chips in: “We emerged with a list of the food, beginning with all our favourite food first. We had 80 initially. And then we started trimming. Now there’s 42. So from the list of 40-something, we started identifying the ones that we thought would be interesting. Then we brought in our photographer.”
Continuing, the 33-year-old Lau, who founded his own bou¬tique publishing firm Trishaw Press because of this project, shares: “Coincidentally, many of the places that we wanted to feature were places that we grew up with so we were already famil¬iar with the people there.”
Nodding, Tan says: “Alan would send me screenshots of the places that he’d found and ask for my thoughts. I’d evaluate and then ask him to check the places out for lighting and so on.”
Meanwhile, Tan, tasked with the research side of the project, spent his time combing through history books and cookbooks and talking to ‘foodies’ so he could amass anec¬dotal evidence.
The trio spent about 14 days over the course of one year visiting various Penang street food vendors for this project — gath¬ering information, conducting interviews, taking pictures, and of course, the best part, eating! The days were long and by the end of it all, 20,000 images were accu-mulated.
Chuckling, Tan shares: “It took months to sift through them and select the ones we wanted. There was like 90 pictures of the same ice kacang, and then another 38 pictures of the ice being shaved! Ben would have a series of 400 pictures of just one dish sometimes! There were days when we’d be out there for 10 hours because he wasn’t satisfied with what he had. Other days it could be just 10 minutes and it’d be a wrap.”
Did the team face any challenges? Tan shakes his head slowly, replying: “Well, you have to remember that we were actually ‘working’ in these people’s space. It’s like you’re trying to engage them in a conversa¬tion and they’re trying to fry noodles! But all in all, they were very receptive and happy to share their stories.”
In fact, adds Tan, many of the older ven¬dors were quite tickled by Ben’s antics as he valiantly attempted to capture his shots. “Ben’s the type to do anything to get THAT shot. So there’d be times when the uncle or aunty would be cooking and you’d have Ben sprawled on the floor taking their pictures every which way. And they’d be howling with laughter. I mean it’s not everyday that you see an Orang Putih (white man) getting really dirty!”
PRIDE OF PENANG
Mention Penang and food comes to mind. But what makes Penang food, and indeed, the food scene so special, I wonder aloud. It’s a question that delights Tan as he launches into a long list. Ask him to con¬dense and he chuckles, but not before dis¬pelling a long sigh that translates to ‘Where do I even begin!’
“I think it might be the abundance and proximity of it all,” replies Tan. “Food is available everywhere. There could be a stall just outside your house, next to the longkang (drains), or under a tree. And then you might have three stalls suddenly deciding to group together in some little park and before you know it, there’ll be tables spilling over and you end up with a makeshift foodcourt! There’s something quite charming about that. It’s like it (the food scene) has devel-oped its own culture.”
Nodding wholeheartedly, Lau adds: “We Penangites love planning our meals way in advance. We could be having breakfast but already be discussing where we’re going to have our supper! Conversations tend to centre on food — where’s the next food, who opened a new stall, which one is bet¬ter. Because Penang is so small, you can’t get away with serving up bad food because everyone will get to know about it. If you’re bad, it won’t be long before you’re out of business. So that makes the food scene very competitive.”
Much as I’m enjoying our tete-a-tete, I can’t keep the affable author much longer. I recall Lau mentioning at the beginning of the interview that the jetsettingTan has a plane to catch straight after our session to... Penang!
So any last words, I lob, as Tan takes a final swig of his coffee. Around us, the lunchtime crowd in the local Starbucks is already swelling to a boisterous number. A pause again before Tan replies: “Doing this book and visiting all these people really made me ponder about how Penang can continue to maintain its charm while trying to modernise sustainably.”
Adding, he says: “I see all these heritage cafes sprouting up everywhere. In fact, one comes to mind — a former gold¬smiths’ place converted into a coffee shop/ bar/boutique hotel. There’s all these old equipment scattered around the place. It’s cool. It speaks to the bourgeois crowd. But you know what? It’s about as authentic as this mug of coffee that I’m drinking!”
TOK TOK MEE — A PORTRAIT OF PENANG STREET FOOD
BY Gerald Tan
PUBLISHED BY Trishaw Press