Everything in Motion

There is an advantage to spending most morning meals on my own, whenever I head to the market.

I get to watch.

The privilege of being a conspicuous observer isn’t lost to me – it helps not having a pale, white face, a loud, booming voice, or a restless band of children orbiting me like little planets. I get to have a quiet meal, virtually uninterrupted.

But I allow myself the slightest bit of distraction anyway, and it’s hard not to do so – not when I’m sitting in the middle of a collection of hawker stalls that make the wet market more than just a welcome source for the day’s fresh stock of produce, or meat.

After all, everything appears to be in constant motion here.

The chattering of chopsticks being dried and rubbed altogether after a quick rinse. The stirring of silver spoons in tiny, porcelain cups of piping hot Kopi.

The silent whirring of electric ceiling fans, dissecting the direction of fluorescent light, casting ghostly shadows dancing upon the red dining tables.

The mystical wafting of smoke, escaping the ends of dangling cigarettes, casting a slow spell upon the air.

I watch the same white-haired men congregating around the same corner table, and I can’t help but imagine they’ve occupied the same, red plastic chairs, for years. Their banter is constant but unforced, as if they’ve been saying the same jokes they first told one another on the playgrounds of their elementary school. 

The hawker stall workers, employing their keen sense for when it’s appropriate to bus their own dishes and clean up after their customers. With one hand gathering back their empty plates and with two quick swoops of a wet cloth upon the table’s surface, you almost forget that they came by at all.

Time simply refuses to stand still at the market. But perhaps, only for me – affording me the pleasure of watching all the slow, quiet, order of things, unfold.

 

Fish Paste

Day 26, 500 words, 31 days.

It was a short list of things to get at the Lebuh Campbell wet market this morning – prawns, ‘Nian Gao’ – a chewy, glutinous rice cake, and fish paste. Shuli is preparing a meal to celebrate Chinese New Year, and chances are, getting these ingredients is going to be the bulk of my responsibility. I’m just going to take up precious real estate in the kitchen, so I took my job this morning quite seriously.

The first thing I realized upon arriving was that I had gotten there a little too late. It is after all a “morning market”, and 11:00 am is pushing it. I’ve never been to the market before so I wouldn’t really know what it looked like when it is actually busy. But when the market is half-empty and people are taking a nap inside, it’s not looking very promising.

I approached the man selling what looked like the closest thing to fish paste. He had these containers of different sauce-like ingredients. In my defense, they had a paste-y, spread-y sort of quality to them and it looked like my best bet, considering all the other options, which were none. I asked if he had fish paste and he pointed toward the street. I misread and thought he was pointing at his friend right behind him. I asked her, and as I should have known, she pointed toward the street.

Things weren’t looking good. I went over the shrimp guy, the only one still working in the market, and I didn’t even know how to order prawns. I couldn’t remember what measurement for weight they used here in Penang, and even if I did, I didn’t know how much I needed to get. He made things easy for me though, and said he was out of prawns.

Which threw me off, because I was looking at the prawns as I was standing there.

He must have meant that they were no good. Or that they were done selling – which maybe meant the ones before me didn’t make the cut. The reject pile of prawns. If so, then he was doing me a favor. He offered me a box of frozen prawns instead, but I politely declined.

I went out on the street, looking for whatever vendors were still selling. First vendor at the corner had some shrimp. 30 ringgit for a kilo, which looked a little too much for what Shuli needed them for (spring rolls), so I went for half the amount at half the price. One down.

Two stalls down, I found the “Nian Gao”. Three-fifty ringgit for one; they were quite large, so I got six. Two down.

The fish paste was another story. I went up and down the street looking for a little container with some grey, mushy-looking material inside. That’s all I had to go on. Unfortunately for me, however, no one on the street had any idea what I was asking for.

“Fish paste?”, I kept repeating, desperately. “Do you know if anyone has ‘fish paste’?”, like it was the end of the world and to survive, I needed some extra Omega-3 to go with a sandwich.

I got creative. “‘Ikan’…spread…? You know…” followed by the most ambiguous hand motions I could’ve come up with. My hand looked like I was in the middle of an impassioned speech, imploring these vendors for a most precious paste of fish.

No luck. I found a glimmer of hope at one stall that looked similar to the one inside the market, with the funky sauces. I asked again for fish paste, hoping they had a secret stash in the van, or something. To my delight, they said they did, and the vendor lady asked if I wanted it sour or Indian-style. Hoping not to be offensive, I asked for “sour” and the guy with her proceeded to scoop out a little bit of everything from each container. It dawned upon me quickly, that this wasn’t at all what I was looking for. Then she asked me if I knew how to cook it – though she smiled in a way to say she already knew the answer. She told me I needed to fry it, with oil.

That cost me 1 ringgit.

I felt defeated, so I spent another ringgit. On my favorite grass jelly drink some guy up the street was selling out of his cart. He served it to me in a glass – and I felt like a weary cowboy, seeking some shade from the hot sun and a cold drink at a bar. I figured it didn’t hurt to ask one more person if he knew where I could get fish paste, so I asked the grass jelly guy after I chugged the glass.

Of course, he hardly had any idea what I was asking, and naturally, I too, could barely make out what he was telling me. But I appreciated the effort, and I couldn’t blame him for at least trying.

But hey, two out of three ain’t bad. Shuli will just have to improvise, and I trust her more with that, than I do, myself getting fish paste.