People, Palate and Penang Hill

Ong Ke Shin

Food enhances appreciation of the identity of a locale, as people and landscapes of the designated environs form the core element of food production and consumption. Food also defines the inter-influencing constituent between the landscape, inhabitants, foodways, and palate.

This project attempts to understand the farmers’ palate by initiating a question to the farmers: “What do you eat?”. While the question is direct, replies are often convoluted. Each dish is often embedded with a farmer’s distinctive life story and sensual experience that evokes memories and sense of belonging, an attachment, and deep connection to this enthralling land they call home. An understanding of their palate provides a glimpse of what epitomises a farming community, a counterpoint to the rosy ‘farm to table’ catchphrase commonly embraced by many.

The project brings to light taro (keladi) dishes that the younger generation had no opportunity to savour. Albeit by showcasing taro cooking, family members could recall traditional values of “the good old days”, it nevertheless is an attempt to lead all to a journey. This journey explores the palate of farmers and hopefully leads us to discover their gritty reality, the verity of the intricate relationship between human – environment and the perplexity arising from creating a harmonious coexistence with nature. Ultimately I hope to deduce the interlocking relationship between consumers and the lives of the farmers on Penang Hill.

Aunty, what do you eat? Ah Ee, Lu Chiak Hamik? — Invariably, there would always be one or several dishes that bequeath indelible remembrance in our lives. Recalling a childhood savoury, Madam Pang speaks of a home-cooked dish – scrambled eggs with sayur manis (树菜).The vegetable was occasionally picked from a nearby jungle when her parents returned from rubber-tapping. Another dish was stir fried taro petiole (芋莖, ōo-huâinn) with dried shrimps: “Its edible, don’t throw them away!”. While they also bred pigs, they were meant to be sold at the Air Itam market. The animals were never consumed as the money earned was necessary to cover living expenses as times were tough.

As I accompanied Madam Pang to her farm, she concedes that she can no longer savour childhood dishes. The landscape has since changed; rubber trees, sayur manis, taro have all been replaced by roses, bananas, and ambarella fruits, catering to the demand of Air Itam wet market. It is the same for the vegetables they grow. Recalling her teenage memories: “As we walk down the hill with vegetables over my shoulder, my father repeatedly turning his head and asked, can you manage? and I replied, yes! Aiyo, this is life living on the mountain.”

Trekking along until we arrived before a huge groove of bamboo. “My late husband would harvest bamboo shoots yearly and I was tasked to process them. Oh! I shredded it and cooked with dried shrimp and black pepper, or using it for my curry salted fish(咖厘咸鱼骨)…”

Memories flow like a runaway train; by the bamboo grove, bamboo shoot dishes were divulged one after another. From her glee, I could not ascertain if this is due to her love for bamboo or recollections of the many sweet memories of harvesting bamboos with her late husband.

Her love for bamboo prompted me to suggest documenting bamboo shoots. Embracing the suggestion, she asks for my return during the bamboo shoot harvesting season which would fall in June the coming year. Anxious over the exhibition in February, she reluctantly agreed after being probed on the possibility of sourcing bamboo shoots elsewhere for the demonstration.

In spite of her agreement, I could not avoid noting her ambivalence. Upon realising my negligence of the intricate harmony between human, palate and nature, and nature’s cherished offerings to mankind during its given seasons. Upon reflection, I realised that it was irrational to document something that was out of season, and felt a sense of remorse that I suggested taking bamboo shoots outside of the area for which she had pride of place. Taro available all year-round would have to be in the centre stage instead.

The Obliterated Silver Taro (银芋, Gîn ōo) — Madam Chong is exceptionally affectionate when speaking of the silver taro (keladi lambuk) petiole. As she was peeling the outer skin of the petiole, she says “Since the old days, gîn ōo would mushroom into thickets. Those dwelling in the mountain, especially with many mouths to feed would source for food available in abundance, such as this gîn ōo.”

True to her testimony, the spongy petiole (芋茎, ōo huâinn) of silver taro cooked with chilli, coconut milk, shallots and other condiments could turn into a Nyonya delicacy, most pleasurable with a bowls of rice; the treat for many children growing on the farm.

Neighbouring farmers agree with her, as they too, yearn for the bygone taste saying: “it is near to impossible to source for silver yam nowadays, lands are cleared for cultivating other crops. Oh, how I miss ōo huâinn gulai, it is really something money can’t buy.”

Sumptuous and exceptional Pinang Taro (槟榔芋,pinang ōo)— In addition to silver taro, pinang taro is considered as exceptional as it could be harvested only after eight months of cultivation. In addition, the constant threat of wild boars made many farmers give up and instead cultivate chillis that fetch better pricing and demand and could be harvested after a short 3 months.

Pinang taro is essential for taro soup, most loved by Madam Ching’s husband of Hokkien descent; its fragrance and texture where crushed black peppers are added is most comforting when savoured on chilly year-end days. During annual harvesting, she would cautiously select baby taro springing from the mother taro for new planting. In this way, she tenderly guarded her family’s palate.

Remembrance by Heart — After witnessing her culinary skills, I was determined to obtain some petiole for my own cooking. As though reading my mind, Madam Chong cautioned me: “Don’t simply eat any taro you see anywhere, not all ōo-huâinn is edible. Don’t blame me if you gatai (experience an itchy throat) !”.

Only petioles from silver taro and Pinang taro varieties are safe for consumption. Silver taro leaves and stems appear white in colour while the core of Pinang taro’s leaves have a red dot. I resolve to keep her sharing in my heart. Her knowledge on taro, their stories and wisdom must be remembered and inherited before it is forgotten.

So, what is the farmers’ palate?

It would be ingenuous to think that one could catch a glimpse of the life and the palate of farmers through these two dishes. As an interviewee said: “Those in the comfort of air-conditioned room will not understand the plight of the farmer.” Though it may appear supercilious, I concur with this statement as it is evident that those who have never tasted taro petiole will never be delighted by its exquisite flavours. Perhaps the following rhyme may shed some light into the life of farmers.  

洞洞菜. 给你
Riddled Vegetable, Yours Truly.







第三,四段讲述第二代农夫, 第五,

Interpretation — The poem describes the lives and palates of three generations of farmers. Although the landscape has been reshaped from time to time, their appreciation of nature’s offering remains unchanged.

The first generation relied very much on rubber-tapping and pig-breeding. The latter they would sell at the wet market at the foot hill for income during the rainy season. It was the sweet leaf (Ma Ni Cai – 马尼菜 – sayur manis) picked from the nearby jungle that was the most precious delicacy in daily lives.

Although they had switched to bamboo harvesting and taro planting, the second generation still possessed the strong determination and humility of the previous generation. They offered the best to their buyers and cherished whatever had been given by nature; even simple ingredients such as the shredded bamboo shoots and taro petioles could be turned into the most delicious food, paired either with salted fish curry or dried shrimps.

No longer growing vegetables or raising livestock, the third generation now are beekeepers and rose gardeners. However, like their ancestors, they are still dedicated to giving their best to their buyers. Whatever the difficulties, whether planting roses or harvesting honey, they work hard to ensure the quality of the flowers and the precious honey.

The final verse is sympathetic towards the farmers. Just like nature’s kind offerings to mankind during its harvesting seasons, the farmers have given all the best to their buyers. It is something that may be little understood by those who work in the comfort of air-conditioned offices.

Note: The English interpretation of the “洞洞菜. 给你 // Riddled Vegetable, Yours Truly.” is written by Gan Chee Wee.

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