A bowl of Laksa, a story
Laksa, a Singapore hawker food is as popular as the famous Hainanese chicken rice. First created by the local Babas (Straits born Chinese with indigenous Malay influence), this dish is inspired by their spicy palate and the abundant use of local fresh spices and coconut milk to produce a concoction of hot and spicy, sweet and savoury broth. Cooked with yellow noodles or rice noodles, there are also chicken meat, prawns, cockles, fish cakes and tofu puffs.
Laksa was also what my mother hawked in the 70’s. It was really hard work and long hours. My brother and I used to help peel and grind loads of onions (shallots) and garlic, serai (lemon grass), galangal (lengkuas), buah keras (candlenuts), kunyit basah (turmeric root), dry chilis etc. Those days, we blend by hand turning the hand bar with the grind fixed to a bench. The galangal can be very hard and a lot of strength was needed to turn the grind. So the poor boy often grumbled as he struggled with the creaky tool. When all these were ground, my mother would cook them in a huge kuali (Chinese wok) at the back of the coffee shop. She used to spend hours cooking the rempah over hot fire till they were dry and crispy. It would be well past midnight before she returned and my father would cook the broth for sale the next day.
Back then, my brother and I were in our teens and still schooling. We often help out in the stall after school, preparing garnishes like daun kesom (Bot Polygonum), shelling cockles, serving customers and washing dishes. Those days, we only charged 80 cents to a dollar for a big bowl of noodles in delicious Laksa gravy with fish cake, bean sprouts, tofu puffs, hard boiled eggs and cockles. For 20 cents more, my mother would add some prawns or fish balls. Our Laksa was good and it was the most popular item in the coffee shop. Business was brisk and before long, we had established a good reputation as one of the best Laksa stalls around.
Although we later employed a cook and dish washer, my mother still helmed the stove and prepared the Laksa rempah personally and we as children continued to help as much as possible. Even after I graduated from high school and entered the work force, I continued to help out at the stall, often in the early mornings before I leave for work. I remembered feeling embarrassed when my clothes stank from the smell of Laksa and cooked food as I jostled among other office workers on the bus. Sometimes, I even encountered people I do not know on the streets but who recognised me as the Laksa girl!
Although business was good, we did not persevere for long as ironically, it was so good that we could not cope. Dish washers did not stay long and those who stayed on only harboured ulterior motives of stealing trade secrets or recipes. My father could not help much as he was also employed full time. The rest of us children were either too young, still schooling or had just started to work like myself. My mother sometimes had to rope in my old grandfather to help out. Whenever I see him bent over a big tub of water laboriously washing dirty dishes, I felt so sorry for him. Many times too, we had customers who ate and left without paying. These are the same ones who often insisted on paying only after eating, but who just sneaked away when nobody was watching. These cheaters were heartless parasites who fed on the hard earnings of hawkers who toiled for an honest living. Today’s policy of paying first or COD (cash on delivery) is a good safeguard for hawkers.
As I cook my Laksa today using my mother’s recipe, I am flooded with memories of my teenage years helping out at the stall.