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Friday, April 24, 2015

Lempeng: A food for all seasons

Lempeng: A food for all seasons

By C S Wan

“Lempeng! "

“What is it?”

“It is a type of Malay pancake.”

“Where can I get it in Melaka?”

“There is one stall in Sungai Putat and you can also get it from one of the stalls at the food court in Limbongan.”

As I followed the dialogues that went back and forth across the screen of the cell phone, they triggered a memory; memory of my early childhood days during the Japanese Occupation.

Although the mental landscapes of those early years are mostly shrouded with the mist of oblivion, certain events in the later years of the Occupation still remain etched in my memory. I remember during those years of hardship and severe food shortage, the sweet potatoes and tapioca were our main source of sustenance. Using her culinary skill, mother would concoct various dishes from these versatile crops and the tapioca pancake ( lempeng ubi kayu ) was one of the regular dishes at our dinner table.
When the War finally ended, father resumed his work in the British Civil Service and once again we had ample food on the table. Occasionally, mother would prepare boiled tapioca, served with grated coconut or sambal tumis; or  prepare other delicacies made from tapioca. However, the tapioca lempeng was sadly missing from the table. Was mother trying to forget an incident during the War which had caused her much anguish and pain? *

* Refer to below link

A bag of memories

Later, when I read that some members of the our WhatsApp Group was planning a foodie trail in Melaka which would include lempeng on their food itinerary, I knew it was an opportunity for me to savour the long-forgotten taste of the lempeng.

The morning of 21st March 2015, found my wife and I and my ex-colleague, Peter and his wife, at a car park near the Limbongan food court. As we made our way towards the food court, we noticed two of our ex-colleagues, Jee and Teo were already busy making preparation for the expected invasion.

As we threaded our way through the maze of the still unoccupied tables and chairs, in the dim glow of a kitchen, I could see the stall proprietor busy flipping and pressing lempeng on a  hotplate with the aid of a spatula.

Sini, ada jual lempeng ubi kayu? Do you sell tapioca pancake? " I asked the lady proprietor.

Sekarang susah hendak dapat ubi empuk, sekarang kita hanya guna tepung gandum.” “Nowadays, it is difficult to get good tapioca, nowadays we just use wheat flour, " she replied.

We were promptly seated at a table and as others drifted in I noticed our group consisting of ex-students and ex-teachers of St. David's High School ( SDHS), Melaka had occupied most of the seats in front of the lempeng stall.

 We were soon engaged in sharing our experiences, oblivious to our colours, castes, creeds, gender and wealth and discerning observers would have noticed we were conversing in English. It was not surprising that all the students could speak fluent English as they were from a different era _ an era when English was the medium of instruction at SDHS.  

A waitress approached the table where I was seated and began to take our orders. We were told that we could have a choice of plain lempeng, onion lempeng, or coconut lempeng.

While waiting for the lempeng to be prepared, we strained our ears, as we listened to two of our ex-students recounting their experiences on their survival exercise during their stints in the army.

“Hungry and thirsty, we came upon a field of sugar canes. As we ploughed through the sea of sugar canes, the tranquility of the morning was filled with the sound that resembled the snapping of dry twigs. The sound had attracted the attention of an elderly couple who came running out of a house, shouting and pleading with us not to destroy their newly grown crop. However, their shouts were unheard; their pleas unheeded.”

Our survival course was held in Kota Belud. After trekking for miles we were hungry and exhausted when we stumbled on a remote farm house. While a few of us distracted the attention of the house owner, others helped themselves to whatever food they could find including mouldy kuih bakul and eggs.”

As I listened to the two of them sharing their experiences, I knew that  ethics and hygiene have sometimes to be abandoned when we are gripped by hunger pangs, and a simple meal can taste heavenly. 

From the nearby tables the muffled sound of  animated conversation and bursts of laughter reached our ears. They were testimony that the other participants too were  enjoying themselves, and there existed a lively camaraderie among all the participants. 

Our lempeng finally arrived and as I cut the onion lempeng with the edge of a spoon and dipped a piece into the curry gravy, in my mind's eyes I saw once again the tapioca lempeng of my childhood days and its half-remembered taste.

While slowly savouring the flavour of my onion lempeng, I felt so thankful that we were able to chat and eat our lempeng in a relax and tranquil environment,without having to eat hurriedly in a climate of uncertainty and fear. 

In good or in bad times, we can always rely on the lempeng to either delight our taste buds or just fill our empty stomachs. 

The lempeng is a food for all seasons, but the choice of lempeng and the season when we wish to partake it,are left to us. Hopefully, we will all make the right choice.

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1 comment:

  1. How food can evoke memories, bitter or sweet! Truly, tis a blessing to savour a delicacy in times of peace and contentment, a single layer of tapioca goodness, rich with layers of our family experience.