I was in Kangar, Perlis recently in search of a story about Peninsula Malaysia’s version of the annual harvest celebrations called the East Wind Festival.
Initially, I had planned on doing everything by foot. But after checking in to the hotel, which was quite far from town or any restaurant, I had no choice but to rent a car.
That sorted, I began searching for places to eat in the smallest northern state in the country. One particular dish that caught my attention was roti doll, a signature dish from neighbouring state Kedah made up of sunny-side up egg on top of a roti canai ladled with generous amounts of dhal curry and sambal.
The location given by a blog I visited was vague. All I knew was to head to a village called Kampung Titi Tok Bandar, about five kilometres away from my hotel. I figured since the village seemed small on the map, I could simply keep an eye out for the eatery. Easy.
Boy, was I wrong!
I got into the village, but the search for the roti doll eatery was hopeless. As I kept driving, the single-lane tarmac began to get narrower and the surface slowly shifted to sharp gravel.
The last time I went through the same ordeal was during a search for the elusive Sungai Rengat in Jerantut, Pahang using a sedan passing through an Orang Asli settlement and oil palm plantations on gravel roads only fit for trucks.
Only difference then was that I had my travel buddies. Here in Kangar, I was alone.
On the bright side, I was surrounded by a stunning scenery of clear skies, vast paddy fields and rolling hills at every turn.
After about 15 minutes into the slow-paced drive, I saw a man casting a couple of small nets at the edge of a canal.
Not something you see every day. So, I stopped and asked what he was doing.
As it turned out, he was catching a type of shrimp the locals call udang padang.
“This is quite a rare catch so I can make a little profit while waiting for the next planting season in April,” said Md Noor Mahmud.
The 69-year-old farmer said this was one of the many odd-jobs local farmers would take on during the harvest season as well as the dry spell. Using bamboos and mosquito nets, this traditional method, passed down for generations, saw farmers netting udang padang at canals when waters in the paddy fields began drying up.
Measured using sardine cans, a handful of such shrimps are priced at RM7.
Md Noor said each planting season takes about three months and 10 days. He rents 12 acres worth of paddy field from a relative.
“At my age, I have to hire some help and rent the heavy machines. So, by the end of the season, I hardly turn a profit,” he said.
“Even though the market price for rice has increased, operation costs somehow has risen, too.”
The father of two, who moved to Kampung Hutan Melintang, Kayang (yes, the roads took me to a different village) in 1972, said despite making a small profit, he doesn’t need to spend much because he grows enough food to feed his family.
“We plant all sorts of vegetables from chilies to curry leaves, we have a handful of chickens and ducks and if we need fish, I’ll just catch one in front of my home,” he said, adding he would take odd jobs like fixing roofs during off season.
“My children run a food stall at a school nearby and business has always been good. We live a simple life, so everything is enough.
When asked why he kept toiling in the fields only for a tiny profit, Md Noor said: “My wife have been doing this since we moved here in ’72. It’s the only thing we know.”
Md Noor then invited me to his home. His wife Ashah Saad, 69, had just finished feeding the chickens and ducks. With a bamboo walking stick in one hand, she slowly made her way towards us.
“This is what years of labour does to your knee,” she quipped.
After having a laugh at my navigation skills, Ashah shared her story.
“When we first moved here, my husband and I worked on people’s fields. There were no fancy tractors then, so I would cut the stalks while my husband threshed the rice manually,” she said.
Md Noor chimed in: “I was paid RM1.20 for every sack of rice weighing 100 kilogrammes. Since I had more energy then, I would work on filling six sacks daily.”
THAT’S 600 KILOGRAMMES A DAY!
The couple’s house is surrounded by a beautiful paddy field and as I was admiring the views, Ashah came out of the kitchen to serve us kopi o (coffee with sugar) and dried bread with sugar – for the uninitiated, this is THE perfect kampung snack pairing city folks never seem to be able to copy. The coffee was simply so perfect, I cried a little inside!
It was half an hour before noon. They gave me the directions to escape the narrow roads and a different restaurant that sold roti doll.
I thanked the heavens as the rented compact car and myself got out unscathed.
After the amazing encounter with such warm locals, my breakfast adventure couldn’t have tasted any better.
I was just out looking for food that I didn’t bring my notebook or camera. Yet, like the magical universe: I didn’t have to look for a story, the story found me.