to Penang for the first time only last July after spending time over the
years in Hong Kong, China and India, but mostly in Indonesia. Being a lover
of beaches I headed for Batu Feringgi on the north coast and settled at the
Parkroyal Hotel. In Indonesia the beaches at Kuta on Bali and Paragtritis
on Java have been ones I have always returned to.
But Batu Feringgi is no
surf beach. There are no rollers fresh from the Indian Ocean, just a slow
easy swell from around Muka Head that slides up onto the clean yellow-brown
sand, lets you know that its around and then sighs back. It is easy
to imagine the first European sailors drifting ashore on the gentle swells
to find fresh water and gazing up at the forested slopes that rise steeply
behind the foreshore.
Left or right from the
lawns outside the Parkroyal you can walk along the soft sand, wade in shallow
water, spend an hour sitting in the shade of tall casuarina trees watching
the fisherman mending nets or rest against the giant basalt rocks that guard
each end of the beach and see the ships in the channel slide in and out of
the haze on their way to Thailand just over the horizon. Admire the sleek
thoroughbred that its owner canters along the sand plying [illegally!]
for riders, enjoy the excitement of the para-sailers or the hesitant first-timers
on hired jet-skis. When it all becomes too frenetic retreat to the beach-side
bar and sip on an ice cold Tiger beer.
It took me about a day
to realize that there was something missing! No hawkers, no sarung sellers,
no kids hawking watches, jewellery, or introductions to their sister, or
their brother who sold funny cigarettes. Above all there was, never once,
that intrusive, insidious cry, Hello, you want massage?
Like all beaches the best
times are early morning or late evening; unless youre a committed sun
bather. These are the times when the locals reclaim the beach from the
Feringgi [foreigner in Portuguese] tourists and use it, as they
have for centuries, as a part of their culture.
In Bali it was the time
for funerals, in Batu Feringgi it was the time for the living! So in the
dawn or the fading evening light there was time to contemplate the day ahead
or to reflect on the experiences of another day on Pulau Pinang. Batu Feringgi,
the foreigner's rock is a beach for lovers and dreamers.
Wandering along the beach
one morning I saw what appeared to be a market. A typical low, galvanised
iron roofed building set back from the edge of the sand. In front were rows
of concrete bins, were they stalls? On closer inspection there were flat
wooden racks covered with what at, first appearance seemed to be pale pink
A skinny old man in shorts
and singlet greeted me from inside the shed. In my best Bahasa I returned
his greeting and then pointed to the coiled objects.
what are these? He beckoned me inside to where a loud diesel
engine thumped away turning a large flywheel attached to a mincer that two
men were feeding with shovels full of thick paste from wooden vats. A steady
stream of the fat pink worms were extruded from the mincer and then arranged
on mats for drying.
he said triumphantly, Belacan. So this was where that mysterious,
essential ingredient for Malaysian cuisine had its beginnings. Decaying shrimps,
sealed under plastic in big wooden vats, fermenting under a tin roof beside
the beach, slowly taking on the odours of dead seaweed, rotting fish, old
thongs, and sweaty arm-pits. It was like finding the Holy Grail!
At last one of the secrets
to creating real nonya cooking had been revealed to me. Terima kasih Pak,
Selamat belacan! Thank you Uncle, and good luck with the belacan. I thanked
him effusively and headed back to the hotel.
When I returned to Melbourne
I searched the shelves of our local Asian grocery outlet and carried home
in triumph a garish red, yellow and white block of genuine belacan, made
by Sim Seng Lee Belacan Factory, Batu Feringgi. Who can tell, it might have
been created from the same delicately coiled extrusions that first attracted
my attention. Under normal usage in an Australian household a block of belacan
will last for a very long time so this little treasure from Penang will evoke
fond memories for years to come.
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