Most of us have childhood places that we think of with nostalgia. For us foodies nothing harkens happy hours like a market with produce and delicious stalls intermingled in a wonderful cacophony of scents and noises. Here's Charlie's ode to Section 14...
Love them before they all go away...
From the yellow sign of the stationery shop to the cartoon lion logo of the old Georgetown pharmacy. From the corner KFC to the corner McDonald's where I had my sixth birthday party. From the Metrojaya department store (with the mysterious stairs on the side of the building) to Jaya, now reduced to rubble. I hope you know I cried when they tore Jaya down. Not everyone starts visiting a neighbourhood mall from when their mothers were still pregnant with them. I have literally grown up with you, Section 14.
There's a certain kind of homesickness that I get. I don't even have to be out of the country. Being half an hour away from you is a little unbearable, to be honest. Jumping over the fence of my old primary school to get to you is so much easier than getting into a car and driving, even if I only have to drive for said half an hour. Oh, Section 14. Why did my family have to move so far away from you?
Thankfully you still host my favourite market and my favourite food court. Rarely a week goes by that I don't drop by the 46100 postal code to soothe my quarter-life soul with your food, which holds so many memories for me. I'm going to take a moment now and walk through your food halls, and taste and smell all you have to offer.
I usually stop at the breakfast food court first for a bowl of lontong. Everyone lines up at the lontong shop a few doors down, but my mother and I have always preferred Cek Nor's more homey dish. Nasi himpit, daging rendang, sambal sotong, a fried boiled egg, and that generous drench of sayur masak lemak. Breakfasts are elusive now that I don't rise as early as I used to, but for this bowl, I've left the house with morning rush hour traffic.
A bowl of morning sunniness
Then a short walk to the dry market, where my mother would always sit me down with the Aunty to clean ikan bilis while she checked things off our grocery list. This is the shop where I learned how to choose onions, just like how the fruit stall further down is where I learned how to choose apples and pears. To this day, the smell of ikan bilis makes me feel like I'm a six year old again, carefully stripping bones off the tiny dried fish, listening to the adults chatter around me.
Think of all the delicious things we can cook with these...
Down the stairs to the wet market now, arms laden with bags full of dry produce. There's Makcik Rahmah's stall. She retired a few years ago, but for my entire life, she would give me spare pocket money every time I came by, whether I was 5, 15 or 25. Her stall has been taken over by Raja, the sweet Indian man who always had a pregnant cat seeking refuge at his feet. "Bini kau mana, Raja?" is my mother's usual line, referring to his cats, and he would always reply "Dah ada bini baru lah, kak.." My mother would always ask Makcik Rahmah to keep an eye on me while she went over to the fishmonger (too wet), or to choose eggs (too fragile) or to the santan & kelapa parut stall (too dangerous, those grinders).
In the meantime, I would explore her stall, asking her the names of unfamiliar leaves and ulams. By the time my mother got back, I would beg her to buy the greens that I had yet to try so we could eat it at home. I learned how to love bayam merah, pucuk paku, ulam raja, sayur nangka; all through her stall. Then we would go to Uncle Sani's stall, who sold Indian ingredients - fresh ginger and turmeric, dried chillies, ground up pastes behind his counter mixed to order. Want a tasty korma? Uncle Sani's mix did the trick. Right about now my father would call my mother on the phone to ask her to pack some lunch home. So we would leave our shopping bags with Makcik Rahmah or Raja, and head on over to the regular food court.
There's the satay Kajang stall, a favourite of my father's, but it's much too early for it to be open. So that left us with... everything else. The Ipoh chicken rice stall so famous with my primary school friends that later in life, when they were back on holidays from studying overseas, would actually come by the food court first to tapau a few packets before they went home. Juicy chickens hung in the window, with the smell of bubbling chicken stock permeating the air within 10 feet of the stall.
Oh yeah... nothing like nasi padang for a hearty lunch
Today however, we felt like nasi padang, so we would make a stop a few stalls down. Pakcik Osman ran this stall until he died (and yes, I cried when I found out), and is now being helmed by his son Amran. Until now, his toothy grin greets any member of my family when he spots us from across the food court, not that we needed a reason to go to his stall for some fried ikan sembilang or dendeng with sambal ijo. If we felt like Chinese, we would go to Lum Kee. Two elderly brothers serving almost perfect bowls of clear noodle soup, assam laksa, curry mee and even Siamese laksa, redolent of a cham laksa from Penang. Delicious.
But if noodles are your thing, there's that too!
We'd round off the late morning with a sing-a-long. The blind man playing the keyboard outside the market has been there almost every day since I was a child. Singing old Malay classics and maybe an evergreen oldie or two, we would slip him a few notes before getting on our way.
The sellers here are wistful, missing the old glory days of Section 14. Not as many people come by anymore, especially to the markets. Most people these days seem to prefer the clinical vibe of the grocery store, instead of friendly interactions with the shop owners of their local market. With that, and their kids not keen on taking over their parents' businesses, they're not too optimistic about the prospects of this market in the future. Which makes me worry about you, my sweet love.
I leave a little bit of my heart here every time I drive away from you, Section 14. It's home. That's where my heart should be anyway.