Dearly missing my street snacks of old

Three-wheeler hawker stall displayed
in the National Museum of Singapore
THE sound "Tock-tik-tik-tock" signalled the presence of a kway teow th'ng or soup noodles hawker.  The hawker and his assistant, usually his son, would play a little percussion instrument consisting of two short bamboo sticks to create sound as they peddled their freshly cooked noodles.

If you lived in the heart of Johor Baru some 40 years ago, you would be familiar with these mobile hawkers and the street food they served.

I was in the Food section of the Living Galleries in the National Museum of Singapore when I had this rush of memories harking back to the days when I lived with my grandparents at Jalan Ngee Heng.

Surrounded by a display of food-related artifacts from the 1950s to the 1970s complete with sound effects, I was transported back to those days when hawkers used three-wheeler stalls with a cycle seat or walked and manually steered their stalls.

Some hawkers, like the satay and mee rebus man, used a carrying pole across the shoulders, with a rattan basket or wooden box suspended from each end of the pole. It's a bittersweet realisation that these street traders are now a thing of the past and their stalls can can now only be seen inside a museum.  My consolation is the hope that these mobile hawkers may have passed on the recipes to their descendants who could still be serving those dishes today.

Ceramic bowls typically used by hawkers to serve noodles
In modern cities, street food is now served from stalls organised in hawker centres, food courts or from stalls in coffee shops.  For the younger generation, these are probably the only places where they learn to enjoy tasty street food. They will never hear the distinguishing tunes, calls, horns or bells from each hawker as he pushes his cart on the street to make his presence known.

Grandfather (Ah Kong)'s house at Jalan Ngee Heng was bordered by streets on three sides and hawkers' "signals" could be heard from afar.

As soon as we recognised which hawker was coming, my aunty, who enjoys such snacks, would quickly ask one of us children to stop the hawker for her. So anyone who was nearest to the windows upstairs would lean out and holler to the hawker.

I remember two of my aunty's favourite noodles because the hawkers would usually stop their push cart right in front of the house and sometimes, my aunty would send me out with a container to buy the noodles as a take-away.  By that time, other noodle fans in the neighbourhood would also flock around to place their orders. So it was best to buy take-away and when my aunty enjoyed her noodles, she would share a fish ball or a sliver of prawn with us.

Incidentally, a family member of one of these hawkers still serves my aunty's favourite noodles for breakfast today from the Melodies Gardens hawker centre here.

Two blocks down the road from Ah Kong's house, at the corner of Jalan Ngee Heng and Jalan Gereja, was a coffee shop with a mobile hawker parked in front so regularly that it was almost a fixture in the area. I had my first taste of Teochew char kway teow (stir-fried flat rice noodles in sweet dark sauce) from this hawker. We call him "action man" because he enjoyed performing to an avid audience as he deftly wielded his ladle, cracked the eggs and twirled the sauce bottles with such a flourish, just like a skilled bartender!

In fact, we were so familiar with him that we could even bring along our own eggs to stir-fry into our char kway teow for a lower price!

Mobile vendor on tricycle in Penang
If we spent an evening playing in the park at Istana Gardens, we usually ended the outing with a stroll along Lido beach. This would include an ice-cream treat and indulging in snacks from mobile hawkers parked there.
One of our favourite snacks was rojak petis, a fruit and vegetable salad tossed in spicy peanut sauce. The rojak was served wrapped in dried simpoh ayer leaves, a waterproof and biodegradable platter, and we would have as much fun spearing the fruit and vegetable pieces with wooden skewers as eating them.

Besides the ice-cream man, another favourite mobile hawker among children was the kacang puteh or peanut man. I remember the varieties of toasted nuts displayed at the back of the bicycle and must confess that I was often greedy for many of them!
The kindly kacang puteh man would wait patiently for me to make up my mind before he picked a paper cone created from old magazine pages and filled it to the brim. To this day, I can never figure out how the peanuts tasted so fresh and delicious even though they were sold from open bags and not air-tight containers. I was thrilled to buy freshly toasted peanuts from a street vendor in Bangalore, India, as they no longer around here. They may have retired or moved into hawker centres and food courts.

While most hotels and private events often feature hawker fare to give guests a taste of street food, it's just not the same.  Maybe this is the price of progress, but it's nice to reminisce about mobile hawkers of days gone by.

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 25 October 2010

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