Long before food trucks became hip and Western, food trucks in KL were mostly all about pisang goreng, rojak, nasi lemak and tau foo fah. Here, we get to know some of the faces behind KL's original food trucks.
If the prospect of an icy bowl of cendol on a hot afternoon is so deeply entrenched in our culture, it’s no wonder this mobile operation in Taman Bahagia is still thriving after 30 years of business. Run by 54-year-old Ayub, the truck buzzes on weekends, attracting long queues of parched PJ residents. The novelty factor of Ayub’s location is the convenience of park tables and benches beneath the shade of trees. One can choose to eat in the park within the company of sparrows, or stand around and chat with Ayub and his always-enthused business partner, Kamal.
The business was founded in the early ’80s by Ayub’s uncle, who then passed the torch to his nephew before returning to India. Back in the day, Ayub witnessed his uncle ride a motorbike around the neighbourhood, promoting cendol at 35 cents a pop. But even after years of hard work, Ayub is cautiously modest when his rojak is complimented. ‘Buat rojak senang saja. Kacang, biskut, gula, cili, itu saja la. Lagi nak taruh apa?’ Both Ayub and Kamal are believers of the ‘power of the hand’. ‘Kalau mak masak memang sedap. Tapi kalau mak cik buat, mesti ada different kan? Tapi resepi sama. Macam tu la story dia,’ Kamal chimes in.
The rojak here may not be remarkably different from other versions you’d typically get from a truck, but freshness can be accounted for by the duo. Ayub begins preparations as early as 5am, starting with a market run followed by many rounds of batter-dipping and deep-frying. The cendol too, handled by Kamal, is made using sago flour and freshly extracted pandan juice, essential ingredients sometimes omitted altogether by most cendol sellers who buy the stuff ready-made from the markets, or who resort to synthetic food colouring. The cendol must achieve a balance of tenderness and chewiness, and Kamal claims experience has taught them well. And if the stream of regular customers is anything to go by, he isn’t wrong.
The motorcycle as a business transport mode may be dying, but Lee Yeok Choi, a dedicated kuih vendor, is oblivious to it. For the last 40 years, the man has been operating in the same spot outside Nam Chuan Coffee Shop. And the moment he sets up at 3pm, the crowds flock. There’s a sense of familiarity for those who buy from Yeok Choi; they know exactly what they want, and light banter is often thrown about. And for a two-hour period, Yeok Choi is continually pleasant and obliging, all while wrapping kuih in newspaper with great speed.
But according to his 20-year-old nephew who occasionally comes around to help run the business, his uncle’s greatest gift is his alertness: ‘Wherever you stand or come from, he knows who came first.’ It matters when running a business like Yeok Choi’s as his various kuih fly off the trays faster than you can say ‘pulut’. It’s likely the person in front of you will buy off the last of the seri muka, or the kuih sago, even if you’ve been eyeing them from the moment you arrive. Almost always, Yeok Choi returns home with clean trays.
A day in his life begins with a 5am trip to Chow Kit’s or Old Klang Road’s wet market, followed by a kuih-making session at home facilitated by his wife. The intricacies of Malay and Nyonya kuih take great amounts of patience and precision, and in this case, no number of KitchenAids or Thermomixes can come to aid. The results are as visually stunning as they are delicious; favourites include steamed yellow tapioca cake, kuih talam, kuih koci santan, pulut tai tai tinged with bunga kantan from Yeok Choi’s own backyard, yam cakes topped with dried prawn and salted vegetables. ‘Our kuih is not so sweet. Factory kuih not nice because only sweet taste,’ Yeok Choi says.
Soon, Bangsar residents may have to resort to driving further out for good kuih. Yeok Choi’s tender age of 68 is contributing to frequent leg pains, which may halt or end the business by year-end if he sees no improvement. From his younger days of helping his father sell kuih in Kampar to running his own business for decades, the show will eventually end for him.
There are long lines, and there’s the line at Nasi Lemak Kak Sanah. The 15-year-old operation gets so popular on weekends that fans with less patience have fought about who gets served first. This prompted owner Azmi to introduce a numbering system, and much like a bank, the lines don’t get as unruly.
While fighting over nasi lemak might seem excessive, there’s some legitimacy to the irresistibility of the truck. ‘Kita ada daging, ada kerang, ada sotong, ayam ada tiga jenis. Ada paru, ada meehoon, mee goreng dengan macam-macam variety kuih,’ Azmi says. While Azmi handles the operational side of things, his wife Hasanah toils over large woks and pots at their home in Shah Alam. ‘The mastermind is actually wife saya,’ Azmi beams. ‘I bukan puji kerana dia wife saya tapi dia buat apa pun, memang sedap. Dia memang dahsyat.’
Prep work at home begins as early as 2.30am. There are more than 20 trays on display, some of which hold ingredients that require tedious chopping, others that require long hours on the hob. But it’s exactly this perseverance that helped Azmi and Hasanah to buy land, two houses, a car, and to see their four sons off to tertiary education.
Even if businesses don’t come more honest than Azmi’s, the folks at MBPJ may not agree. ‘Lesen berniaga tak dapat. I minta tiga kali tapi memang tak dapat,’ Azmi laments. The regulations require a mobile business to be at least 25 feet from the street. ‘Tapi you tengok, semua orang yang ada stall macam ni, semua di tepi jalan,’ he reasons. Alas, Azmi still wraps rice with some vigilance – just in case the siren call of the law comes his way.
‘Pisang goreng’ or ‘goreng pisang’? The triviality of semantics is thrown out the window when faced with a crisp, fresh-from-the-oil batch of banana fritters supervised by 57-year-old Madam Ong. The pisang, of the more premium raja species, shrivels slightly when dropped in oil and forms a gooey, caramel-like centre. The batter is light, evenly crisp and shimmering in goldenness. There is no sign of the dreaded sheen of oil that coats the palate; just crisp batter against sweet, gooey banana. It’s science made delicious.
Madam Ong, a pisang goreng celebrity of sorts, has had decades of practice in the industry, beginning from a humble business on an umbrella-protected tricycle in Taman Megah before moving to a larger capacity truck in SS2. In the early ’90s, all food operations had to switch to trucks for sake of ‘beautification’, as imposed by the local municipal council.
It all began as a means to an end for her children, but in the early days, business took time to pick up. ‘Last time, my mother used to make only 20 or 30 ringgit in one day,’ Madam Ong’s daughter, Wong Lee Shian, says. ‘She would pray her children don’t fall sick.’ Lee Shian has been helping her mother since she was six, and compared to the ’80s, their days are not as long.
With older food operators, what strikes as admirable is their ability to do the same thing over and over again for decades. There is beauty in routine, as opposed to the requisite of evolvement and change drilled into younger minds. ‘With our parents’ generation, it’s normal to do the same job for 30 years, but for our generation, if it’s more than three years, we say “I need to change job already”’, adds Lee Shian. That being said, there are scores of regulars who are glad that Madam Ong didn’t change hers after three years.