“Hey, how you doin’?”, squeaked a voice from behind me as I turned a corner on a random stroll through Jonker street.
“Me?”, I asked the lady who posed the query.
“Doing fine. How’re you?”
“It’s a hot day. You wanna try some sweets?”
If it was India, I would have moved on but since I was in Melaka, I was curious to know what she was selling. It was a tiny little shop with a couple of chairs put up outside and boxes of sweets piled all over the place. The woman who called me out and ran the shop was dressed in a bright red floral skirt and had layers of plastic surgery and make-up on her face to cover the wrinkles and her age.
“I knew you like sweets because you’re from India,” she said.
“How do you know I’m from India? I could also be Malay or Pakistani.”
“Because you carry your bag on one shoulder. Malay would never do that because he know he would get robbed by bikers. Anyway, come sit. Taste some of this.”
She opened a large enamel bowl filled with a thick, gooey, jelly-like substance, carefully ran a spoon in to pluck the smallest amount possible and gave me what was easily the tiniest portion of a dessert I’ve ever been offered. It tasted mildly sweet, a bit eggy, with a hint of saltiness. It was weird but as soon as I was done consuming it, I hankered for more.
“How do you like it?”, she asked.
“Interesting, although I’ll need to taste some more to know if I want to buy it.”
“Some more? It’s expensive, lah. One spoon 30 dollars. A full box 2000 dollars. You have money?”
“Never mind then. What is it anyway?”
“It’s called Bird’s Nest, one of the most expensive delicacy from China.”
“Oh, interesting. What’s it made of?”
I wish I hadn’t asked because what I heard had the effect of making me want to throw up right away.
“Bird saliva”, she said casually, like it was the most normal thing in the world. “Take it to your family, lah. It’s precious and rare. You don’t get it in India.”
“It’s too expensive”, I said.
“Only 50$ for this one box. Not expensive. It’s diluted.”
“I don’t have that kind of money and I don’t plan to be in India for a few months. How do they get the saliva anyway? Someone stands under trees while the birds spit?”
“No, lah”, she said, laughing, “We have a factory where birds make nests. I can take you if you want.”
“I think I’m okay not seeing that. Is there any place nearby where you get a good dessert that doesn’t cost 2000$ and isn’t made of bird saliva?”
“You want to eat dessert?”, she asked, looking at me as if it was the most ridiculous notion in the world.
“Yeah, dessert would be good.”
“Give me a minute”, she said and then hollered at a fat kid who was playing a couple of blocks away. She gave him some instructions in Chinese and then turned to me and said, ”Okay, let’s go.”
She took me to a place called Jonker 88, a claustrophobic cafe set in an old Chinese shophouse. The atmosphere was remarkably old-fashioned with quaint pictures of old Melaka and Chinese artwork adorning the walls, shelves packed with ornamental trinkets, little Chinese dolls and toys stacked on a mirrored gallery and a few wooden stools and tables packed close in a tiny space. It was packed to the gills with people slurping laksa bowls and cooling themselves off with icy desserts.
We had to wait in a queue to place our orders and when Yue Xi, for that was the name of the Bird’s Nest lady, saw that the Australian couple in front of us was taking an inordinately long time to decide, she took matters into her own hands and told them she could order for them if they wished. Bowled over by her confidence, they relented. Xi invited them to eat with us and when they agreed, she ordered four different things in super quick time. The people making our dessert were equally quick as big globs of ice were shoved into a machine to be shaved and then transferred onto bowls where they added the ingredients as per our orders.
We carried our four large bowls of cendol, Malaysia’s favorite dessert, to the only vacant table we could find, right below large red and blue frames of Mandarin calligraphy. Cendol is essentially shaved ice, gula melaka (a local variety of palm sugar), santan (coconut milk), a sprinkling of flavoured syrups and sometimes green rice noodles and durian. I thought the durian version was too sweet but there was one bowl with peanuts and jelly and an assortments of tangy syrups that was absolutely fantastic.
I learnt a few things about Yue Xi from the conversation the Australians had with her. They had been to China the previous year and wondered if she too came from China. She did, but her family left the country during the volatile period in the 60s to take refuge in the town of Ipoh in Malaysia. She had a tough childhood when her parents worked around the clock, working in a tin mining factory during the day and selling noodles in the market at night. But they pulled through and eventually moved to Melaka when one of her cousins had the enterprising idea of harvesting swiftlets for the much sought-after birds-nest delicacies in China. She then went on to explain the entire laborious process of extracting the raw material and processing it to make it ready for consumption, information that I could have done without because it made even the amazing cendol bowls on the table feel unappetizing.
Just as I was stopping the cynic in me from wondering if this entire conversation was a marketing pitch, Yue Xi snapped in her trademark squeaky tone, “I can take you to see the factory if you want. And then you can come to my shop and see if you want to buy some to take home.” The Australians sounded very excited by the idea and said they would love to go. She looked at me sardonically and asked, “You still don’t wanna go?” I was absolutely sure, I said.