I came 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 it’s 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 you’re 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 dog turds!
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.
“Apa ini”, “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.
“Shrimp paste” 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.