Photo: Indira Tjokorda/Unsplash
A food cart | 1,200 words | Translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Lise Isles
I glance at the clock on the wall, anxious. Already it’s almost seven pm, but I’m yet to hear that ‘tok-tok’ sound coming from the edge of the housing complex. Even though I’m famished.
‘If you really can’t wait, just order online. Or walk out and buy some out on the main road’, says my mother. She’s visibly annoyed from seeing me waiting like this for the roving nasi goreng seller, as if I’m pining for the arrival of some boyfriend who will never show up.
I give a wide grin while shaking my head. To go out to the row of shops… I can’t be bothered. If ordering online, the delivery fee’s too much. But more than both things, the cooking of the guy who moves around these streets hawking nasi goreng can’t be rivalled. Utterly delicious. And affordable. And the best part: I can watch the cooking process in comfort from right in front of my own house.
10 minutes pass. Then faintly-faintly I hear the noise of a small piece of bamboo being beaten against a wooden plank. What did I tell you! Of course he’s coming!
As if I’ve heard an alarm sound, I rise up and run out to the front terrace of our house.
I can see the roving hawker walking along and pushing his wooden cart ahead of him, moving right through the middle of our complex. As he gets closer, I straightaway open our gate and wave my hand. The cart – mostly white-coloured, with a dash of light blue – comes to a stop. The man, who always wears a baseball cap, welcomes me with a big grin.
‘The usual yeah, Bang. One fried kway teow, spicy, extra vegetables’. Although this man’s main offering is nasi goreng, I almost always order the kway teow noodles, as they’re my favourite.
‘You got it, Mbak’. I go closer to the rear of the wooden cart. Standing like that, next to the young food-hawker, I can see everything that sits behind the frosted glass pane that spans one side of the cart.
The man starts to act. He prepares the round wok: both the wok itself and its handle are made of steel. He pours in oil and mixes in the usual spices, then finely-chopped garlic, soy sauce, salt, and then Indonesian sweet soy sauce. Not done, he grabs an egg and smashes it on the edge of the wok. It’s put in the mix together with the vegetables, choy sum and white cabbage. I hear a ‘nyyesss’ sound as everything starts to cook evenly in there. Oh the fragrant aroma of that mixture of soy sauce and garlic, rising up from this simple cart.
The smell takes me back to the past. Long ago, I loved to buy snacks from these sort of roving food carts every night. That habit got broken with the arrival of online food ordering. And then these last three years with the pandemic. Roving food-carts going back and forth in our complex are almost not seen anymore.
At least right now, I think I am right in saying, this is the one-and-only nasi goreng food-cart that still roves around close by our house. The cart doesn’t have an oil-lamp as per my childhood memories, maybe because kerosene isn’t easily found anymore. This young man who is hawking is relying only on reflected light from the lamps on our house’s terrace, plus the dim street-lights.
But he’s agile as he places two handfuls of kway teow noodles in the heated-up wok. It’s obvious he’s memorized precisely where in his cart sits the rice, the noodles, the eggs, and all of the spices.
Out-of-the-blue I’m compelled to ask him something, seeing that I’m currently his only customer. Usually there’ll be some motorbike driver who’ll stop and order as well.
‘How come you still rove around rather than stay in the one place, Mas? Are you really not tired, is it really not heavy, pushing around this big wooden cart?’ I glance at the three kilogram gas cylinder, the plastic bucket filled with water, and the pile of plates hidden in the shelving in the bottom section of the cart.
‘Hahaha – what can you do, Mbak? If you want to rent a place, it’s not cheap. And, I’m already used to this, so I don’t usually feel very tired’.
‘Wow: impressive. I often hear the tok-tok of your cart, Mas, from out the back of my place at about 10 at night. What time do you sell until?’
Now he smiles. Maybe he didn’t suspect that I paid him such close attention. I’ll admit that I’m really quite curious. I’ve already become a regular at his cart for around half a year, more than enough time for me to work out that he passes by every 7pm and 10pm. The ‘tok-tok’ sound is very distinctive.
‘Yep, so I hoof about from 7 to 10 o’clock around the Regensi housing development, from around here up to the other end over there’. He points in the direction of some new construction on the complex’s edge. ‘Sometimes as well I’ll go over to the Garden City housing development. After that I’ll hang around in front of the shophouses there. Close to the Al-Mustaqim Mosque if you know it, Mbak, on the edge of the main road there’. He stops a minute, adjusts the stove setting and flame, then continues. ‘Until about 2am, more or less’.
I’m rather astonished. When I am sound asleep, this young hawker is still standing behind this cart, awaiting customers who are feeling peckish in the middle of the night to come and buy from him.
‘Wow. You ever had a supernatural encounter, Mas? I mean, you’re hawking through the dead of night’. There’s a feeling of curiosity pushing me on.
‘I’ve been to that housing complex on the road to the market, Mbak. Over there, in the middle of the night, I had a customer who bought from me, but who had a cow’s head’.
The stove is turned off. The rasp of insects from a water channel across the way can now be heard more and more clearly, followed by a distant meowing sound. The night breeze, which earlier was refreshing, is now making the back of my neck cold. It’s like everything is turning into a backdrop for the hawker to tell stories.
He takes some brown-coloured greaseproof paper to wrap the kway teow, which is ready to be served. After adding some acar, or pickled vegetables, on the side and sprinkling some fried shallots, he talks again. ‘And that’s not the only thing to happen. I’ve met snakes while hawking. You have to understand that this housing complex used to be swampland’.
‘You’re not scared?’
The guy wraps up my order quickly, and grabs a handtowel to clean up some bits of vegetables that have fallen out and are scattered on the flat surface of the cart. ‘When I had just started to hawk like this, yep, I was scared. Scared to meet up with those sorts of things, but as more and more time goes on I’m more and more okay with it all. I just think of it all as an experience’. He hands over to me the wrapped-up order of kway teow, complete with prawn crackers.
‘So here’s 14,000 rupiah, exactly’, I say.
I’m regretting a little that my kway teow has already been cooked. Even though I find I have lots of questions. Ah, but no problem, there will be other evenings, I think. As if he knows what I’m thinking, suddenly the man says:
‘Thankyou, Mbak. I should let you know that this is the last day I’m hawking. Tomorrow I’m going back home to Madura. For quite a while, about a month’.
‘Oh: I’ll miss your kway teow goreng, Mas’, I say. ‘When you come back, sell vermicelli noodles as well, can you?’ I adopt a joking tone to convey this.
‘Huh, that’s a bit hard, Mbak, it’s not so often that people want vermicelli. But if you request it, I’ll get it specially’.
He and I chuckle, and I tell him finally that he doesn’t need to go to any trouble. He nods politely, and makes to move. I watch him move off, until he stops again at one of my neighbors’ houses. An old man has come out of his house and is holding up a finger to indicate ‘one’. So he stops his cart to begin again the routine of cooking and selling.
Suddenly more little questions rise up in my mind. Does he have annoying experiences with customers? How does he manage if there’s rain? I give a smile. In the future I’ll perhaps not only await fried noodles from this cart, but also stories.
‘Vero, are you daydreaming? Let’s go: you and the kway teow come inside.’ My mother calling from the living room brings me back to earth, and I close our gate and enter the house again.
I open the packets of fried kway teow. Hot steam rises, bringing with it an aroma that makes my stomach rumble. One portion is big enough for the two of us. We can share, and enjoy together.
© Veronica Gabriella
English translation © Lise Isles