Heritage in a Bowl of Bubur Kacang

loading At the corner of Jalan Dato Koyah and Jalan Penang is a stall selling sweet, delicious bubur.

Four generations of bubur kacang makers have perfected this age-old recipe.

In 1945, at the corner of Jalan Dato Koyah, Nagore Merrah set up shop selling teh tarik. Nagore hailed from Kadayanallur, South India, and he started off labouring hard in cargo ships during pre-independence Malaya before moving on to sell the nation’s favourite beverage, using a metal kettle just like they did in India.

His stall was next to another that sold bubur, a sweet porridge made from beans, pulut hitam (black glutinous rice), or wheat, cooked with coconut milk and brown and white sugar. “After having saved up enough, my grandfather bought over the stall and started selling bubur too,” says Abdul Kader, Nagore’s grandson, a third generation Kambli.1

Abdul Kader.

Hajamydin, Nagore’s son, took over the business from his brother. Since Hajamydin spent most of his time at the stall, he made it a rule that all his children had to help him after school. “It was just his way of parenting – he was able to keep watch over us, and at the same time operate his business. Even if we were not helping, we had to stay in his line of sight. We even played football here by the roadside! We were not allowed to wander around, and I later did the same with my children too,” Abdul Kader says.

According to Abdul Kader, bubur was originally a South Indian dessert, which followed an authentic age-old recipe that hasn’t changed over the generations. (However, there is a slight difference in the taste due to the quality of the ingredients and the change of cooks.)

In the past, people’s buying power was very low, and eating out was rare. “Our business depended on pedestrians, trishaw pullers and people who worked in the surrounding areas. This building next to us used to be a press office. They had a lot of staff, and some of them are still our loyal customers. Although we were selling the bubur at 10-15 cents per bowl, it was still unaffordable to some. There were days when we had to throw away a whole pot of bubur because we couldn’t finish selling it,” recalls Abdul Kader.

On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, bubur kacang hijau (mung bean porridge) is sold; on Wednesdays, bubur pulut hitam; on Fridays, bubur gandum (wheat porridge). Bubur kacang hijau is their specialty, served with plain glutinous rice for a thick and flavourful taste.

Abdul Kader and his younger brother took over the stall from their father. His brother would do the preparations and the cooking, while Abdul Kader helped out after work. (He had a job at the Public Works Department.) In 2014 his brother suddenly passed away from a heart attack. “We had to stop selling for almost a year because I did not know how to cook any of the bubur at all. Even though my wife and sister-in-law were able to cook, there was no one to manage the stall because I was working, and my sons and nephews were either working or still studying.”

Three years ago, Abdul Kader’s eldest son, Khairudin, decided to quit his job and take over the business. Continuing Nagore’s tradition, only one type of bubur is sold each day. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, bubur kacang hijau (mung bean porridge) is sold; on Wednesdays, bubur pulut hitam; on Fridays, bubur gandum (wheat porridge). Bubur kacang hijau is their specialty, served with plain glutinous rice for a thick and flavourful taste. “Our customers are familiar with the daily menu, and each bubur has its regulars. I try my best to make it taste as close as possible to my great-grandfather’s bubur,” says Khairudin, who relies on his memory to cook. (He learned the recipes from his late grandfather and uncle when he was helping out at the stall.)

Bubur kacang with glutinous rice.

Khairudin sells about 600 bowls of bubur a day, with business peaking just when office hours have ended. The bubur goes for as low as RM1.40 a bowl – thanks to a policy set by Hajamydin: “We had to increase the price from RM1.00 to RM1.40 because of the rising cost of ingredients, and while we know that our customers would still buy from us if I further raised the price, I will stick to what my father told me: do not make eating a burden,” says Abdul Kader. “At the end of the day, it’s the blessings and sincerity that count, not the profits.”

A Labour of Love

It is backbreaking work, making the bubur – from purchasing the ingredients to preparing seven whopping kilogrammes of beans.

The family has been purchasing their ingredients from a shop at Jalan Hutton since Nagore’s days, but that shop has since closed and these days, Khairudin gets the ingredients from several shops in Little India.

Khairudin starts preparing and cooking at 11am in his house in Bayan Baru, wrapping up by two in the afternoon. He then transports the bubur to town. “We used to live near Jalan Hutton; the traffic was lighter back then, which made it convenient to push the cart around,” says Abdul Kader.

A big pot of bubur needs roughly one and a half hours to cook, depending on the quality of the beans. These days, however, Khairudin is unhappy with the inconsistent bean quality: there are times when he gets kacang mati (“uncookable” beans), which results in a wasted pot of bubur.

And there are times when business is slow: the locality, which was once surrounded by offices and businesses, has seen better days. But, thanks in part to the internet, Khairudin’s bubur is sometimes sold in a matter of two to three hours, leaving many customers disappointed.

Khairudin with his cousin.

Father and son are hesitant about expanding the business or relocating, as the stall has been at the same spot for 73 years. Besides, enjoying a sweet snack by the roadside – a pleasant reprieve from the heat – is part of our culture, says Abdul Kader.

Many old stalls have not survived the years, and many more have uncertain futures. Khairudin is the fourth generation Kambli to continue the bubur business. His siblings and cousins are either busy with their work or are too young, and they only help out at the stall during their free time. While it is not clear who the business will be passed down to, Abdul Kader is grateful that Khairudin is continuing the legacy for now.

1Kambli is an Indian Muslim surname (or family name).

Noorhasyilah Rosli is a publication graduate who is fascinated by books. She is an island girl who loves her beaches and hills.

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