Down and Out by the Arau River

banana sellerOn the bridge to the north of an old Padang hotel, a group of vendors sell early evening snacks of sweet corn and roast banana. The corn is grilled over charcoal until the tops of the kernels turn dusty black. Then the vendor hands the ear to her assistant (sous chef?) and she drenches it fast in a drying salt water and a whisk or two more of butter. The results are glorious and crunchy.

The roast banana is more complex, a less obvious affair. The banana (large, a green plantain more like) is heated over the coals and then fluttered round to a pancake. The lady (not trusting, perhaps, this next pas de deux to her sous) heaps the disk with coconut, sugar, chocolate sprinkles and shaved processed cheese.

The results hint at that eternally compelling pairing of sweet and savory while the texture doubles crunch with the mush of banana. Fold the remaining bites into a loose-knit burrito and pop it into your mouth, being sure to replace the colorful plastic plate on the vendor’s side table for the next lousy eager so-and-so wanting corn and banana and cheese and coconut and sugar, all at once and all of it alone or in this crowd or with someone they truly love and so can laugh at texture, taste, share this sunset, order more. Sure.

The bridge is heaving tonight with stall after stall of venders selling these same two snacks, over and over, up and down and out across to the other side of the Arau River and over on out the Indian Ocean.

I’m reading Down and Out in Paris and London, even though I’ll tell you I’m neither and neither and neither and nor. Here’s Orwell on snacks to go:

“A customer orders, for example, a piece of toast. Somebody, pressed with work in a cellar deep underground, has to prepare it. How can he stop and say to himself, ‘This toast is to be eaten—I must make it eatable’? All he knows is that it must look right and it must be ready in three minutes. Some large drops of sweat fall from his forehead onto the toast. Why should he worry? Presently the toast falls among the filthy sawdust on the floor. Why trouble to make a new piece? It is much quicker to wipe the sawdust off. On the way upstairs the toast falls again, butter-side down. Another wipe is all it needs. And so with everything. Everywhere in the service quarters dirt festered—a secret vein of dirt, running through the great garish hotel like the intestines through a man’s body.” (p. 72)

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