THE new villages dotting the country are a treasure trove of hidden gems. In the case of Kampung Baru Sempalit in Raub, Pahang, we’re talking about curry chicken and peanuts.
Amid the battered shoplots on the main street, one eatery stands out in this village which is 95% Chinese – Restoran Damodaran Nair.
With its roti canai station and plethora of curries and vegetables, it looks like any Indian-run eatery – until you hear D. Vijayan, the owner, chit-chatting with customers in fluent Hakka.
“I can also speak Hokkien, Mandarin, Tamil and Malayalam, among other languages,” said the 60-year-old.
The restaurant was started by Vijayan’s father, Damodaran Nair, as a food stall in another village nearby.
When the family moved to Sempalit in 1951 during the Malayan Emergency, Damodaran set up the Damodaran Coffee and Eating Shop here and concocted a special curry that would appeal to the Chinese.
Instead of curries with strong hints of spices that had diners downing big gulps of water to quench the fire, he offered a milder version, with fragrant coconut milk giving the gravy a smooth finish.
It caught on with the villagers.
Even the ruler of Pahang at the time, Sultan Abu Bakar, gave the curry a try.
“He was visiting the village, and we served him our Sempalit Curry Chicken. I was 13 then, and I remember him saying to me: ‘Tell your father to add more onions!’” Vijayan recalls.
Sempalit village head Chan Siew Pin has fond memories of packing curry chicken feet from the eatery in the morning before he and his mother made their way to the estate to work.
At lunch break, they would relish the curry on white rice, the typical Malaysian way.
It’s surely not an exaggeration to say that Damodaran’s Sempalit Curry Chicken has become the taste of home for the Chinese villagers here.
Vijayan, who now runs the restaurant with his brother Bhaskarran, loves to listen to Chinese tunes and Hakka mountain folk songs, even if he does not read Chinese.
He will proudly tell you about his prized vinyl record collection and show off photos of his band Sound Minis – which comprised two Chinese, one Indian and one Malay member – during the heyday.
Vijayan was the lead singer, the two Chinese played bass guitar and organ respectively, while the Malay fellow was the drummer.
“We were truly 1Malaysia,” said Vijayan.
Soh Bee Kong, 57, having his lunch at the restaurant, said he adored life in the village for the convenience and warm ties.
Coffee shops dot the village of about 450 houses, with sundry shops and other facilities – including a wet market, a community hall, a kindergarten and a Chinese primary school – all within easy reach.
“We don’t need to make arrangements to meet up. You just go to a coffee shop and sit down to enjoy a cup of tea with fellow villagers,” said Soh, a retired estate worker.
Chan, who has been serving as village head since 2012, said plantation jobs aside, some villagers work in the timber factories nearby.
Most of the 5,000 villagers are Hakka, but there’s also a small number of Hokkiens living at the other side of Jalan Lipis.
Chan said his family was among those who moved from Kampung Tras to Kampung Baru Sempalit during the Emergency. Each family was given a 66ft by 66ft plot of land to begin their new life.
Houses for settlers from Tras were labelled with a T in their lot number, and this can still be seen on their letter boxes today.
The SJK(C) Sempalit, situated atop a small hill, has 418 pupils and boasts the largest school hall among all the Chinese schools in the area. This is clearly a source of pride for the villagers since it’s the norm for local communities to pool resources together to build new amenities in their Chinese vernacular school.
Chan said the village committee made it a point to keep the village tidy and remove every single illegal ah long (loan sharks) advertisement pasted here to prevent the villagers from falling into the vicious circle of borrowing from underground lenders.
As idyllic as life may be here, though, there is one problem that irks the residents: disruption in water supply caused by rapid development.
Water cuts happen frequently, and this is why Mook Kar Fook, the proprietor of Kebun Sea Loy Kacang Goreng Sempalit, had to install big tanks within his compound to store water.
Located some 4km from Kampung Baru Sempalit, the peanut workshop beckons visitors with the giant golden peanut sculpture at its entrance.
Mook’s father started the family business in Gopeng, Perak, offering fried whole peanuts in newspaper cones.
Back in those days, Sungai Ruan (a nearby town in Raub) was a thriving place with its peanut plantations.
To save on transportation costs for his raw material, Mook’s father came here to set up his business. And like the Chinese idiom used to describe groundnuts – luo di sheng gen (fall to the ground and grow roots) – the Mooks put down roots and never left.
Today, 90% of the peanuts used by Mook are imported from Shandong, China, with the rest coming from Thailand and other South-East Asian countries.
Mook, 49, has been helping with the family business since he was nine. From drying the peanuts under the sun to roasting them over wood fire, the experience he accumulated taught him to produce the much-loved crunchy snack.
He showed us his workshop, where one of his workers was picking out the imperfect nuts from a tray of warm, freshly roasted groundnuts, while another kept a close eye on a stove.
When gentle wafts of toasty scent hit the nose, Mook listened carefully and declared: “This batch is ready.”
How could he tell?
“There is a faint crackling sound when they are done, but it’s only noticeable to our discerning ears,” he explained.
The Kebun Sea Loy’s Sempalit peanuts come in three different variants – Cap Rusa (deer) for the original flavour, Cap Beruang Kembar (twin bears) for a salted fermented tofu flavour, and Cap Harimau (tiger) for groundnuts with stripped skins.
The products are so popular that even other groundnut workshops have started using the Sempalit Peanut name to market their products.
The peanuts are available all over the country, except Sarawak, but Mook said they had started accepting orders online (http://kebunsealoy.blogspot.my/) to provide the freshest snacks to customers.
This is another transformation Mook has learned to adapt to, following investments in roasting and packing machines to help increase productivity.
Life may be slower in the rural areas, but such transformations are still essential in breathing new life into the new villages.