My Penang Ear Piercing Story for A Cook’s Tour
On my first visit to Penang I was travelling alone and I wandered through its little India district and struck up a conversation with a woman who owned a traditional clothing and costume jewellery shop. I asked her to recommend shops for Indian cooking accountrement and she wasted no time in leading me into her various friends and relatives shops where I was received like royalty and offered huge discounts! After the shopping we popped into a small eatery for a snack of roti canai (pronounced chah-nigh) a deliciously flaky flat bread made from wheat flour and served with a little curried dhal (lentils). That day over our love for food we became instant friends and before left the district I had to promise her I would visit her again on a future trip with my husband.
A year or so later I returned as instructed, with my husband on arm. Mala greeted us warmly and instantly invited us to a family celebration to be held at the beach. It was an ‘ear piercing ceremony’ for two young brothers and an important day for Mala as she was appointed the perpetrator of ‘perforated ears’ for her community.
We were curious about the location but once at the beach, all fell into place. The site for the ceremony was chosen to take place on a rocky outcrop and made festive with dried woven palm fronds creating a temporary altar. Ear piercing is normally carried out when the boys are under four years old but we noted one brother was much older and on further enquiry Mala informed us that his twin brother had died just before they would have reached the appropriate age. Obviously mourning got in the way of natural events and now that the youngest brother was old enough there could be no further delay.
The boys were specially dressed for the occasion, starting out shirtless wearing only a lungi wrapped around their waists. We watched as the youngest boy had his head shaved and then it was smeared with a paste of powdered sandalwood. Just before the ear piercing deed, both were presented with a new set of clothes to change into there and then and two garlands of flowers were placed around their necks.
We were invited right up to the altar and watched as splendid colourful food offerings were carried in a procession by the boys’ aunts. We all listened attentively to prayers and chants and then it was time for Mala to take centre stage. We couldn’t help but wince as Mala took an ordinary needle and forced it through the ear lobe of the first boy whilst his father held him in a tight clench. We all felt the pain when the boy screamed and the only anaesthetic was a handful of boiled sweets jammed in his mouth. Meanwhile the second son made an unsuccessful attempt by ducking to avoid his fate.
The day was quite a spectacle; more family and friends were arriving, wildly overdressed for the beach in their blazing silks and flamboyant jewellery. I wandered over to the kitchen’ which the men were administering. Over a large open fire was a cauldron like those you see in cartoons depicting cannibalism but on this day, thankfully it was a goat that had met his fate. Colourful vegetable curries were cooking on more fires in huge black woks that could double as satellite dishes.
While we waited for the celebratory meal we were offered plates of sweet delicacies by the children. We would have preferred them later but it would have been impolite to refuse. I am always amazed at how hospitable Indian people are; we weren’t the only privileged guests that day. Some people in a rowboat came in to the shore to view the festivities closer and were invited to join in.
A large tent was erected to shade a tarpaulin on the sand. Others helped by setting the edges of the tarpaulin with banana leaves cut into squares to conveniently serve as our plates. We were all invited to take a sitting position behind the banana leaves. The cooks walked down the centre and ladled out the food from the plastic and steel buckets onto the banana leaves. We joined everyone by eating with the fingers of our right hand. I had eaten at ‘Banana Leaf’ restaurants where food was served this way but it seemed much more authentic to be eating off a banana leaf picnic style at the beach. Roz MacAllan