Meeting Jabba The Hutt At Mokhtar’s

In a darkened room, I met the monster Mokhtar keeps as a pet. I nicknamed it Jabba the Hutt. Built by Mokhtar’s father in 1954, the brick oven is similar in design to those used in villages in India. The masonry oven known as a brick oven or stone oven dates back to medieval times.

Jabba has a an insatiable appetite for firewood. Mokhtar’s father used to feed it rubberwood when rubber trees were plentiful in Malaysia. It is now fed with discarded wooden furniture. I asked Mokhtar and his response was: “Kayu getah sangat mahal sekarang, bro” (Rubberwood is very expensive now, bro).

So whenever someone in Slim River wants to discard old furniture, they send it to Mokhtar. The bakery is like a recycling center for wood. He turns wood into ashes and bread.

Mokhtar is a media-savvy person. He knew I wanted to capture the ray of lights spilling out from a hole in the ceiling. He waited patiently as I fine-tuned the power of the Sony HVL-F60M wireless flash.

He (Mokhtar, not Jabba) is a celebrity. I understand he appeared on all local television channels from TV1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 to TV 36 or something. He took me to his house nearby to show me newspaper cuttings and pictures framed and hanging from in his living room wall.

While there, I noticed furniture was unusually sparse. In my mind, I wanted to ask Mokhtar:

“Bro, if i were to give you a nice IKEA wood table for your birthday, will you promise to assemble it and use it as a table?”

I didn’t ask in the end for I can’t bear to hear his answer. To be continued…

Sony Alpha a7R, ISO 2500, f4, 1/60 sec.

Fresh From The Oven

Baker Mokhtar’s late father was Indian-Muslim and his mother a Malay. Like his paternal grandfather, they are from a long line of bakers from Northern India.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear him describe the filling of each type of bread bun in Cantonese. There’s Yeah Chi (coconut shavings), Chee Mah (sesame), Ngau Yow (butter), Kar Yang (kaya or coconut egg jam) and Tau Sar (bean paste); Mokhtar rattled away.

It may seem routine to Mokhtar but if you think about it, what a rich tradition he inherited. Wonderful to taste this heritage product that has adapted to local taste by blending recipes from different cultures.

Mokhtar also bakes regular white Bengali bread loaves but they weren’t ready at the time I was there.

Next: I asked him to show me the big traditional brick oven that he has hidden in another room.

Sony Alpha a7R, ISO 400, f4, 1/60 sec.

Mokhtar Le Baker

It is unfortunate that this more than half-a-century old bakery is known as a factory (or kilang). In reality, it is a one-man baker outfit and an artisan one at that. Every loaf, bun and pastry is lovingly hand-crafted by Mokhtar himself. No workers, interns or apprentices behind the scenes.

Put him in Klang Valley and call it a boulangerie patisserie instead of kilang and fad-hungry hipsters will swoon all over him , even without him proclaiming sourdough.

We must be thankful that Mokhtar don’t give two hoots about such things. Not even about glutens. The easy-going character don’t care about a lot of things. He opens at 10:30am or thereabouts and closes at 11:30am or thereabouts, earlier when the breads are sold out.

Fortunately for his customers, the man is OCD about signage. On those days when he decides not to open, Mokhtar places signs on the roads outside announcing “Kilang Roti Tutup” (Bread Factory Closed). They are like those middle-of-the-road placards you see when roads are closed for National Day parade rehearsals. After all, the man and the bakery is Slim River’s most famous landmark or attraction.

It took me three trips on three different days before I could catch him in person. Greeted by a shut door previously, I ended up staring at the piles of broken furniture lying around the yard. That kind of gave me a clue on the eccentric character that he is. Don’t tell me he uses all these broken furniture as firewood to fire up the oven, I wondered.

As it turns out, we get along quite well. For I am as eccentric and OCD like him. I keep telling him the door is not perfectly level.

More on the bakery coming up.

Sony Alpha a7R, ISO 100, f8, 1/100 sec.