“Bhai makes one of the best teas.” Salem S.O. took a sip of his tea and put his cup back onto the table. The rest of the men around the table nodded in unison and picked up their drinks too. It was a humid Tuesday afternoon and the lunch hour crowd had just left. From 11a.m. on, all of the 50 or so tables at M.Hasan Railway Station Canteen were filled with workers from the nearby port and offices. As the lunch hour ended, the crowd had dispersed, leaving behind their plates of leftover curries and noodle soup and customers like Salem and his uncles.They are the people who neither live nor work nearby, but will travel here as often as once a week, ordering multiple rounds of teas and lingering to admire their surroundings. In the evenings and during weekends, they even come with their families — all three generations in tow — as part of their weekly or monthly gatherings.
All the food in this canteen is Halal: no pork, and all other animals except fish are slaughtered according to Islamic law, which explains why most of the customers are Muslims. But the food is only part of the reason why Salem and the others alike keep coming back here. Except for the one or two outstanding dishes, the Malay and Indian cuisines served here, according to them, are common and ordinary in taste. What keeps them attracted to this canteen is that it looks, smells and sounds like the past. The aged stonewalls and exposed water pipes; the train engines’ deafening boom; and the pungent smell of belacan that wafts freely in the air and then clings to people’s clothes — all of them attract the connoisseurs of the old and the forgotten.