A century of spices

Mahendrean Sockalingam have been selling curry spices and pastes since he was a teenager back in the 1970s.

When it comes to making curry, one should not skimp the spices — in fact, the more the merrier. Carrying on the ‘spicy’ business started by his grandmother almost a century ago, curry paste seller Mahendrean Sockalingam have been in the business since the 1970s, and is still going strong.

Different spices for different meat

Many who patronise the Stutong Wet Market for daily goods will be familiar with curry paste seller — Mahendrean Sockalingam. Just tell him what you have in mind for a curry meal, and the friendly man with his table of spices will recommend you what’s best to put inside.

Born and bred in Sarawak, Mahendrean might surprise you with his proficiency in languages.

From Hokkien to Tamil, English and Malay, the 60-year-old is a true-blue Sarawakian.

As customers frequent his stall to get the freshest ingredients for curries, he would regularly ask what meat and the amount of cooking his customers’ are going to make.

Always ready to serve

Mahendrean Sockalingam have been selling curry spices and pastes since he was a teenager back in the 1970s.

According to him, different meat requires different spices to enhance the flavour. “You can’t make chicken curry or meat curry with the same ingredients. It wouldn’t taste right. And as for fish curry, you will need fenugreek, daal, cumin and mustard seed mix. These can make any seafood curry more fragrant.”

Always ready to serve and help customers, Mahendrean will suggests customers the finest ingredients for the intended meal. He always has an array of spices ready at his stall. From coriander, chilli, turmeric, candlenut and many others, “This is what I do. I sell ‘kari hidup’ (fresh curry paste).”

According to Mahendrean, his family has always been involved in the spice business for as long as he can remember. “My grandmother came here from India in the early 1900s to seek greener pastures.

Family business

Mahendrean’s mother (Valimay) who had taught him to pound spices into powder, before pulling them with stones to become paste.

“She migrated together with her four sons after my grandfather passed away.” Mahendran also revealed that his grandmother have already mastered the art of making curry paste before she arrived in Sarawak.

During the old days, Mahendrean’s grandmother was among the first to produce and sell curry paste. “She opened up a stall selling the paste at Gambier Street, long before the old market was open for business.

“In 1935, once the construction of the market was finished, she moved her business inside.”
Mahendrean said that the family business was then succeeded by his father, and some time later, his mother took over. “Sadly, my father could no longer provide for the family as he had his leg amputated due to diabetes.

“As a young boy at the time, I would often come to the market after school to help her pound the spices into powdered form,” he said.

Keep calm and curry on

Recalling on the hard times, Mahendrean remembered how he had to crush the spices using a stone pestle.

“Usually the work requires two people at a time, and it could take hours to grind. Then we need to turn the spices into paste by pulling the pestle continuously,” said the youngest of eight siblings.

When he turned 14, Mahendrean dropped out of school to focus on the family business. “I no longer have any interest in studying, so my mother asked me to help her with the business full time. Business back in the 1970s was extremely good as there were no other curry paste sellers like today.”

In 1989, he opened his own curry paste business in the market. “I opened my own stall in the market and started making my own curry paste back then.

“However, when the market was demolished in 2008, I moved to my current place here in Stutong market.”

As years passed, Mahendrean said that making curry paste no longer requires hard labour. Nowadays, he no longer need to pound raw spices to form the paste. “These days, we have ready-made powdered spices and I will just transform it into paste.”

Despite modernity taking over where one can now buy ready-made spices in supermarkets or grocery stores, Mahendrean’s curry paste is still high in demand. Since a century ago, the family’s blend of spices have been a staple for the locals to get their curry fix, and the taste have been embedded in their hearts and also their tastebuds.