“Uncle, lima kambing, tiga ayam.”
The uncle nodded in acknowledgement and turned around. His dark blue shirt was stained dark at the back with perspiration. Scooping the glorious golden yellow briyani, he generously heaped them onto the plastic containers, filling them to the brim.
“The one and only dum briyani cooked with olive oil,” the signboard above the stall boasted. There is no reason to doubt that; Briyani without ghee? In some parts of South Asia, that would be tantamount to sacrilege.
“Wah! You buy the whole shop ah?”
I turned around to see a bespectacled uncle carrying a tiffin in the queue right behind me.
Buy what?? What you talking about uncle?
Do I tell him that it’s Friday and I intend to have a briyani party at my aunt’s later that day to celebrate the end of a three week quarantine for my cousin? Or that it’s my abang sedara’s birthday and I intend to surprise him with some briyani from Tekka?
I settled for pretending that I had no idea what he was saying.
“You buy whole shop ah? So many packets..” he replied with a nervous laughter. He was either trying to diffuse an awkward situation or he was anxious. It was 30 minutes past twelve. He might be leaving with an empty tiffin.
“Oh, no lah. That one not mine,” I said pointing to the four containers of briyani already on the counter. I wondered for awhile who they belonged to.
It didn’t take long. Briyani uncle had finished packing the rice.
“Ini yang ada tanda, ayam. Yang tak ada tanda, daging.”
“Dalcha saya letak dalam dua plastic besar, boleh?”
He scooped up the dalcha from a stainless steel pot in front of me. I saw some streaks of the brown gravy splash against the white wall. I looked up at the Certificate of Cleanliness issued by NEA. It had the big letter A printed in black against a red background.
He went back and forth from the stainless steel pot to the counter. Using a damp yellow tea towel, he wiped the excess dalcha off the plastic tali he had poured it into. He did this each for each bag of dalcha. I wondered if he worked alone all day.
“Uncle, tak ada assistant ke?”
“Assistant ada, pagi saja,” he replied, with a generous smile.
Everything about this man seemed to suggest he was generous.
He reached out for a piece of paper and a pen. He started calculating the cost of five mutton and three chicken briyani.
“Lima puluh tiga.”
I took out a fifty dollar note along with two two dollar notes, and passed it to him.
He returned two fifty cent coins.
“Tak apa uncle.” I suggested he keep the change.
“No no no!” he gestured madly, all the while (you guessed it) smiling. He was so insistent. I didn’t protest.
“Thank you uncle. Apa nama uncle?”
He turned to the right and fished out a name card and passed it to me.
I said my salam to him and turned around to see the Tiffin uncle.
“This one, the best briyani I tell you. THE BEST!”