March 24, 2018

Sibu Tales : Liver in the Noodles and other stories

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I grew up in Sibu where the butchers' corner was the most significant "part" of the old market. It was where many people would gather to buy pork and share a good conversation. Probably for many it was the place to be seen and heard. So in between the ten or more stalls, Foochow would be heard as Sibu then was dominantly Foochow.

There was only ONE Cantonese butcher if I can remember correctly. The son, a former student of the Methodist School, whom we called Ang Ngian, later married the pretty Ah Mek (little sister) daughter of our Cantonese neighbour, whom we called Guong Tern Moo (Cantonese Ah Moo). When we were young, we used very endearing terms like that.

Because of a close relationship between Guong Tern Moo and my mum, one of her sons became my mother's god son (Buong Kuok). We never squirmed or felt uncomfortable when we called him by his childhood name.

For a superstitious reason, Guong Tern Moo and her family called Buong Kuok, since infancy, Ngong Tii or Silly Pig. Silly Pig has been like a brother to us and a son to my mother since then . But we all became politically correct later in life and we decided to call him by his proper name. that was when he was almost in his forties!! Believe you me! And sometimes we still have a slip of tongue and say...Ngong Tii. Now in his 60's he is still making his own fresh noodles for sale and has a good laksa stall operated by his wife (the main chef) and his family. You can say that they have a roaring business. Their day starts at 2 a.m. in the morning.

Another memory of the butcher corner is the fact that every body would know what every body bought. A favourite memory is related to the buying of liver. It was rather bitter sweet for a young girl like me to hear, from adult conversation. It really proved that what grandmothers said was true : when adults talk, children should not listen..Stay away.

It involved the buying of liver. Foochows would use the term "Guan dii gang" or carry some liver.

This Foochow man went to the family butcher to buy some liver every day. And the butcher's wife was very impressed . "Wah for your wife?" This uncle did not say anything.

One day his wife went to the same butcher to get some liver for herself. The butcher's wife was perplexed to say the least.

She carelessly asked, "Wah your husband buys liver every day. Not enough ka?"

Well the man was hauled in by the wife's family, there was an "open" trial in front of the butcher's tall and the truth surfaced.

Ugly it might have been but was quite a dramatic episode in Olde Sibu then.

We Foochows continue to love having slices of liver in our Char Chii Mien which is a very popular dish in most Foochow coffee shops.

I can easily say that no matter what the medical reports say, Foochows still get some iron supply from slices of fresh liver every now and then.

I still love buying fresh pork, hanging from huge hooks, from a local butcher in the traditional way. But times may change and butchers will have to sell their meat from an air con shop.

March 7, 2018

Nang Chong Tales : Padi Field Eels

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Padi field eels are going out of fashion in Sarawak. People don't seem to be able to catch them any more. Perhaps they are really getting extinct.

My late Grandmother, Ngie Mah, used to talk about her days in Minqing. She came from Kay Tou Buoh and was sold to become my maternal grandfather's child bride at the age of 5. However, although she came to Sarawak a little later when she was about 10, she could remember many things from my great grand parents' village in Minqing's Luk Du where Wong Nai Siong also come from.

One of her favourite stories was how she and her friends would go to the paddy fields to look for eels. Those were slippery  fish which she had no fear of. Although she was not the one to clean the fish, she would always remember how sweet the eel tasted. She would describe how tasty the dishes were and how they were cooked. Ern Chow or red wine lees was a favourite addition to the preparation of fried eels, or braised eels.

There was no shortage of food if one was creative and willing to forage for them according to her. Her other skill was to look for pangee (or the red crabs ) to make crab sauce.

In Nang Chong she told us that as she raised her children, she and my uncles would try their best to look for different padi field eels )between the first world war and second world war.) She left Nang Chong for Fujian just before the Second World War broke out, in order to build a family house there with the wealth the family garnered from rubber, but unfortunately she lost it when the Japanese came to destroy everything. She was quite broke as she made her way back to Sarawak with my second Uncle and his bride. She also accompanied several young children of relatives from Fujian to Sarawak. God was faithful as He blessed her and all those people who came with her.

I really think that whenever she remembered the food of Fujian, like Hu Liu, she would have some sadness in her heart.

In 2011 I had a chance to visit Pingnan and Minqing where I found eels in the market and also had a taste of several dishes of eels (cooked in different ways).

The eel is easy to clean and is done in the market. The hawker would take the eel out of the basin and push the head of the fish through a nail. He would then slit the throat, down to the tail, clean the eel and then put the cleaned eel into a plastic bag. One KATI of eels would be only a few RMB. A good meal would be made up of about 2 katis accordhng to my hostess. I would not have liked to forage for my own eels in Minqing.

From where my paternal grandfather came from, Wun Chieh, near King Sar, Fuzhou Province, there was no eel as Wun Chieh was in the mountains. My great grandfather and his father were bamboo growers, herbal foragers and vegetable growers. They did hunt for rabbits and wild animals for game. Chickens and pigs would have been their main protein source.

February 20, 2018

Sarawakian Local Delights : Nipah Palm

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Gula apong, aka attap sugar aka palm sugar is the sweet sap of the nipah palm (Nypa fruticans)

Nipah palms grow naturally and abundantly in the lower reaches of rivers in Sarawak.

Traditionally, the coastal people harvest the sweet sap from nipah palms which are old enough (usually 5 years and older). A cut is made on the flower to allow the sap to flow into bamboo containers (now recycled plastic bottles). the sap is then for 8 or 10 hours with constant stirring so as to evaporate the water content.

Usually 10 liters of sap produce 1 kg of gula apong.

the thick sugary mass is  stored in small plastic bags or plastic tubs for sale in native markets in Sarawak.

One of the reasons why the gula apong is so tasty is because of the combination of sea salt and the sweetness of natural palm.

the gula apong today is used in more ways than you can imagine. Creative chefs have been challenged to introduce new uses too.

Lovely new product - Gula Apong Icecream

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The Nipah Palm flowers are beautiful. Female flowers are at the tip which later form the seeds in a large globular cluster (up to 10 inches) on a single stalk. These clusters will float away and grow into palms on the muddy flats.

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Male flowers

Beautiful nipah flower at a riparian forest in Sibu, near Bawang Assan.

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Female flowers are in  a cluster like this.

February 18, 2018

Sarawakian Local Delights : Ikan Lajong

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2.5 kg. by Cikgu Linggie John, Bawang Assan

The ikan lajong (Bintulu Ibans call it supak) is not easily caught by net or by hook these days. This fish was plentiful in the olden days at the confluence of the Rajang and Igan rivers. Apparently they swam from the upper reaches of the Rajang, from the Kanowit river too, to Sibu. The river banks around Sibu and Igan had nets which caught them as the tide went down. The Foochows used to erect fish nets at the mouth of their made made ditches. When the tides went down, children would be so happy to go and catch the trapped fish in the muddy bed of the ditches. This was how my late father and many of his friends caught Lajong and even tapah.

This is a photo from my former Methodist School, Sibu student, Linggie John, who is an avid fisherman from Bawang Assan Longhouse. He is a dedicated school teacher.

The Lajong is a member of the catfish family and is a white fleshed fish. It is also good for making of fish balls (in Thailand). But as a steamed fish, Foochow style, or boiled with assam, it is a good fish as it has no fishy smell at all. In the past this fish fetched only a few dollars but today it will cost you quite a bundle since its fine flesh is very highly valued by all races in Sarawak. 

Its scientific name is Phalacronotus apogon. It can grow into a huge size of 130 m. and could weigh up to 4 or 5 kg.

It is found in the Mekong, Chao Phraya, West Malaysian rivers, Sarawak, Sumatra and Kalimantan (where it is often reared in cages and then smoked or dried and sold as Ikan Salai). Dried fish from Kalimantan is found in the tamu of Sarawak.

February 10, 2018

Sibu Tales : Sixth District - Lurk Kuh (Now Jalan Tuah)

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Many of my Sg. Bidut Tiong relatives planted padi in this area during the Japanese Occupation. Land in those days was cheap and not many people actually had the cash even to pay for the surveying and land title in the Boleh or Government department.

Reverend Ling Kai Cheng also owned some land here and he had relatives lived on the land, plant padi and vegetables. He was a very resourceful man and generous man.

My paternal grandfather too had some land here and there for padi planting but his own children, my uncles and aunts (three of them were in Singapore then) were very educated so they did not cultivate the land. He therefore allowed some relatives to plant on his land for some rice in return. His Hua Hong Ice and Rice mill in Pulau Kerto thus had rice to mill too. During the Japanese Occupation and my younger uncles and aunts were not short of rice.

Many of his relatives and his Heng Hua friends from Penasu, Sg. Igan, Sg Merah rowed their small wooden boats to Pulau Kerto to mill their rice. (I heard that he charged one small tin for the milling of one gunny sack of padi). A Heng Hua friend told me that he was then only about 4 years old and he saw my stern, tall and strong grandfather at times. That must have been 1942 or 1943.

My late aunt (cousin of my father) Ling Koo, from Sg. Bidut who was then about 12 years old remembered the end of the Japanese Occupation. She saw smoke coming up at Lurk Kii  from across at Sg Bidut. She realised that her parents' padi land was affected. The Japanese trucks were on fire and a lot of uniforms were burnt, including helmets, before the soldiers left Sibu.

And in the air Allied planes were circling around dropping a few bombs. She later heard that a few bombs were dropped in Sg. Merah, in the new airport (built by the Foochow young men, including my father and uncles). There were probably 8 bombs dropped in Sibu area to see to the end of the Japanese Occupation.

My cousins remembered that bags of flour were distributed when the Allied came. The soldiers also distributed old clothes and flour bag cotton cloth. My mum remembers getting a lovely dress with an English collar and three quarter sleeves, which she wore almost every day. My aunts in Sg. Bidut were also given a dress each, which of course were too big as they were malnutrited little Foochow teenagers. They were glad that they could make new shirts , each shirt being made from two flour bags.

These are the memories of my mother, aunts (who have already passed on) and friends who are now in their 80's and 90's. I am glad I have been a good listener, and very interested in the history of every place in Sibu.

February 9, 2018

Sarawakian Local Delights : Ikan labang

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Ikan Labang

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The head of Ikan Labang at Anding, Ulu Belaga.

Ikan Labang is a favoured fish from the Rajang river. In ordinary days about 30 years ago, the fish was easily hooked by any keen fisherman along the river from Sibu down to Binatang (now known as Bintangor). Fish in those days were often sold at 5 dollars per kati.

Today the best ikan labang is found in Kapit, according to a businessman. And the price has gone up to RM 70 per kg. 

Fish population in the Rajang has been reduced due to many reasons. One of them being the siltation of the river and pollution. The labang loves clean and pristine conditions. Nowadays the best ikan labang are caught between the Pelagus Rapids and Nanga Ibau. Some can be found in the Balleh River.

In order to support a good ecosystem, so that man can live well, to bring back a teeming fish population in our rivers, we have to maintain good practices. We have to save our environment!!

February 2, 2018

Sibu Tales : Chinese Black Grass Jelly

Today you can easily buy a canned drink called grass jelly or cincau.

But this packaging is the original made in China grass jelly.

It is easy to make. Just boil the dried "grass" and soon the black jelly will set. It is hard to explain how grass can become jelly-o like.

We were living in Brooke Drive and every mother would go and pluck the green cincau from some one's back yard. My mother would never get any for reasons best known to herself.

So we would always buy our block of cincau from the Toufoo uncle and make our own cincau drink with condensed milk.

today you can add small pieces of cincau to air bandung, plain cold milk, icecream, chendol, sprite, etc or just any combination and cool down on a hot day.

Sibu Tales : Liver in the Noodles and other stories

I grew up in Sibu where the butchers' corner was the most significant "part" of the old market. It was where many people wo...