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.

January 31, 2018

Sibu Tales : Foochow Wet Noodles or Mun Mien

The exquisite Foochow Mun Mien or Wet Noodle is in fact quite elusive. There are certain features the chef must remember to bring out the aroma, taste , texture, colour and presentation of this noodle to an unforgettable state!!

My Uncle Lau Pang Sing and my grandmother Tiong Lian Tie were creative cooks. Besides preparing the very basic Foochow dishes using the big Chinese wrought iron kuali and wood stove, they were often adventurous enough to cook many memorable dishes to entertain the grandchildren who came to visit during the school holidays. Having as many children as a dozen or more was not easy. Hence noodles played an important of our holiday diet during those Nang Chong days - adequately to "fill the stomachs".

The secrets of the mun mien?  I would say there are a few. One is the addition of the aromatic Foochow red rice wine which my grandmother made herself. Besides another important ingredient was the pork crackle which she had plenty of because in those days, oil was more or less just made from pork fat. A third which must be mentioned is Lard which is a no no today for health reasons. But if you add a bit of pork crackle to the noodle, it will definitely make a lot of difference today.

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Mun Mien from Chong and Law , Miri

These three photos are mun mien from three different outlets in Miri.  the best one, according to my taste is the first photo, and the mun mien was cooked by Chong and Law. The noodles are a bit "swollen", which makes the texture soft and tender. The sauce has a taste of wine which makes the diner rather happy. Although not all the necessary ingredients were put into the dish, the taste was just about right because some slices of liver were found in the noodles.

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Close up of foochow mun mien, lots of sweet dark and thick soy sauce. Some pepper would be nice. No chillies

For four people:
2-3  cups yellow or yiw mien (bought in the fresh market)
a cup of thinly sliced meat (chicken, pork,etc)
1/2 cup cleaned prawns
1/2 cup fresh fish slices like tapah or red fish,fish balls
2 cups green mustard (sawi)
1/2 cup liver (you can use chicken liver)
garlic (your own amount desired)
Some pork crackle, crushed into small bits
Some salt.

Sauce: 1 tablespoon red wine(or Xiao Xin wine) + 2 tsp corn starch, 2-3  cups warm water, mushroom powder or chicken stock  if you have, 1 tablespoon thick black and sweet soy sauce (to taste), some pepper

  1. Cook noodles in boiling water with a bit of salt. Drain.
  2. Slice pork loin into thin slices, against the grain. Slice the fish, liver and fish balls into thin slices.
  3. Remove shell from the shrimps, but leave the tail. Remove the black vein.
  4. Clean the mustard greens, discard the hard base, then slice leaves into smaller pieces.
  5. Heat a little cooking oil in a non-stick wok.
  6. Stir-fry garlic until fragrant and golden brown. Add the pork crackle.
  7. Add the pork slices and stir-fry until almost cooked.
  8. Add fish and prawns. . Stir well. Add the noodles and mix well.
  9. Add greens . Mix well.
  10. Add the sauce. Cover the kuali and let the noodles soak through. This is the stage where the chef has to be careful. It depends on how much noodles you are cooking. (So add water accordingly. If you wish to have more sauce, add more warm water.) It takes a few minutes. We call this the MUN stage when the noodles become thoroughly soaked in the gravy and improve in its  texture yet retaining its chewiness.(A good server will tell you that mun mien takes longer to cook than all the other fried noodles.)

Nang Chong Tales : Padi Field Eels

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 gett...