Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Introduction of Tomato Sauce to the Foochows

One of my best memories of my childhood was going to my grandmother's village during the school holidays. I would rush to grandmother's house from the first day of the school holidays and stay until the last day. It was holiday without books, pencils or exercise books as in the morning it was helping out in the rubber gardens or pig sty, and in the afternoon it was washing of clothes at the jetty and probably fishing by the river bank and evenings we slept quite early after we enjoyed the pleasurable story telling at the balcony, cooled by the river breeze.

The village house was a huge one, and in fact by present day reckoning, it was a double storied bungalow housing four units of terrace units. We used to run our 100 metres on the upper floor as the space was really huge. So the red wood house was actually more than 150 feet wide and 90 feet deep. I love the kitchen area which was a separate house joined to the mainhouse by a n open walkway cum sitting area. There was an open balcony that fanned out from the walk way where my uncle would put drums to catch the rainwater. We took our baths both at the jetty or at this open space. Bathing was a wonderful experience. We kids would just jump into the Rejang river without any fear of crocodiles or hidden logs. Those were innocent days

The kids would be shrieking with joy and time would just pass by. Sometimes we would not realise that we had been in the water for three to four hours. It was only the sun which could tell us that it was time to go home, be sensible and especially for the older children, time to collect the rubber sheets which were drying in the sun (the only crimes at the time would be the theft of rubber sheets, piglets, chickens or vegetables committed by small thieves who would soon be caught by the owners but this kind of bad behaviour was rather rare. Sometimes "outside" thieves would come by small paddling boats to make a small collection. Otherwise, things were very safe indeed . We seldom had to report any theft to the police in Sibu. Hence in the whole stretch of the Foochow villages along both banks of the River Rejang from Sibu to Sarikei which would be almost 100 miles, there was no police station at that time.

What would add as an exotic and grand experience to our childhood was the great wedding feasts that my relatives had. In the 1950's and early 60's marriages were celebrated by home catered feasts of 10 to 20 tables and every inch of the house of the bride or bridegroom would be covered by make shift tables. (To this day, the Chinese foldable or collapsible table legs are still an architectural marvel)

But first, my favourite dish, when I was a child: I don't remember meeting my first European until we moved to Sibu town in 1956. And that was just an encounter on a road in the town. My first close encounter was Dr. Coole who was our primary school supervisor. And what was amazing was that he spoke very good Foochow. My grandmother and I went to Sunday worship at Masland Church where he preached. I did not consider him anything but Foochow! He was Dr. Kiu Ung Kwong.

It was also at this time that my uncle Lau Pang Sing bought the first bottle of Tomato Sauce, Heinz brand. He had learned how to cook with it.

In one of my earliest wedding banquets in Ah Nang Chong, we were served this dish:

(before this, the red colouring was used to cook red chicken - for a good dash of auspiciousness)

Tomato Chicken with Peas (serves 10)

l chicken (cleaned and cut into bite sizes)
3 bombay onions(chopped finely)
4 pips of garlic (sliced finely)
half a bottle of tomato sauce
2 bowls of water
salt to taste
black pepper (pounded finely)
3 Tbsp oil
1 tin of peas (drained)
1 Tbsp corn flour
2 bombay onions (quartered)


1. Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper and coat them well with corn flour
2. Heat oil on medium fire. Put in the chopped onions and fry until fragrant.
3. Add chicken. Cook for 5 minutes when the chicken is fairly well cooked on all sides.
4. Add the tomato saurce and water. Cook for about 10 minutes, then add salt. Stir often to prevent the sauce from burning.
5. Just before serving, add the drained peas and Bombay onions. Heat up a little. Do not over cook or the peas will turn mashy.
6. Place the chicken on a nice dish and garnish as you like.

Note : in the 1950's refrigeration was not yet introduced to the Chinese villages in Sarawak and most banquets had to use fresh meat and vegetables. The tomato was a wonderful innovation and I continue to remember the first few times we had tomato sauce on our table. Some of the older Chinese never got used to the taste. It was "foreign" and "too green" (referring to uncooked, or raw).

So watch out for more on banquet far of the 50's.....

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