Monday, September 24, 2007

Kopi Tiam

From the oldest times, two coffee shops would stand out as the foremost and well loved ones to the Foochows of Sibu, especially those from the villages. They were Mui Siing and Ting Nguk Choon.

Mui Siing was located along the Wharf Road, whereas Ting Nguk Choon was along Island Road. Interestingly both were the first lot of their block. Could it be the numbering that made them so prosperous. Both had two fronts and therefore could seat more people. The tables were simple square wooden ones or the round marble tables. All the chairs were the comfortable German made wooden antique ones which today fetch a high price. These German made chairs never seem to fall apart after years and years of usage. That is why, they are so valuable.

It was definitely the coffee and the quality of their noodles which helped them became a place everyone must go to. But probably it was their service too. Hence their marble tables and chairs were always full in the mornings.

I remember having sat in Mui Siing once with my uncle who came from down river and he asked me to have a bowl of noodles with him before he sent me along with the chickens and ducks he had wanted to give to my mother. I had waited for him with my bicycle at the wharf. It was so nice to see him. An uncle was one of the best things in your life. He was one who could give you lots of free food from his farm and then he was the respected brother of your mother. Nothing could be better than that.

Mui Siing served this special soy bean milk and char koi ( or crullers) and it was here he told me the story of how and why the chinese made their first cruellers. Somehow that story was never forgotten by me and my siblings.

Yueh Fei was a heroic general of the Song Dynasty from Hangzhou made a lot of sacrifices and led the army to great victories. However a minister , Qin Hui, and his wife were jealous of the success and commitment of Yueh Fei. So they plotted to have him killed. They were successful in doing so and Yueh was buried . However one popular cook decided to lead a campaign to make the couple the laughing stock of the city. He decided to make two figurines with dough and then had them deep fried in the open market. However the yew tiau, or deep fried Hui, as it was called became very popular and saleable partly because they were very happy to "eat" the two treacherous characters. Thus in no time, everyone knew about the treacherous couple. Soon the king heard about them and their treachery. He made some investigation and realised that he had made a mistake. So he punished the couple, had them executed and buried in such a way that their tombs forever remain subservient before Yueh Fei's tomb.

Later the figurine stick dough became smaller yew tiau and remained popular folk food until today. During the Japanese occupation of Beijing, the Chinese called the crullers or yew tiau , yew char kuay. Kuay means devil. Thus they again used the dough sticks to refer to their hated enemies. Today in Malaysia many people still call them yew char kuay without really knowing the rich historical background of this special food.

I would like to pay my respect to a clever cook who had managed to take revenge on two evil characters with his ingenuity.

Ting Nguk Hong continued to be the biggest coffee shop in Sibu for a long time because it occupied a large space with probably what we call three shop lots today. It was a traditional coffee shop with a large kitchen at the back and several mee stalls in the front. The coffee served in this coffee shop was very fragrant and well known. The coffee shop owner would roast the coffee beans himself and grind the beans as and when needed. He would be the only one who knew how much butter to use and how long he should roast the beans to give the best aroma and taste . Thus we would always remember how fond we were of his coffee. It was worth every cent we paid him.

Ting Nguk Hong was also a place where the Wharf Labourers would gather when they finished their work in the evenings.

That was the time for these strong labourers to have their beer or guiness stout.

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