Monday, January 21, 2008

30 cents for a bowl of char chu mien or Foochow Fried Noodle Soup

The Sibu poultry market was in the two storeyed concrete building specially built and maintained by the Sibu Urban District Council and later the sibu Municipal Council. Also known as the Chicken Market to the Foochows it was quite a landmark. Many dating couples had their rendezvous there and many students enjoyed a bowl of noodles or some chendol and rojak there. I would have my weekly ration of chendol there with some school mates. We did not eat much of the rojak though as it was quite a Hokkien thingy for Foochow taste buds. But later, when we acquired the taste for it, we loved it.

The poultry market was totally wet as the poultry sellers would always wash the floor with lots of water from their red rubber hose. They would also make a lot of noise with their char kiet or er kok or wooden clogs.

Situated by the river bank of River Lembangan, the building had an upstairs where noodles, rice with cooked dishes and some clothes were sold. Most of the men would sleep in the stalls on their makeshift beds, together with their kitchen ware and stoves at night. I used to wonder how it was possible for them to have quality life with their families. I had read my fill of books about David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer, Little Women,etc. and had dreamed of having the middle class European kind of family. I found it hard to accept a family life that was only functional. I could not understand why a husband needed to earn money and provide for household expenditure if he was good enough, and the rest of his own money he could squander it on gambling and other vices.

This two storeyed concrete building or the riverside market building is no longer in existence. This building, had to make way for a humongous central and open air market of Sibu, especially designed by the architect of the Sibu Municipal Council in the 90's.

As the years went by,slowly, little makeshift huts were constructed around this open building, and they even covered the stream which flowed alongside it.These makeshift stalls sold everything, from umbrellas to fruits, from plastic sunglasses to Hong Kong made trousers and fashion wear. It was a good place for frugal Foochows to buy stuff at a bargain. But later on when these were deemed "eyesores", it took the council years to clear them up.

Back my reminicences of the poultry market. Chickens were kept in the cages and housewives would select them . The selected chickens were then slaughtered in front of the purchasers by very skilful women who were paid like 50 cents per chicken to slaughter. All the hot water, the cold water and the plucking of feathers actually caused these ladies to have a lot of sores on their hands. A tell tale sign would be red hands and a very dirty and blood stained skirt worn by them. One lady I remember looked particularly forlorn and destitute with all those tell tale signs. It is sad to think that some women live their whole life slaughtering chicken, day in and day out, without fulfilling their dreams.

One of them I heard was cheated by her own husband of her savings. All we can say is "what a skunk!" Perhaps in her old age, a good son would come and lift her out of her misery.

The other good thing about this market was the wonderful Foochow Char Chu Mieng stall. In many cities in Malaysia, enterprising hawkers have tried to imitate this recipe. But the best of this noodle is still found in Sibu. It is called Fried Noodles in Soup, or Mee Goreng Sup. It is almost too difficult to name. The Chinese name is just so easy to say and write. "Fry, Cook, Noodlea".

First the yellow noodles must be fried really well in a hot and smokey kuali. In those days, the fire came from a specially made Mei Hua brand pressure stove that the cook had to pump several times before a fire could be started.

When the noodles are dried fried this way, they are especially fragrant.

The noodles would then be lifted up and placed in a bowl. Then the cook would start making the soup, which had fresh fish, pig intestines,pig stomach, liver, slices of pork, ginger,fish balls, spring onions, mushrooms,etc. To this soup, the cook would add some secret ingredients and Pearl River mushroom soy sauce and pepper.

When the soup is boiling hot, the cooked noodles would be thrown in. Now the soup must be roaringly hot before the noodles are ready to be served to the customer.

Such a bowl of noodles would only set one back 30 cents in the 1950's and 60-'s. It is difficult to get that wonderful nostalgic taste nowadays. Every customer then was served individually, as each bowl would have exactly the same amount of ingredients. No stall owner in Sibu would cook a big pot of noodles and then serve the customers as they came in. This was not the acceptable style.

4 memories:

Unknown said...

Yes, i remebr the place you mentioned. I especially like the chendol and rojak. by the wya, do you still remember there was a round building with the sign board welcome to Sibu and it was infront of the wharf. that place sell cehendol as well.

I Am Sarawakiana said...

Good morning. It is good that someone can share the same memories and this is how local history should go. So often significant folk knowledge disappears in the midst of celebrity news and events.

I like to share and tell the stories of the small quiet people and their contribution to ordinary lives.

Yes, I remember that huge sign, Welcome to Sibu. Every time I come from "Downriver" a term used frequently by Sibu people, I see the sign and remember that town people behave in a different way. In those days, the word "urbane" was not in fashion yet.

FrancisN said...

I certainly do remember the building even back to when it was first opened. All the drinks stalls put out free drinks for the opening. As kids we were treated to this free food and drinks.

Years later, I remembered always going back to these stalls for the rojak and chendol. I have not found a better place which served good rojak and chendol every time I visited Sibu.

My friends and I used to sneak out during lunch time while studying at Sacred Heart School at Mission Road in the early 60’s. We would visit the char chu mieng stalls by the poultry building a few times a week and spending our 30 cents for a delicious bowl of this wonderful mee. The stall owners would prepare many bowls of mee just before the school lunch break and they would be waiting for the students to come and eat at the stalls. Many stalls did good business out of the Sacred Heart students at lunch time.

I remember this one time, one of the stall owners told us off for not letting him know that the school had a day off. He angrily told us that he cooked about 20 bowls and no students came that day. We didn’t think we had done anything wrong in not telling him that our school had a day off, but did realise that he would not have made much money that day.

Again, I have not found a stall in Sibu which can reproduce the same flavour in their mee.

Living in Sibu town and had an uncle who had a shop house on Channel Road, I spent a lot of my time around the Sibu wharf. I can remember that sign and the many small stalls by the wharf which I have frequented many many times.

I Am Sarawakiana said...

Thank you. I am glad that my memories of the Char Chu Mien are still as fresh as if I was eating it only yesterday.

I like to see the over fried garlic slices floating on the surface of the soup. the brownish soup was indeed very good. I attributed the good soup to the excellent homemade fish balls which the mee stall owner would not stinch on. Only the best fish meat for the best fish balls.

The next best char chu mien would later be found in Raban Coffee Shop in Kampong Nyabour and the mee stall owner is called Hew Ming Ung. I think he is still operating there.


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