Sunday, January 06, 2008

Siew Mai, Mustard and Tomato Sauce

Three important things , or the Trinity, as I call them, in my life are associated with my father: siew mai, mustard and tomato sauce. He introduced these three to my innocent and young taste buds when he first brought me to his Sibu Recreation Club to play his daily mahjong game. I was about six at that time.

The imprint on my mind is so great that whenever I see these three, or just any one of the three, a flood gate of memories of my father would open up even after more than forty years.

In retrospect, my father was a very disciplined mahjong player and he was never a gambler. He would play for about an hour and I was disciplined to just sit down at a table to eat my two siew mai and have an cup of tea and wait for him to finish. I could do my homework, read a book and perhaps chat with the bar man who was very pleasant and ever ready to answer a child's questions. I can't remember what questions I asked but my father's friends ( Ting Ing Mien, Ting Ing Ling,etc)later told me that I asked about too many things.

But I always would be very grateful to my father's mahjong "kaki" or partners because they sort of gave me very good training in people's skills. Amongst all my siblings I was the only one exposed to adult conversation at an early age. And I really believe today that children ought to be trained to speak properly to adults and be able to hold a good conversation like an adult.

In the 50's, the best siew mai or perhaps the only siew mai came from Hock Chu Leu, the first and foremost Foochow restaurant in Sibu. Often called the "pork and mushroom dumpling", siew mai's standard filling is a combination of ingredients, consisting primarily of seasoned ground pork, shrimp,finely chopped seng kuang or di kua and Chinese black mushroom in small bits. The outer layer is soft, made with wheat flour. The center is usually garnished with an orange dot, made of roe or diced carrot, although a green dot (made with a pea) may also be used. I do not the recent versions which have a lot of poorer ingredients added to the filling. And perhaps the ground pork which is not organic is no longer the authentic filling anymore.

Siew Mai is steamed in a bamboo steamer which is usually three layered. The steamer is on the fire until all the siew mais are sold. To the Cantonese it is a breakfast or brunch item. To the Sibu Foochows it is part of a banquet. But in most coffee shops in Sibu, it is just something one can order from a coffee shop a la carte menu.

In the evenings, the Sibu Recreation Club served siew mai to all the mahjong players until they went home . Although the Club was not similar to an English pub, its concept is still that of a pub, not the modern concept of a social club. Cooked food was minimal, but lots of drinks, both cold and hot,were offered on the menu.

My first taste of mustard was not at all interesting. I found it strange and foreign. But strangely, when a siew mai was dipped in it, the taste of the dumpling took a sudden change and the interaction of bitterness, sweetness and saltiness became just so delectable. After the first bite I remember of my siew mai and mustard, I had a different opinion of this western condiment or sauce.

Mustard is a thick yellow or yellow-brown paste with a sharp taste that is prepared from the ground seeds of mustard plants (white or yellow mustard, Sinapis hirta; brown or Indian mustard, Brassica juncea; or black mustard, Brassica nigra), by mixing them with water, vinegar or other liquids, and adding ingredients such as flour. A strong mustard can cause the eyes to water, burn the palate and inflame the nasal passages. For this reason, mustard can be an acquired taste for some.

Another sauce to eat siew mai with is tomato sauce , again, another foreign or western sauce which the Foochows enjoyed very much in the 50's Sibu and they added it to sweet and sour pork , sweet and sour fish, sweet and sour chicken,etc.

Tomato sauce is any of a very large number of sauces made primarily out of tomatoes, usually to be served as part of a dish (rather than as a condiment). Tomato sauces are common for meats and vegetables, but they are perhaps best known as sauces for pasta dishes. A very popular dish in later years is Kueh Tiaw with tomato sauce.

Tomatoes have a rich flavor, a low liquid content, very soft flesh which breaks down easily, and the right composition to thicken up into a sauce when they are cooked (without the need of thickeners like roux). All of these make them ideal for simple and appealing sauces.

The simplest tomato sauces consist just of chopped tomato flesh (with the skins and seeds optionally removed), cooked in a little olive oil and simmered until it loses its raw flavour, and seasoned with salt.

Water (or another, more flavorful liquid such as stock or wine) is often added to keep it from drying out too much. Onion and garlic are almost always sauteed at the beginning before the tomato is added. Other seasonings typically include basil, oregano, parsley, and possibly some spicy red pepper or black pepper. Ground or chopped meat is also common.

Actually, tomato sauce was an ancient condiment in Aztec Indian food. The first person to write of what may have been a tomato sauce was Bernardino de SahagĂșn who made note of a prepared sauce that was offered for sale in the markets of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City today). Then, Spaniards brought the use of tomato to Europe.

Basic mexican tomato sauces are: tomato sauce (salsa de tomate rojo o jitomate) and green tomato sauce (salsa de tomate verde). The tomato sauce is stock for spicy sauces and moles.

Besides, I have two little remarkable tales associated with tomato sauce. these two tales only redefine or perpectuate the beliefs that Foochow women are very resourceful and hardworking.

One of my friends made her own tomato sauce from tomatoes grown in her own garden. I really admired her diligence. On church sale days, she would donate her tomato sauce to the church.

Another friend from Sabah, made her own tomato sauce and would buy a lot of ikan kembong to make her own canned kembong in tomato sauce. In fact she made a lot of money out of this home based business.

Some additional materials on tomatoes

History of Tomatoes

Contrary to popular belief, tomatoes have been grown as a food since the 16th century, though they have in various times and places been regarded as both poisonous and decorative plants.

The Italian name for the tomato is pomodoro, meaning "apple of love" or "golden apple," because the first to reach Europe were yellow varieties.

Tomatoes were not cultivated in North America until the 1700s, and then only in home gardens. In colonial America (1620-1763), tomatoes were thought to be poisonous and were grown as an ornamental plant called the "love apple." The odor of the leaves made people think it was poisonous. Thomas Jefferson was raising tomatoes by 1782. Most people of that century paid little attention to tomatoes. Only in the next century did they make their way into American cookbooks, always with instructions that they be cooked for at least three hours or else they "will not lose their raw taste."

1809 - According to the article from The Thomas Jefferson Society called Thomas Jefferson's Favorite Vegetables by Peter J. Hatch regarding Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), 3rd President of the United States:

Jefferson was a pioneer grower of "tomatas." Beginning in 1809, he planted this grudgingly accepted vegetable yearly, usually in square X near the midpoint of the garden. Jefferson's daughter, Martha, and daughters, Virginia and Septimia, left numerous recipes that involved tomatoes, including gumbo soups, cayenne-spiced tomato soup, green tomato pickles, tomato preserves, and tomato omelettes. Tomatoes were purchased in 1806 for Presidential dinners.

Fact, Legend or ???

Historians can't agree if the following story is fact, legend, or even a publicity stunt. The source of this story supposedly comes from an old farm journal. How much of this tale is true? Well, as with most legends, probably not much.

While there appears to be little substance to the legend, it is true that the tomato agriculture and related industry developed into the major economy in this area after the American Civil War (1861-1865) and were regarded as a kitchen vegetable and began to steadily grow in popularity. The first Fanny Farmer cookbook, which appeared in the late 1890s, included recipes for tomato soups, salads and sauces without cautions or reservations.

The CBS television series "You Are There" even dramatized the story on January 30, 1949 in the story called "Colonel Johnson Eats The Love Apple," creating the peculiar situation of our being there while Johnson wasn't.

1820 or 1830? - In September of either 1820 or 1830 (the year varies with different accounts), legend has it that Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson (1771-1850) purportedly introduced the tomato to Salem County, New Jersey. Despite warnings that the tomato's poison would turn his blood to acid, he told the cheering spectators that he planned to eat the entire basket and survive. The story goes that thousands of eager spectators turned out to watch Johnson die after eating the poisonous fruits, and were shocked when he lived. Supposedly Colonel Johnson recited this speech:

The time will come when this luscious, scarlet apple...will form the foundation of a great garden industry, and will be ... eaten, and enjoyed as an edible food...and to help speed that enlightened day, to prove that it will not strike you dead - I am going to eat one right now!

Colonel Johnson's physician, Dr. James Van Meter, supposedly warned that:

The foolish colonel will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis. All that oxalic acid, in one dose, and you're dead. If the Wolf Peach [tomato] is too ripe and warmed by the sun, he'll be exposing himself to brain fever. Should he, by some unlikely chance, survive, I must warn him that the skin...will stick to his stomach and cause cancer.

False Memories: The Invention of Culinary Fakelore and Food Fallacies, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2000, by Andrew F. Smith:

Robert Gibbon Johnson was a prominent Salemite and much was written about him. Unfortunately, I found no evidence connecting him to the tomato. The first version of the story appeared in print 86 years after the purported event. All it said was the Johnson ate a tomato in 1820. Subsequent authors embellished the story adding extraneous information and the purported event was dramatized on national radio in 1949. Subsequently versions have appeared in numerous professional and scholarly journals, newspapers, and popular magazines.

9 memories:

FrancisN said...

I love siew mai or dim sims as they are called in Australia.

I like the English hot mustard best over the saltier French mustard.

What will we do without tomato sauce!

I Am Sarawakiana said...

Those of you who would like to buy mustard a good place is Super Save in Kuala Belait,Brunei where there are a lot of varieties.

If you have an opportunity to shop in KL, there are lots of outlets like Tesco, Carrefour,etc.

I like all kinds of mustard and the newer ones with herbs. But I think Wasabi is heavenly, especially with fragrant rice, or anything else.

I like my tomato sauce to be full of garlic and herbs too.

Malaysian entrepreneurs should continue to research on new varieties of tomato sauces and even mustard.

Unknown said...

maybe you can also get mustard at Ta Kiong in Sibu and Kuching. Ask the supermarket

I Am Sarawakiana said...

thank you. Ta Kiong is quite a supermarket with fair prices and a good history.

I have been wondering how these few entrepreneurs have managed to keep going for so many years in their business without losing steam - good of them to keep going and not disappointing the customers. Their advancement to the Spring in Kuching deserves a big applause!!

It is good to see the next generation doing so well.

I Am Sarawakiana said...

Greg and nee,

| am sure you have a siew mai recipe to share. How can I make the siew mai skin from scratch?

What do you use now to colour the top?

Unknown said...

Mustard is available at Everise Suopermarket, 4th Mile Kuching

Unknown said...

Mustard is available at Everise Suopermarket, 4th Mile Kuching

I Am Sarawakiana said...

Thanks Alison. Wasabi is another kind of mustard and it goes well with siew mai too if you like the killer "heat".

Thank you for dropping by.

Unknown said...

Nice & interesting story!


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