Saturday, April 26, 2008

Salfted Fish and Salt Fish Mongers of Sibu

When my maternal grandmother was sad and in a pensive mood, she would soop a bowl of overnight old cooked rice,cold and unheated, pour a cup of hot Chinese tea into it,scoop a spoonful of sugar over it , shred two slices of already fried salted fish on top and give it a good stir. And as she looked at her one dish meal, she would shake her head and mumble a little. She would say, "No appetite, cannot eat..." and my third aunt would quickly get all the naughty grandhcildren out of her way, away from the kitchen.

She would slowly eat this bowl of water rice and every one would be very quiet because we knew that she was feeling down.

Somethig or someone must have upset the matriarch. And having such a bowl of "overnight rice" was a huge indication of her present state of mind. So we had all to be behave. My third uncle would be his most charming self, smiling, relax but not talking. There was no time for small talk until the storm blew away.

In the evening, she would sit down on the verandah between the big house and the kitchen, fanning herself....and probably getting to talk again. We waited.

It was like waiting for a storm to pass.

Grandma was not a personwho harboured grudges and after a while, we would all be laughing again.

We have weathered the storm well. And so had she.I am glad she used this method of communicating with us her despair. And we were also very sensitive to her feelings, especially my aunt and uncle. We would all be passing a secret code,"The wind direction is not good."

This is what I remember most whenever we think about salted fish.

Salted fish was a very important part of the the Foochow diet in the early days of Sibu. The Sibu Salt Fish Market was one of the biggest in Sarawak,centralised, well organised and neat in display. It was sight a sight to absorb. One could walk down the aisles and aisles of salted fish, all displayed in their gunny sacks. The smell was tantalising. It was all at once a homely and warm feeling.

Besides we knew all the salted fish monger by sight. But a few would be our "family kawan fish monger", that is, these salt fish mongers were people we would always buy from and we would never get cheated. We just had to tell them who our parents were and we would be given the correct measurement, plus a little more for granmother at no charge, and we would then be so happy to run along. Sometimes we would get a pat on the back, with an additional compliment,"Very clever child." Often with a comment like that I would be walking on clouds.

These salt fish mongers worked very hard. They obtained their salted fish from else where. At night, most of them would sleep with their bags and bags of salted fish. Security was not night, they were the owners and the guards of their goods. And nothing ever happened in all those years I lived in Sibu.

These vendors, like Ah Pan and Ah Kuok's father,Mr. Tang, who was so friendly and human sold dried shrimps of different qualities,cincaro, belachan, crab sauce, shimp sauce, and fish sauce, salted fish of more than 10 types (in foochow - Pah tiak poh, ma ka, ngo yu,ma ka long,yu kan cheong, ba lik or terbok,etc).

Today, in any one place, one cannot find a whole market full of salted fish. In Miri for example, salted fish occupies a very small corner or frontage of an old grocery shop. A few bags of newly sundred and salted fish of less fish types would hange in the tamu. gone are the days when we could pick the choicest of the salted fish.

I would like to see a revival of some exotic salted fish, and have tourists come all from all over the world to look at how we process this huge barracuda, ikan tenggiri and then later feast on the different dishes created from these traditionally preserved fish.

When industries go into high gear, when machinery takes over the lives of the simple folks, tourist industry players cannot offer the exotic, authentic,original and history rich journeys which most discerning travellers yearn for.

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