When I first went to University in Kuala Lumpur one of the food items I missed most was salted fish. I was definitely not used to the new cuisine of curried meat and fish and vegetables not fried in Foochow style. I had never left home for more than a week at a stretch before then. Mee sua was unheard of in the KL coffee shops then so we had to settle for the rather unfamiliar Wan Tan Mien. And many of us were not at all used to beef balls noodles with a lot of lengkuas (which is not easy on Foochow tongue).It was almost as cultural shock for my fellow Sibuans and I.
In my second year most of my friends and I had our mothers deep fry and bottle salted fish fingers. Our mothers would meet and buy salt fish from the Sibu Central Market and share stories about how their children were doing in MU (Universiti Malaya).
A conversation would go like this:
"Hey..how's your daughter doing?"
"Oh that stupid girl...just so so lah"
"My boy also. Ai yo...study hard every day . Sometimes forget to eat. So I have to send him this salt fish."
"Yeah...my stupid daughter also...very frugal. Never want to spend money. Just eat one dollar worth of kuay tiau with one fried egg in the evening."
"My son? He just drinks cold tea . Sometimes three days old tea also drink. Rice and salt fish enough for him. Very frugal...God is kind sending me such a son...Don't know what to do with him!"
We had several "kawans" in the salt fish market: the late Tang Tiong Kuok's father who was my mother's first cousin's husband and my cousin's father in law (Mr. Lee). We would always "teh yu" or buy our salted fish from my mother's Tiong cousin (from my grandmother Tiong Lian's side of the family). He was a haunched and white haired uncle whose children are prosperous titled business people today. In those days every one knew every one. And we even knew where they lived! Most of these salt fishmongers lived in "Ka Koh Chuo" a very famous dwelling place in Bukit Assek. From this house alone we have several Datuks actually.
I like the communal spirit amongst the salt fishmongers - their advice and their wisdom -- telling my mother which was a better buy for example. There was no such thing as best buy or special offer items. Everything was best buy at a price negotiated between the buyer and seller. I learned from the side carrying my mother's shopping basket. Years later as I read Hillary Clinton's book "It takes a Village to raise a child" I agree with her fully. She could have described life in Sibu!!
Today I remember with a smile the friendly men(UNCLES) who sold the salt fish and the others who sold the bean curd and bean sprouts and their sense of humour too. (WE ate a lot of bean sprouts because it was the cheapest we could get for 50 cents - great value).
Here I would like to say "thank you" to all those salt fishmongers (uncles and aunties) of yesteryears...they made our lives better because of their sincere kindness and sympathies.
I learned about Pa Tieh Poh (Ikan Kurau)- Muang Ngii ( Eel)- loong ma ka (wet salted mackerel) sai ngii (shark) hoong mui ngii (sting ray).
My memorable biology lessons in real life from these kindly old men. When they passed away life changed for me as well as for those around them. An era has gone by.
This is salted shark.
This is salted sting ray.
This is salted Ikan Kurau or pa tieh poh (one of the most expensive salt fish in the world) Equivalent to salmon.
This is salted eel or muang ngii - a Foochow favourite. I love it especially if it is not too salty.
As I left the salt fish monger's stall a strange nostalgia overwhelmed me. My eyes misted and I saw shadows of people of the past in front of me. Gone all of them.
It is still the aroma of that salty sea air and the identifiable smells of salt fish that bring us home to Sibu.
And finally who can remember who was the first salt fish monger of Sibu?