June 18, 2018

Sibu Tales : Making Bah Gui from Scratch

Image may contain: food

The pioneering families of Sibu Foochows continued to practise the  adoption of girls from poor families who become their maids (slaves). They were called Ngie Nii. It was a literally a kind of slavery.

Depending on the family values, the girls might be well treated or the opposite. To make it sound nice many of these families would say that they "adopted" the girls. Because to say they these girls were bought would not really sound that Chrisitan, as many of the Foochow families were staunch Methodists.

This is the story which came from my grandmother about one of the adopted girls who wanted to learn how to make white rice cake or bah gui from scratch.

It must be noted here that one of the most important festive dishes for the Foochows is Char bah gui . We Foochows love it. It is usually presented during Duan Wu Jieh and the Moon Cake festival.

This is the story of a young woman who wanted to learn how to make Gah Gui from scratch. She was brought up as a Ngie Nii (sold to the family as maid) but she was luckier than more girls of her standing as her adoptive parents found a good man for her to marry since she was very skilled, intelligent and ever willing to learn. Her adoptive parents found her extremely capable. In fact they were a little sad to marry her off but they could let her stay unmarried all her life! Indeed she was fated to marry a man who loved her. As a newly married woman she worked hard to gain her new family's respect. One of the skills she wanted to learn was to make bah gui. In those days it was not every day that women made bah gui.
She tried to secretly learn how to make it one year by peeping through the cracks of the wall in the wooden kitchen as her neigbhour did not want to teach her. The following year, she dutifully got up very early to make the bah gui since she had already used the stone grinder to mill the rice flour.
However she did not realize that she had used the wrong type of rice to make the dough. She had used glutinous rice instead of the normal rice.
But because she wanted to learn so much, her loving sister in law helped her. They did not waste the glutinous rice flour which they used to make something else.
In the following years she became one of the best bah gui makers in the village.
Those who work hard and are willing to learn are usually rewarded.

June 16, 2018

Sibu Tales : Cake Making and WI

The Women's Institute was recruiting members and our neighbours Kak and her sister joined. They persuaded my mum to join but she was adamant about not joining as she had many children to look after.

Before we had an oven, we used make shift ovens. One of the ways to bake a small cake was to use a curry pot and put charcoals on top. That really worked. We did make some cakes for a few Chinese new year and even a few small fruit cakes!! My mother was not impressed, but she just smiled.

Image may contain: food


Making cake is never her cup of tea from the time ladies came around to recruit members for WI. Thus she was one of the few ladies along our street who did not learn how to bake.

But my father was keen to make her happy and bought her a second hand New World Oven when a British Officer returned to the UK. The whole family was over the moon for in those days not many people owned a good oven.

This led to lots of baking by my sisters using the splendid oven. Our aunts came and roasted chickens too. It was good to have an oven.

June 14, 2018

Pulau Kerto : Duck Ownership

Image may contain: bird and food



Ducks are very intelligent. This is almost a King Solomon's story.


Way back in the 50's in Pulau Kerto, my mother reared quite a big brood of ducks and so did her competitive kind of neighbour. Ours was a bigger brood and grew fast because my mum fed them with chopped vegetables and rice husk (grandpa had a rice mill)

One day our neighbour came over to claim a brood of new ducklings, saying that they were hers.Mum was a bit flustered but my cousin (my baby sitter) was quick to the defense. She said that the two ladies should call the mother duck and whoever could call the mother duck home, the brood would belong to her. Our neighbour started to call " Dee, dee, dee...." (Foochow style, not quack, quack)..the mother duck did not make a move. Mum just said, " Dee, dee, dee, and deee.." six times only and the mother duck graceful came towards her with all the ducklings.

March 24, 2018

Sibu Tales : Liver in the Noodles and other stories

Image may contain: food


I grew up in Sibu where the butchers' corner was the most significant "part" of the old market. It was where many people would gather to buy pork and share a good conversation. Probably for many it was the place to be seen and heard. So in between the ten or more stalls, Foochow would be heard as Sibu then was dominantly Foochow.

There was only ONE Cantonese butcher if I can remember correctly. The son, a former student of the Methodist School, whom we called Ang Ngian, later married the pretty Ah Mek (little sister) daughter of our Cantonese neighbour, whom we called Guong Tern Moo (Cantonese Ah Moo). When we were young, we used very endearing terms like that.

Because of a close relationship between Guong Tern Moo and my mum, one of her sons became my mother's god son (Buong Kuok). We never squirmed or felt uncomfortable when we called him by his childhood name.

For a superstitious reason, Guong Tern Moo and her family called Buong Kuok, since infancy, Ngong Tii or Silly Pig. Silly Pig has been like a brother to us and a son to my mother since then . But we all became politically correct later in life and we decided to call him by his proper name. that was when he was almost in his forties!! Believe you me! And sometimes we still have a slip of tongue and say...Ngong Tii. Now in his 60's he is still making his own fresh noodles for sale and has a good laksa stall operated by his wife (the main chef) and his family. You can say that they have a roaring business. Their day starts at 2 a.m. in the morning.

Another memory of the butcher corner is the fact that every body would know what every body bought. A favourite memory is related to the buying of liver. It was rather bitter sweet for a young girl like me to hear, from adult conversation. It really proved that what grandmothers said was true : when adults talk, children should not listen..Stay away.

It involved the buying of liver. Foochows would use the term "Guan dii gang" or carry some liver.

This Foochow man went to the family butcher to buy some liver every day. And the butcher's wife was very impressed . "Wah for your wife?" This uncle did not say anything.

One day his wife went to the same butcher to get some liver for herself. The butcher's wife was perplexed to say the least.

She carelessly asked, "Wah your husband buys liver every day. Not enough ka?"

Well the man was hauled in by the wife's family, there was an "open" trial in front of the butcher's tall and the truth surfaced.

Ugly it might have been but was quite a dramatic episode in Olde Sibu then.

We Foochows continue to love having slices of liver in our Char Chii Mien which is a very popular dish in most Foochow coffee shops.

I can easily say that no matter what the medical reports say, Foochows still get some iron supply from slices of fresh liver every now and then.

I still love buying fresh pork, hanging from huge hooks, from a local butcher in the traditional way. But times may change and butchers will have to sell their meat from an air con shop.


March 7, 2018

Nang Chong Tales : Padi Field Eels

Image may contain: one or more people, people sitting and food

Padi field eels are going out of fashion in Sarawak. People don't seem to be able to catch them any more. Perhaps they are really getting extinct.

My late Grandmother, Ngie Mah, used to talk about her days in Minqing. She came from Kay Tou Buoh and was sold to become my maternal grandfather's child bride at the age of 5. However, although she came to Sarawak a little later when she was about 10, she could remember many things from my great grand parents' village in Minqing's Luk Du where Wong Nai Siong also come from.

One of her favourite stories was how she and her friends would go to the paddy fields to look for eels. Those were slippery  fish which she had no fear of. Although she was not the one to clean the fish, she would always remember how sweet the eel tasted. She would describe how tasty the dishes were and how they were cooked. Ern Chow or red wine lees was a favourite addition to the preparation of fried eels, or braised eels.

There was no shortage of food if one was creative and willing to forage for them according to her. Her other skill was to look for pangee (or the red crabs ) to make crab sauce.

In Nang Chong she told us that as she raised her children, she and my uncles would try their best to look for different padi field eels )between the first world war and second world war.) She left Nang Chong for Fujian just before the Second World War broke out, in order to build a family house there with the wealth the family garnered from rubber, but unfortunately she lost it when the Japanese came to destroy everything. She was quite broke as she made her way back to Sarawak with my second Uncle and his bride. She also accompanied several young children of relatives from Fujian to Sarawak. God was faithful as He blessed her and all those people who came with her.

I really think that whenever she remembered the food of Fujian, like Hu Liu, she would have some sadness in her heart.

In 2011 I had a chance to visit Pingnan and Minqing where I found eels in the market and also had a taste of several dishes of eels (cooked in different ways).

The eel is easy to clean and is done in the market. The hawker would take the eel out of the basin and push the head of the fish through a nail. He would then slit the throat, down to the tail, clean the eel and then put the cleaned eel into a plastic bag. One KATI of eels would be only a few RMB. A good meal would be made up of about 2 katis accordhng to my hostess. I would not have liked to forage for my own eels in Minqing.

From where my paternal grandfather came from, Wun Chieh, near King Sar, Fuzhou Province, there was no eel as Wun Chieh was in the mountains. My great grandfather and his father were bamboo growers, herbal foragers and vegetable growers. They did hunt for rabbits and wild animals for game. Chickens and pigs would have been their main protein source.

February 20, 2018

Sarawakian Local Delights : Nipah Palm

Image may contain: drink and indoorImage may contain: drink, food and indoor

Gula apong, aka attap sugar aka palm sugar is the sweet sap of the nipah palm (Nypa fruticans)

Nipah palms grow naturally and abundantly in the lower reaches of rivers in Sarawak.

Traditionally, the coastal people harvest the sweet sap from nipah palms which are old enough (usually 5 years and older). A cut is made on the flower to allow the sap to flow into bamboo containers (now recycled plastic bottles). the sap is then for 8 or 10 hours with constant stirring so as to evaporate the water content.

Usually 10 liters of sap produce 1 kg of gula apong.

the thick sugary mass is  stored in small plastic bags or plastic tubs for sale in native markets in Sarawak.

One of the reasons why the gula apong is so tasty is because of the combination of sea salt and the sweetness of natural palm.

the gula apong today is used in more ways than you can imagine. Creative chefs have been challenged to introduce new uses too.

Lovely new product - Gula Apong Icecream


Image may contain: food



The Nipah Palm flowers are beautiful. Female flowers are at the tip which later form the seeds in a large globular cluster (up to 10 inches) on a single stalk. These clusters will float away and grow into palms on the muddy flats.





Image may contain: plant and flower
Male flowers


Beautiful nipah flower at a riparian forest in Sibu, near Bawang Assan.

Image may contain: outdoor
Female flowers are in  a cluster like this.







February 18, 2018

Sarawakian Local Delights : Ikan Lajong

Image may contain: 1 person, standing and outdoor
2.5 kg. by Cikgu Linggie John, Bawang Assan

The ikan lajong (Bintulu Ibans call it supak) is not easily caught by net or by hook these days. This fish was plentiful in the olden days at the confluence of the Rajang and Igan rivers. Apparently they swam from the upper reaches of the Rajang, from the Kanowit river too, to Sibu. The river banks around Sibu and Igan had nets which caught them as the tide went down. The Foochows used to erect fish nets at the mouth of their made made ditches. When the tides went down, children would be so happy to go and catch the trapped fish in the muddy bed of the ditches. This was how my late father and many of his friends caught Lajong and even tapah.

This is a photo from my former Methodist School, Sibu student, Linggie John, who is an avid fisherman from Bawang Assan Longhouse. He is a dedicated school teacher.

The Lajong is a member of the catfish family and is a white fleshed fish. It is also good for making of fish balls (in Thailand). But as a steamed fish, Foochow style, or boiled with assam, it is a good fish as it has no fishy smell at all. In the past this fish fetched only a few dollars but today it will cost you quite a bundle since its fine flesh is very highly valued by all races in Sarawak. 

Its scientific name is Phalacronotus apogon. It can grow into a huge size of 130 m. and could weigh up to 4 or 5 kg.

It is found in the Mekong, Chao Phraya, West Malaysian rivers, Sarawak, Sumatra and Kalimantan (where it is often reared in cages and then smoked or dried and sold as Ikan Salai). Dried fish from Kalimantan is found in the tamu of Sarawak.


Sibu Tales : Making Bah Gui from Scratch

The pioneering families of Sibu Foochows continued to practise the  adoption of girls from poor families who become their maids (slaves). ...