A slice of winter melon and a slice of Foochow history for today!
When people re- settle in a new place what do they eat when they miss home? Or what food would nomads bring when they move from place to place in Sarawak? In recent years what would padi planters bring to their temporary huts during the planting season if their farm is far away from home?
This brings to my mind what my Foochow forefathers brought to Sibu when they arrived in March 1901. I used to bombard my grandmother Lau Lian Tie with too many questions on what she ate in Sibu when she first arrived with Wong Nai Siong. What did she do? What dishes did she prepare? What crops did she grow?
She was ever so patient with me in her answers. She said they had fish from the river and meat from the jungle besides others. She was then only 5 years old but by the time I was old enough to wonder she could still remember a great deal. At first according to her it was quite hard as they had to make sure they did not eat up all their rations brought from China and then slowly they had to stock up new crops. There was one year when they had very little to harvest and in other years there were too many rats. (Ref : Lau Tze Cheng)
The Rajah Brooke and his government if she remembered clearly also provided some food. They started planting vegetables straight away.
She told me that they brought seeds of pumpkin and different kinds of beans and gourds. One of them was the winter melon or Turn Kua. They had actually brought with them lots of winter melon which can be kept for a long time for as long as six months of more. It is called Winter Melon because the melon could last the whole winter after plucking them. And they brought salted fish and dried fish from the Min River. One very valueable dried food they brought was "meng ngii" or dried squids.
Because of the humidity she also said that cooked food rotted very easily and they were often shocked to find their rice pot mouldy and sourish. It was a tragedy to them to have food wasted in this manner.
It wasn't easy for many of the women who had bound feet . The women with big feet were able to carry water from the river to the kitchens to cook. My grandmother at that time had just removed the binding cloth from her semi bound feet. The Lau family which "bought" her for FIVE SILVER DOLLARS had her feet unbound. It was fortunate that her feet were able to flatten out but then she had really small feet indeed. Furthermore the damage had not be done and she was able to walk normally and quickly with her very tiny feet.
Incidentally the Borneo Island has a lot of river fish like the Lajong and Lais which are easily dried or SALAI -ed since the climate is hot and the temperature would permit drying or smoking of fish easily.
Thus a diet of dried fish and vegetables was normal. Meat for the Foochow forefathers would come in the form of wild boar and the occasional deer. They would have hunted with spears and most probably they would have been very good at setting up traps. Even today in Min Qing in China I still know of people who set traps for rabbits on the hills.
And here you go...a present day soup made from smoked ikan Lias and winter melon.....This ikan lias comes from the Kapuas River and is found in the market in Lachau.
this is a close up of Salai (smoked or dried) ikan Lias from the Kapuas river of Kalimantan.
The whole fish is about 14 inches to 16 inches long. Well smoked fish smells good...and you can "feel that you are home in the village" when in breathe in the aroma. So I am sure our forefathers would be dreaming of Fujian when the even meal was ready and the smell of food floated out from the kitchen. As the sun slowly set and they rested for the day after a lot of hard work they would say a prayer of thanks for the food they could put on the table and look forward to an abundant and blessed future in a new land!!
Winter melon was probably "imported" by the Chinese from China. There is this story why the Ibans called the vegetable Buah Ensaya. The Ibans saw the Bisayas growing them. in the 1920's.The Bisayas grew them a long time ago because they obtained the seeds from the town people who were the Chinese!.
A slice of winter melon. One winter melon is good for three or four meals.
Usually we cut the winter melons into cubes for our soup. We normally boil the winter melon in the pot first with some ginger and pepper.
Finally when the melon is cooked we add slices of ikan lias....This is a very tasty soup!
My grandmother used to say "If you can work hard you will get plenty to eat....one is only afraid of people who do not want to work!!" Hence that has become a catch word in my family - work hard to put food on the table...and never be lazy...Hor Siah Lan Joh...is a descriptive phrase a man who loves to eat bujt won't work. We used to be reminded of it every day when we were young.....
This article and many other articles are written in memory of my wonderful maternal Grandmother who filled my childhood with a great sense of wonder - through her story telling and role modelling. She would have been 115 years old this year if she had been alive!!