My mother has many relatives who were salt fish mongers in the main market in Sibu. We have a friend who is even called Tofu Cheong because his father, a Lee, was a maker and seller of tofu in the Central Market and the family lived quite near us on the next road, Hose Lane. There were two Lee families selling tofu, the other one being Lee Kok Leong's father.
In Sibu, Mum would always buy bean sprouts together with tofu. The two would always be bought together as if they were inseparable sisters. And for occasions she would buy tofu wan or the harder tofu cakes. We loved tofu wan, fried in peanut oil, and dipped in a nice soy sauce with chillies, limes and crispy fried onions. Sometimes when mum was not so stressed, she would make a nice brown bean sauce which would be an extra effort on her part.
As kids we were not fond of eating bean sprouts becaue they were so bland, without any taste of its own. We did not even like it in the street rojak that we often bought from the hawker who walked from road to road, pushing his three wheel cart. (Another story)
After my father passed away, we often had bean sprouts on the table almost every day because it was the most affordable vegetable mum could buy with her meagre income. Ten cents of bean sprouts would bring out a whole dish for the family. Mum would cook it with eggs, with tofu, and sometimes mixed with other vegetables. At one time we even had bean sprout soup, which was actually quite nice!!
We often had salted fish, and as mum was always lacking in appetite. My maternal grandmother when she came visiting and she could eat some very watery porridge together with just a few small pieces of salted fish. They would be talking quietly and "pass" a meal together.
Salted fish was usually bought from Datuk Clement Tiong's father, Tiong Chew Thye who was my grandmother's nephew, and as the Foochows would say, closer to her side, and further away from my Tiong 14th District side...... And naturally salted fish was almost "half sold and half given" to my mother. But then salted fish was extremely affordable in those days. We were so well taught about all the different kinds of salted fish available in the market.
After frying the salted fish, mum would save the cooking oil in a small enamel mug for another round of deep frying of salted fish. And the oil at the bottom of the kuali would be heated up to fry a wonderful dish of crispy and crunchy bean sprouts.
From her I learned a lot about kuali and kitchen management through keen observation. A clever housewife would not need to wash her kuali from the first dish to the last dish. Just with a rinse of hot water, the kuali woud be ready for the next dish. That is one of the kitchen wisdom I gained by watching her.
My sister Ni has just reminded me that our ancesters' homeland is near the sea and hence fish and salted fish form a very important cornerstone of our culinary history.
But it was only very recently that the restaurants in Sibu started to stir fry bean sprouts with salted fish. Used to be called the poor man’s dish when many could not afford seafood, this is now a popular restaurant dish. “Clever housewives used a small piece of salted fish to let the family enjoy the taste of the sea, with the fresh crunchy bean sprouts,” a Foochow chef once commented.
The best of the chefs can stir fry the crunchy bean sprouts briefly and salted fish adds an aromatic, savoury saltiness to the dish, making it very appetizing.
Chillies,red capsicum and spring onions add pleasing colour, and nutritional value of this dish.
At home we would always express our delight whenever we have bean sprouts on the table because the topping and tailing of the bean sprouts would be done by my second sister, Sing, who would so patiently do her task. And now my mother already in her 80's would be able to have a good appetite with a bit of salted fish in the dish.
What a wonderful dish bean sprouts and salted fish is!! It not only brings a taste of the sea to our home, but a whole legacy of Foochow culture.
(This article is dedicated to all our uncles and their families, especially Catherine Tiong Siew Hong, who formed such an important history of our Sibu Central Market...thank you for the memories...)