July 31, 2017

Sarawakian Local Delights : Bamboo Shoots

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Bamboo shoots from the rural parts of Sarawak are harvested around July every year.

Bamboo has been grown any where in Sarawak the moment an indigenous group settle in an area, be they Iban, Kelabit, Lun Bawang,Saban or Kayan.

Most bamboo planted by the Ibans can be divided into sweet edible bamboo, construction bamboo, pansuh bamboo (used as cooking pots) and small bamboos (for making baskets). In this way the early migrants have plenty of materials for both food and construction. Many bamboo plants also line padi fields to denote boundaries of ownership.

When Iban farmers walk to work in the morning, they would harvest the fresh bamboo shoots they see. Immediately they will get rid of the layers of inedible coats and take to the farm only the inner hearts for their lunch.

Any surplus will be soaked for two or three days in plain water. This soaking creates some kind of sourness, resulting in a very delicious natural pickle.

God gives us wisdom to handle all the blessings he created for us.

July 30, 2017

Sarawakian Local Delights : Pecari Nenas

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In the olden days, the natives of Sarawak did not use many spices in their cooking. However with more contacts with the Indians, Arabs and the Malays in coastal areas, they have started to use cinnamon, star anise , cloves and curry leaves and even grow them in their gardens.

Curry paste can be made from curry powder sold in tins or bottles and hence curries are often served in longhouses and kampongs even in the upper reaches of rivers.

Pecari Nenas or special pineapple chutney is often served when a gathering is held in the longhouse in Sarawak. In fact it is an easy dish to make as pineapple is often grown in the farm or around the longhouse.

This is also one dish boarding schools serve in the olden days, introduced by Indian and Malay teachers I was told.

Once the frying pan is heated up, oil is added to fry crushed cinnamon, star anise, cloves and curry leaves till fragrant. Then add the curry paste (made from curry powder), dried prawns and continue to fry for a few minutes. Add some water if necessary. Add sliced pineapples and some water. Bring to the boil and continue to cook until the pineapples absorb the "curry" and becomes tender and sweet. That will be about 10 minutes. Finally add coconut milk, salt and sugar and cook for another 5 minutes. Add more water if you like a thinner sauce.

Note : When you wish to prepare for a group of 30 people, you might need 3 medium sized pineapples and adjust your spices and coconut milk.

July 29, 2017

Sarawakian Local Delights : Bunga Kechala and Paku Ikan

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This is one of the easiest dishes to make as both vegetables are readily available in the longhouse compound.

There was this gathering in one longhouse I visited and this dish was prepared for the guests of about 15 including two foreigners. Once the number of guests were estimated upon arrival, the two vegetables were gathered and prepared by the family of the Headman.

The cooks and assistant cooks got all the aromatics ready and soon two or three big kualis were taken out. Rice was cooked immediately. And three chickens were also slaughtered by one of the sons of the Headman. Most longhouse kitchens would have at least two stoves, with gas!! In fact an outside kitchen would even be found, usually for wood fire cooking. Electricity if available makes cooking of rice even more speedy.

The chickens were cooked in two ways, one with terong asam, and another one with soy sauce.

Once the chickens were done, the third kuali was used to prepare the bunga kechala and puku ikan.

It was always amazing to see how fast the kitchen team could complete all the cooking. By noon, a princely feast was ready. Even with some side dishes like sambal belacan, salads and fried pickled bamboo shoots.

Amazing Iban culinary experience.

July 24, 2017

Sarawakian Local Delights : Fried Salted Wild Boar Meat

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Wild boar meat used to be plentiful in the past when rural areas of Sarawak were not opened up to oil palm plantations or timber logging. The Ibans and other indigenous people hunted for food only when they needed. As they were far from any towns or cities, they did not even think of selling the exotic meat they obtained. So hunting was mainly for food, and not for trade.

In recent years with rapid development of the rural areas, wild animals have become endangered although hunting for food is still permissible. Laws are stricter on sale of game meats.

When wild boar is caught, the longhouse people would share according to their adat or regulations. Usually the hunter shares the meat with relatives on his "left and on his right", usually five doors on each side, meaning, he would prepare 10 plates of cut up meat and send them to his 10 relatives. If he had hunted with some friends, then the wild boar would be divided among his friends, his gun would have a share and his boat would have a share too. This is the communal adat of the Ibans living in a long house. However times have changed tremendously and this adat might not be followed.

Wild boar meat is best cooked over an open fire. However to keep some wild boar met for future meals, a housewife would preserve the belly pork especially. This salting of meat is called "kasam". Well made kasam is very tasty. When a family has guests, some kasam is usually prepared with chilli padi and even terong Dayak.

Today kasam babi is considered a delicacy. There is a special sweetness in wild boar meat which lends its special taste and aroma to the salted version.

However according to some gourmets, domesticated wild boar meat may not be the same any more.

July 22, 2017

Sarawakian Local Delights : Nipah Palm shoots

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Upa Apong or Nipah palm shoots are eaten mainly by the people who live in the coastal areas of Sarawak like Mukah, Dalat, Bintulu. In Miri it has not been that easy to buy some upong apong.

The upa apong is a tender palm heart that makes a good vegetable dish. It can be cooked on its own with asam pedas, or as a soup with chicken or seafood.

A palm taken down before it is too old usually yields quite a bit of palm shoots. Probably a palm that is 30 feet tall can feed one village for a day or two.

This palm (nypa fruticans)produces a diversity of minor products.

In Sarawak the leaves are used extensively for roof thatching (atap) and mat making. 

Many people continue to enjoy home made cigarettes called rokok apong. The unfolded leaf sheaths are made into cigarette wrappers (rokok daun) which are cheaper than paper wrappers. 

The production of nipah sugar (gula apong) from the inflorescence and infructescence sap is still an important traditional activity for communities living in the vicinity. Most of the traditional cakes and the sugar produced is consumed locally. 

Nipah sugar is also used to produce alcohol for the local market although the production has declined in recent year.

One of the most popular drinks in Sarawak towns is called Three Coloured Tea. The brown layer of the tea is actually gula apong.

Sarawakian Local Delights : River Prawns and braised noodles

Very often you can catch a few prawns when you cast a net into a river or stream in Ulu Sarawak. A good Iban fisherman who may be already in his 70's can still be very good that casting a good net or jala.

That is a skill that both men and women must need to practise a lot if they want to get fish or prawns. line fishing is a lonely and often unfruitful in the middle and upper reaches of rivers in Sarawak.

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Today many longhouse women have learned to make use of noodles which are packed and easy to use.

One of the dishes they can cook is to boil or braise the quick cooking noodles in a large kuali. Once the noodles are cooked, they are set aside. In another pot, quickly cook halved river prawns with garlic, onions and ginger,soy sauce, and even tomato sauce,  spices and some greens of your choice. Add water to the prawns and cook for a few minutes. Once this is done, add to the braised noodles,mix and cook for a few more minutes until all the sauce is well mixed.

This is a good way of preparing a large amount of noodles for more than 10 people, without having to burn noodles in a kuali.

Prawns,and  vegetables provide an excellent sauce for any noodles.

July 21, 2017

Sibu Tales : Fish Bones in the Throat

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River fish like these have a lot of small bones.

In the olden days, we Foochows would eat almost all kinds of fish we caught ourselves or bought in the market. There was nothing for us to complain about. In fact fish with lots of bones were very aromatic to eat!! Terubok which is full of bones is a flavourful fish.

However, there is nothing worse than sitting down to a fine dinner, only to discover half way through that you have a fish bone stuck in your throat.

A rich man's father was diagnosed with throat cancer in Singapore and he was resigned to an eminent death and very expensive treatment until he found a Sibu doctor who suggested that he went for another x ray after listening to his oral stories and lamentations. The local doctor found a small suspicious thread in the x ray, which turned out to be a fish bone!! The fish bone had been stuck in his throat for more than 10 years. The old man lived happily for many many years after a small surgery.

Whatever it is, to have a fish bone in your throat is really very unpleasant. And for mothers it is most worrying if their small children suffer from this problem. In fact many people prefer to eat "fish without bones" if possible.

An endoscopy to dislodge a fish bone is really unpleasant even if it is just a minor surgical procedure.

However in Sibu it was known to many that one or two WIZARDS could dislodge fish bones in the throat in some magical ways.

There was one Mr. Lau who when called upon to do his magic would take a piece of paper out into the backyard. He would mumble a few words and wrote an invisible word (as if instructed by some dieties) on the paper with his forefinger.

The child's mother would then burn the paper (Hu paper) and place the ashes in a cup of water.

The afflicted child would drink the "medicine" and lo and behold the fish bone wa gone and the child would run around as if nothing had happened.

How Mr. Lau got his special powers no one would know because he died fairly early after he suffered from a lung infection. Many of his relatives live to tell tales of his expertise.

This kind of skill has completely gone out of our society.

July 20, 2017

Sarawakian Local Delights : Herbal Drink - White Snake Grass

 White snake grass is found around kampong houses all over Sarawak. Its scientific name is Hedyotis diffusa. A small plant and easily hidden by other taller plants, it can grow up to 50 cm tall. The roots are slender, branching out , white in colour. The stems are slightly squarish which gives it a special identy. The small white flowers are pretty when you look closely.

This plant has brown seeds which are triangular.

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We used to collect these to make a cooling tea.


It has always been a good tea brewed by "barefoot Chinese medicine men/women. Our ancestors, like my great grandfather would go out to look for herbs, medicinal plants in Sibu and its surrounding areas. How wonderful it must have been for them to identify such good plants which are also endemic in Fujian.

 As kids we were given the drink whenever we had problems of heatiness and when we had difficulties in urination.

For a treat our mother would add some rock sugar to the bitter tea.

In the olden days, this was our free cooling tea or liang teh from nature. 

God is always provident.

July 19, 2017

Sungei Merah Stories : Bottles in exchange for two bottles of lemonade

 It is often an act of kindness which leaves a deep imprint in the mind of a child.

A young Iban child went with her father Lumpoh to sell rubber sheets to the middle men in Sungei Merah not so long after the Japanese Occupation.
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Menai now living in Perth is on the right, wearing black and white striped blouse.
One of their favourite middle men was Kow Dieh or Ninth Brother, who later became my 5th Uncle's father in law. Towkay Kow Dieh was a Heng Hua man who also operated a bus which took passengers to the Sibu Airport from Sungei Merah. His bus occasionally took goods and passengers to Sungei Teku and Bukit Aup. Many Chinese families also hired his bus for funeral processions from Sg. Merah to the various cemeteries.
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Thomas Ling getting two bottles of Aerated Water from a canteen
This Iban child who is now in her 70's remembers her visits to Sg. Merah very well. Going to Sg. Merah in those days was like visiting a big city.

One particular memory she has of her trips to was how her parents would take empty lemonade/aerated drinks bottles in exchange for more lemonade!

July 18, 2017

Nang Chong Stories : Sanba Bride

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Photo by Sarawakiana : 9 Layer Kuih (There are lots of beautiful photos of nyonya kuihs on Google too)

When my mother from Ah Nang Chong or Lower South Village, was newly married she had to face the normal new " daughter in law and new sister in law" kind of orientation. Some of the activities were very positive, some a little daunting to say the least.

While my late father was very much in love with her, as it was an after-the Japanese-Occupation marriage, she was not too sure about the family she was marrying into. First of all, she had to step out of her countryside background to be among the trendy town folks.

Her father-in-law was of a stern character and a man of firmness. His word was law in the family. She also told us that her own father was stern and was not at all showy in affections for all his children. Grandfather Lau Kah Chui was a rubber planter, an agriculturalist brought in by Wong Nai Siong and he was determined to fulfill his dreams of owning a lot of rubber land and rice paddies. He did but his hard work caused his early death. Mum was hardly 15 when she lost her father.

She was tasked to cook and look after a Grandmother-in-law, a well meaning lady and very soft spoken. No words were ever raised in front of her. Great Grandma and my mother got on very well especially in the kitchen.

When relatives visited, nyonya kuih bought from the town, or brought by one of them, among other goodies were served first as "dian ning". Conversations were always very animated in the living room by the river side as the ladies sipped their tea.

However, Mum was always asked to slaughter a chicken and prepare the mee sua at the back of the house. Big bowls were always brought out to indicate Foochow generosity and hospitality. "Duai" or big bowls gave a lot of face. After having the mee sua in the kitchen, which was joined to the main house by a verandah, the relatives would re-enter the living room and continue to chat while my mother would clear the bowls, and wash the pots and clear up the kitchen.

A little daunted, she learned from the town folks that kuih was not part of sanba people's sub culture. With such a remark or two heard over the first two years, my mother decided to learn the art of nyonya kuih making. Today after more than 65 years, her yam cakes, and nine layer kuih for example are still very top range. Her secret tip given to us : always use the best dried prawns and never be short of such an ingredient in your cupboard.

She was also carefully taught how to use a small fork to eat kuih by my father. 

Our late paternal grandmother Siew once commented, "Most town relatives had already learned about fine dining from the foreign pastors. The young ladies educated in Yuk Ing Girls' school have benefitted from Mrs. Hoover's teaching." On the other hand, my mother went to Kai Nang Primary school and then Chung Cheng Secondary School. She was a Kai Nang primary school teacher for three years before she married my father in 1948. My father first saw her at a jetty in Ensurai, carrying two pails of water from the river. His first thought of her was, "What a strong woman!" Sometimes my mother would whimsically say to us, "My father was too poor to send me to town to study in Yuk Ing Girls' School and be trained by Mrs. Hoover. In comparison, I hardly know English...and you are all English speaking!!"

Always trying to improve herself, she learned how to cook some "town dishes" from my father. A very significant dish she learned was how to cook curry from my paternal grandfather's only sister, Grand Aunt, or Goo Poh, Chang Yuk Ging. This curry which we call Foochow Goo Poh's Curry is well loved and is often served by my daughter in Kuala Lumpur and my children in Perth.

Nowadays,whenever I see nyonya kuih muih or whenever I eat some, I would be thinking of the young,timid,soft spoken, pretty bride who had to adapt herself in a large extended family.

(This posting is dedicated to all my siblings and children and Ari my grandson, who has Nyonya and Baba bloodline )

July 15, 2017

Sarawakian Local Delights : Fried Home made salted fish

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There are two ways of making salted fish in the longhouse.

Salting of fish is easy in the longhouse. Rough coarse salt has to be used. The fish must be cleaned first and all stomach area removed properly.  After salting the fish for a day, the fish will be laid out on a rattan shallow basket to be dried in the sun. The sun drying can be carried on for a few days until the fish is dry and light. This kind of salting fish is simple and is a common practice among all the groups of people of Sarawak.

The second method of salting fish is called KASAM by the Ibans. The first salting of the fish will be done by rubbing salt on the fish and leaving the fish to drain in a colander. After a few hours the fish will be placed in a large bottle, more salt will be added with some cold rice. In this way the fish will ferment a little. On the third day the salted fish can be fried like in the dish above or steamed. Fish which is good for salting in this way are ikan Sultan, Ikan Kaloi, ikan patin, ikan belida, ikan tapah and especially empurau and semah.

July 14, 2017

Sibu Tales : Tong Ngii (Labi labi)

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Photo of river tortoise meat from Inggol Ranggong. Murum.

Soft shelled river tortoise is a delicacy for the Foochows and other ethnic groups who lived in Sibu. Before the laws were passed to protect endangered specieis, it was sold in the open market like any other fresh meat. In those long ago days, most Foochows would buy whatever wild meat that was available in the market. My mother also has told us that during that era most families were daring and would eat porcupine, anteaters, deer, snakes, monitor lizards and another other meats made available by hunters who came to sell. The hunters did not even need a licence to sell their meat!!

My late father enjoyed eating Tong Ngii and he would always buy a fresh leg when he saw some fresh soft shelled tortoise being sold .

Some fishermen who caught the soft shelled tortoise would also approach him to buy. But he would only buy a portion and let other take some too.

He liked the leg to be cut up and cooked in a plain soup with lots of ginger. According to my mother he like the soup because it was a delicacy fit for a king!! Besides tortoise meat was really health giving and tasty. He believed that Traditional Chinese Medicine had records of soft shelled tortoises for food and medicine for hundreds of years. Besides it is also known by our elders that the soup would enrich one's kidneys, and blood.

Interesting it is cooling for our bodies and has been recommended by Chinese sinseh for menopausal women!!

Definitely most people believe that tortoise meat will give one longevity.

Each time we had some soft tortoise soup on the table my late father would remind us not to tease a tortoise or a turtle. He told us that we we got bitten by a tortoise or a turtle, it would not let go of our little finger until a thunder sounded. That would be the time when the tortoise would open its mouth to release our fingers or hand!! We were terrified !!

July 8, 2017

Sarawakian Local Delights : Chinese Radish and Radish Tops

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The Chinese lobak is easily grown in the loamy soils of hilly parts of Sarawak and by the banks of the rivers. Most farmers would have good harvests after a few months. It would be one of the first vegetables grown by students in boarding schools in the past. Many boarding school students remember selling their Chinese radishes to the school kitchen.

When I was teaching in SEDAYA, Kanowit, I also grew two plots of this vegetables as part of the school "Grow your own vegetables campaign" together with the school's Husbandry Club. After I harvested the radish I was able to give away to friends and relatives in Sibu. Unfortunately I did not learn how to salt and dry the radish then.

We had a good time learning about vegetable growing.

The Chinese lobak is a good soup vegetable and it is often cooked with dried squid or just any dried fish. One must never forget that the tops are also edible. In fact the greens are full of minerals and vitamins.

To me, the greens are tasty, with a bit of bitterness. The soup is very aromatic, refreshing and spicy.

July 6, 2017

Foochow Stories : The Chinese Consul General to Borneo



Cho Huan Lai Memorial aka Keningau War Memorial is found in Keningau in Sabah.

It is a monument dedicated to Chinese Consul General Cho Huan Lai and his colleagues who were executed by the Japanese on 6th of July 1945

He was from Fuzhou and had visited Sibu  which welcomed him. The welcoming committee was led by Kapitan Lau Kah Tii.

His visit was well documented by Lau Tze Cheng.

Every year in July thee is a memorial service in Keningau.

卓还来博士 was born in Fuzhou in 1912.

July 4, 2017

Nang Chong Stories : Cow Legs Stew for Family and Neighbours

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When my maternal grandfather completed his new house which was designed with four apartments,  for 4 families (He planned for his four sons) in Lower South Village (Ah Nang Chong), he had already planted 200 acres of rubber and had enough saved to move out his young family from his elder brother's big mansion in Ensurai.

Though my mother and some of her siblings were born in one of the rubber garden houses, my grandfather had moved his family into the big mansion called the Lau Mansion which was completed in 1924.  There my mother grew up with her siblings and cousins and even went to primary school set up by the uncle, Lau Kah Tii. Thus the younger brother of Lau Kah Tii and his family lived in the big mansion for about 10 years.

When my mother was 12 years old my maternal grandfather completed his own house and moved his family from Ensurai. Around this house was a big padi field which my mother and her eldest brother and sister in law planted rice during the Japanese Occupation. In later years the land was also used for growing of tangerines and other vegetables. Pigs and chickens and ducks were reared nearer the house. It was a good house surrounded by good neigbhours . There was a road which even went as far as Nasit and Sg. Tulai.

My grandfather's signature dish was cow leg stew. Each leg cost around 50 cents which he would boil for almost the whole day. Neigbhours from as far as 10 houses away came to enjoy the stew. My grandfather enjoyed fellowship with his neigbhours and friends. No one would be turned away from the house if they missed the boat to Sibu, or came back too late to go home to the Au San or the villages behind Ah nang Chong.

Mum told us that they were not wealthy but they had enough to share food with their fellowmen.

My grandfather was a man who sincerely shared bread with others.

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). ...