October 30, 2017
Sibu Tales : Smelly Root Soup
My maternal grandmother, or ngie mah, was very fond of brewing chow yi dar, or smelly root soup.
The pioneering Foochows of Sibu considered the smelly root as poor man's ginseng. A whole bundle would cost only one dollar in the 1950's.
As children growing up in the village we did not quite like the smell or even appreciate the benefits of having the soup.
The smelly root soup would be plain, without any meat or bones in it. And Grandma would always make some once a week.
However on days after selling of rubber sheets, she would buy a pork leg and some dried squids to cook the smelly root with. That would be the time when our older cousins would love the aromatic smells in the kitchen. I did not acquire the taste of the smelly root soup until I was in secondary school.
My grandmother would in later years remind my mother to get pork leg for brewing smelly roots for Third Uncle and herself and she would enjoy drinking the soup in Sibu.
Smelly root is is litsea cubeba or aromatic litsea. It is also known as May Chang in Taiwan. It is an ever green tree found in China, Indonesia, Taiwan and South East Asia. It is called mountain pepper 山胡椒 in Mandarin. Its fruit is lemony in fragrance from which an essential oil can be derived.
It usually takes quite a long time to boil the smelly root and pork leg. So today many coffee shops offer this dish. Usually it is RM6.00 per bowl, with either Foochow mee sua or just plain white rice. Since dried squid is quite expensive nowadays, the soup nowadays does not have a lot of squid.
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