My sacrifice…

It’s already the 2nd Friday in Lent today. The penitential season this year started on Ash Wednesday last week, the 26th of February, a day of fasting and abstinence for all Christians. This…

Lent

…may be of some use to anyone who would like a bit more information on what this is all about.

I remember in my growing up years, we would abstain from meat every Friday throughout the year and eat fish instead. Fish was bountiful and cheap in those days but these days, they are very expensive and may be considered a luxury so I would not consider it much of a sacrifice to forego meat for it or prawns or all kinds of seafood, for that matter.

Fasting way back then would mean porridge all day long and fish or salted fish which incidentally, does not come cheap these days either. Ah well! What is cheap these days? I do not have to fast anymore – senior citizens over the age of 60 are exempted but abstinence from meat is a must but anyway, I still try to fast the best I can.

Last Friday, I cooked this…

What I cooked

…for the family for our meals, something light for lunch and dinner. All of us skipped breakfast that morning but the general ruling is we would be allowed two light meals, the amount less than a regular meal on other days and come evening time, we could have a full meal for dinner.

These days, it is very easy for us as we can get fresh fish paste (frozen) from Jakar and Sarikei, mackerel/ikan tenggiri no less…

Fish paste

…and we can use that to make our own fish balls.

I bought some tau kua (bean curd cakes), cut them into halves and cut a slit in them into which I stuffed the fish paste and I deep fried them lightly for use. I used the rest of the fish paste to make fish balls and cooked them with a few cloves of garlic and tang chai (preserved vegetable) in water for the soup and after it had started boiling, I added the stuffed tau kua. I served it with tang hoon (glass noodles) and some khiew chai (curly vegetables) by the side, garnished with some fried sliced shallots and finely chopped daun sup (Chinese celery). I think they have salt and msg in the fish paste so I did not need to add any – the soup was salty and tasty enough.

We had a lot of leftover rice and my missus cooked some kim chi fried rice…

Kim chi fried rice

…for dinner and of course, my girl loved it! No, I did not touch it – I just stuck loyally to my tang hoon in tau kua fish ball soup.

I’m not sure what we’ll be having today but considering how times and things have changed, I do feel that instead of having fish, while abstaining from meat, one can abstain from say…using the smartphone or going online, things that we enjoy, for one day…or more.

The dance…

Maha Shivaratri is a Hindu festival celebrated annually in honour of Lord Shiva. It marks the night of the heavenly marriage and consummation between Shiva and Parvati and it is also the night when Shiva performs the heavenly dance.

There is a Shivaratri in every luni-solar month of the Hindu calendar on the 13th night/14th day, but around February/March, they celebrate the Maha Shivaratri which means “the Great Night of Shiva”.

No, I did not know all this but that night I was invited by my Indian friends, Andy and Varun, at Payung to a special thali (a set Indian meal) they were hosting to celebrate this auspicious occasion. Unfortunately, all the photographs that I took did not come out well except this one of the poori

Poori

…that we had, a deep-fried bread made from unleavened whole-wheat flour. It went very well with everything that was served on a banana leaf…

Special thali dinner
*Andy’s photo*

…and I even asked for a second helping, another two or three pieces, I can’t remember now.

There seemed to be two main dishes, one that looked like minced meat but cooked using black chickpeas, probably the kala chana curry and the other, the potato bhaji – you can see a bit of that in the above photograph. The other one that you can see in the photograph, top right, is the gajar halwa, an Indian carrot pudding served as a dessert along with the Indian rice kheer, a rice and milk dessert – both of these were slightly sweet, very slightly and I enjoyed them very much.

Varun made a vadai too, not quite the same as the ones that I am accustomed to. He said that was his first attempt as that is a South Indian delicacy and he comes from the north and he did say that they do not serve meals on a banana leaf there either as the plant is not common in the colder climatic conditions unlike the places in the south.

There was a soup using red beans, the bigger version and also an Indian drink that reeked of spices and ginger.

That certainly was a delightful and most interesting evening – we enjoyed the exquisite dinner and the pleasant company…

Thali dinner at Payung
*Andy’s photo*

Thank you so much, Andy & Varun, for inviting us to your celebration of this very special Indian festival.

PAYUNG CAFÉ (2.284049, 111.833014) is located at No.20F, Lanang Road, Sibu, Malaysia, back to back with the multi-storey car park of the Kingwood Hotel which faces the majestic Rejang River.

Both ways…

Last year, my missus and I had our Valentine dinner here

Payung table decor

…and my girl complained that she did not have the chance to be with us that night as she was still at her school in the jungle at that point in time.

Of course, this year, when we went there again, she was able to be with us…

One for the memory Valentine's Day 2020

…this time around and needless to say, that made her very happy indeed.

They were charging RM45.00 per head only this year, RM60 last year while other places around here were asking for no less than RM100-200, RM300 even at some places. According to Peter, the boss, they did not have this kind of promotion in the past and when it got very crowded and everyone was ordering everything on their menu, it was such a lot of work and one helluva mess. This way, they would be able to focus on the items in their set menu so it would not be so much of a hassle.

I think there were more items in their buffet spread last year – probably that was why it was more expensive plus this year, they also cut down on their expenses on the decor and kept it real simple.

I must say that RM45.00 is a steal as if you were to go there and order a main dish (RM18.00) and a salad (RM8.00) plus a mushroom roll (RM12.00) and an ice cream (RM10.00), that would be more than RM45.00 already and that night, we had more than just these…and yes, there were a lot more customers this year, compared to last year, a full house! That was why I would say that it did work out for the best for us, both ways.

Each person could only choose one of the main courses and my girl picked the beef bolognese spaghetti…

Beef bolognese spaghetti

…while I had the Afghan chicken with rice…

Afghan chicken with rice

…and my missus had the Indian butter chicken with rice…

Indian butter chicken with rice

The other two options available were their Payung chicken (cooked with yogurt) and their beef rendang. There was a lot of beef in the pasta sauce and I had to help my girl finish off the meat in the end and I also had to help my missus with the chicken AND a bit of her rice.

There were two types of soup, eat all you can – fresh tomato and mushroom and garlic buns to go with them…

Fresh tomato & mushroom soups with garlic buns

I had the tomato initially and I was thinking that I could go for the mushroom and more of the garlic bread later but in the end, I was simply too full to go for more.

I so loved the potato salad…

Potato salad

…and had a second helping of it. The ladies liked it too but they liked the fruit salad…

Fruit salad

…more and other than the two, there were also the herbs salad and the guava salad.

The mushroom roll…

Mushroom roll

…was so popular that they simply could not make them fast enough. The instant a plate was out of the oven, it would disappear in a blink of an eye! The salads and the mushroom roll were also in the eat-all-you-can category.

We were already filled to the brim when Peter served us this beef rendang

Beef rendang

…and there was no way we could eat that. All of us sampled a bit each and sent it back to the kitchen so it would not go to waste.

There was also a limit on the ice cream – durian, mango or chocolate, pick one and my missus and I both had the durian…

Durain & Kahlua ice cream

…while my girl wanted the Kahlua and they were nice enough to make an exception. There were cakes too, blueberry and chocolate but I was already way too full for those and besides, I  thought I would just give them a miss after the overdose of cakes and cookies over Chinese New Year.

That certainly was a delightful evening and we sure enjoyed the dinner very much. If they are going to hold something like this again next year, rest assured that we will be the first in line to go for it…and perhaps, I shall suggest to Peter that he could set up a photo booth – perhaps he can decorate that “little hut” behind me in the above photograph for couples to have their photographs taken to remember that special night in the year.

PAYUNG CAFÉ (2.284049, 111.833014) is located at No.20F, Lanang Road, Sibu, Malaysia, back to back with the multi-storey car park of the Kingwood Hotel which faces the majestic Rejang River.

Not that simple…

Chap Goh Meh or the 15th Night of the Chinese Lunar New Year marks the end of the festivities and that night, members of the family will sit down for another dinner, not unlike the one on the eve of Chinese New Year’s Day except that these days, with the world getting smaller, families have grown so much apart and many cannot stay that long so many would have gone back already with their own families to where they came from in the other parts of the country or in countries far away.

In Mandarin, it is called Yuan Xiao Jie (元宵节), which means the Prime Night Festival and it is also called the Lantern Festival, not to be confused with the Mid-Autumn Festival which we often refer to as the Lantern Festival as well.

Usually, we would have a steamboat dinner as I do feel that a steamboat dinner with everyone in the family is so very symbolic. It helps enhance togetherness and unite all the family members as they sit around the pot, talking and eating while at the same time, laughing and enjoying one another’s company, thus creating a natural atmosphere of closeness among all those present.

This year, however, Chap Goh Meh fell on a Saturday and every Saturday evening, we would go to the novena and sunset evening service in church. That was why we decided to have a simple popiah lunch…

Popiah lunch

…instead.

It sure looks simple but having a popiah get-together entails quite a lot of work. I had to cut the long beans very thinly and also the carrot while my missus used the grater to grate the mangkuang/sengkuang (turnip). I like to add carrot these days for the colour and the taste and unlike before, I do not add taugeh (bean sprouts) anymore as it may go bad plus I do not like it overcooked, all shrivelled up, especially after reheating. The tau kua (bean curd cake) would have to be cut into thin slices too and somebody would have to peel the garlic and chop till really very fine for use.

I had bought the prawns earlier and the shell had to be removed and the crustaceans deveined and on the actual day, I just had to chop and mince them. I did not use any minced meat that day. No, that’s not all! I also had to pound the chilies for the paste and crush the kacang tumbuk (crushed peanut), fry thin pieces of omelette and cut them into long, very thin strips and there was also the caramelised sugar syrup (what people loosely call tee chio) to prepare too.

Personally, I do not think it is all that tedious, just that it needs quite a bit of time to do everything slowly and passionately to prepare all that will be required. Perhaps, if everyone gets into the thick of the action together and helps out with this and that, it will be done in a jiffy but this cranky old man is very fussy about cutting and pounding everything by hand with perfect precision, the way the folks in the previous generations would do it.

We can’t get really good popiah skin here plus it is also very expensive. The quality is so poor, thick and rubbery, yellowish with a  kind of fermented/flour smell and tears easily and we end up throwing a lot of it away. These days, I would just buy the frozen supermarket ones, not the best, of course but the brand that I use is not too bad.

To cook the filling, I fried the garlic in a bit of oil till golden brown, followed by the minced prawns and the long beans and carrot. These may take a while as they would have to be cooked till soft – I do not like them hard in my popiah. Lastly, I added the tau kua and the mangkuang/sengkuang with a few dashes of oyster sauce for added taste…

Popiah filling

To wrap the popiah, I like to line the base with lettuce so the chili paste will not wet the skin, rendering it soft and prone to tearing. On top of the chili, I would put the filling, followed by the strips of omelette…

Step by

…before sprinkling a whole lot of the kacang tumbuk on top…

...step

I will apply the caramelised sugar syrup to the sides of the skin before rolling and wrapping it up…

Done!

…and it will help make everything stick in place.

We may be able to get some pretty good popiah in Kuching, here and here, for instance, but not in Sibu and even those good ones would pale in comparison to the ones we would make ourselves, following our family’s own recipe that has been handed down from my mum’s generation to my generation – the best in the world, second to none!

Many would ask why bother going through all that hassle of making and eating popiah

Eat it

– just go out for a nice dinner somewhere and be done with it but if you ask me, I would say that part of the enjoyment is in the preparation, truly a labour of love and there is a whole lot more significance in the sitting down together as a family to wrap the spring rolls and enjoy eating them together and furthermore, many fail to see the symbolism of everything wrapped closely together in such close proximity in the popiah.

Well, if you don’t see how it actually goes way beyond what may look so very superficially simple, nothing much to get excited about, this short film may be able to help you understand and at the same time, arouse some of those emotions involved but be forewarned – make sure you have a box of tissue beside you!

Greens…

My niece, the one working in Singapore, was back for Chinese New Year and because she took some days off, she was around for a week or so. Well, the other night, she asked us to go out for something light for a change after having had an overdose of all the heavy and sweet and rich stuff over the last few days during the festival.

She suggested going here – she seems to quite like the place and of course, we did not mind it one bit and boy, there was quite a crowd that night even though it was already the 5th Day of the Chinese lunar new year and the holidays were over and a lot of people would have gone back to where they came from.

We wanted all the greens so we had the usual midin, ching chao (fried plain)…

Ruby midin

Personally, I like it best done this way as I can enjoy the sweetness and crunchiness of the wild jungle fern.

The cangkok manis fried with egg…

Ruby cangkok manis

…was all right that night unlike the last time when I had that here.

We decided to try the butter baby kailan

Ruby butter baby kailan

– I don’t recall ever having this before and yes, we all thought it was nice.

For something light, we ordered their signature own-made tofu…

Ruby tofu

…and their claypot pork belly with salted fish and dried chili…

Ruby pork belly

…both of which were, as always, to everyone’s liking.

The total for the food came up to over RM50.00 only for the six of us, so very cheap considering that it was less than SGD20.00. I guess that is one of the reasons for the popularity of this place, cheap and nice.

RUBY RESTAURANT  is located at No. 71, Jalan Kampung Nyabor right next to HOME COOK CORNER  (2.292756, 111.825335) with the AmBank Tunku Osman branch in the very next block.

Open house…

I’ve known the open house tradition for as long as I can remember.

We had it twice a year, at Christmas and soon after that, at Chinese New Year. My dad was a businessman and he had many friends and customers who would come round to enjoy my mum’s curry, served with bread and everyone loved her cakes and cookies too, not forgetting our very special “Singapore rambutans” which would always bear fruit around that time of year. This year, I was glad to be able to do the same with the rambutans from the sole-surviving tree at the back of my house.

In my childhood days, come Hari Raya Puasa/Aidilfitri, I would go with my Malay/Melanau friends from the neighbourhood to the houses in the kampungs in the vicinity. Their open house concept was a bit different then – they would welcome anybody and everybody dropping by and once at a house, the old folks would “interrogate” us, asking us whose children we were and so on and so forth. In the small kampung community, everybody knew everybody so nobody was a stranger. I remember those tiny glasses in which they would serve the drinks and also their long tables filled with all kinds of cakes in a myriad of colours – they did not use to serve food as in curry and rendang and what not back in those days.

Later, as I grew bigger/older, I remember what a lovely time I had with my friends in the 60’s, right through till the 70’s when we went on our bicycles to visit house after house after house, relatives and friends alike, from morning till night and my friends would come on their bicycles to my house too! What joy that brought us and how sad it is that the young ones these days don’t do this anymore, or not that I know of, that is!

Unlike my parents before, I no longer have open houses come Christmas every year but I would have it during Chinese New Year which is usually not long after that – this year, they were only a month apart. However, we had not had that for some two years now owing to the demise of my parents, first my dad and then my mum.

I do enjoy holding open houses but sad to say, I did not have a lot of friends visiting me this year. Other than the guys from Payung and my good friend, Lim, and his family, and not forgetting, the wonderful people, my friends, from the petrol station that I frequent here in Sibu, nobody else came.

On my part, I only visited the elders in my family – my uncle (my father’s younger brother) and my aunt (my father’s younger sister) to convey my Happy Chinese New Year greetings and the latter did come over to my house with all in her family.

Some of my girl’s colleagues from her former school dropped by too, a special thank you especially to those who drove all the way from there to town just to come and visit. A friend of hers, going all the way back to Primary One, came with her family and another good friend of hers, also a teacher, was here with two of her nieces. Her coursemate, the very nice guy from Terengganu, who was with her in Sg Petani and Wellington, New Zealand and is now teaching in Sibu, visited us too with his wife and son.

All the rest were my ex-students including one from my English tuition class who scored straight A’s in English (SPM & 1119) and is now an English teacher in her own right. Among my ex-students who came were these two…

SHS students

…and another one who came with his family the day before as he did not read the messages carefully and ended up coming earlier.

Another student, who dropped by my house when he and his family arrived home from Kuching to pass me some lovely dishes that he brought all the way, made it a point to come by as well. He said that he did meet some of his ex-classmates and the mere mention of my name would send shudders up their spine and they were reluctant to come and visit. Hmmm…and I thought I was always very nice when I was teaching them – I guess it was the size that all of them found intimidating. LOL!!!

Then there were two from another former school where I was teaching in the 90’s – they came with their children and these two brothers and a sister, also from that same school, came with theirs…

The Toh family

Of course, I prepared ang-paos for the children…

Ang paos

…and those eligible bachelors and spinsters, never mind how old they may be, for good luck and I must thank my friend at my regular bank who would always help reserve those new bank notes for me for the purpose.

And a very big thank you to the Headmistress, the Senior Assistants and my girl’s colleagues…

St Rita staff

…from her current school who took the time to drop by as well, truly a lovely and special gesture that is most appreciated indeed.

In my neighbourhood, I only saw two houses that had visitors, probably just the members of the family. For some reason, the other houses in my lane were rather quiet. Perhaps like us in the past two years, they too had their reason, I wouldn’t know but what I do know for a fact was that many had their reunion dinner on the eve of Chinese New Year’s Eve so they could go some place the following day and would not be celebrating the festival here.

When I was in Singapore in 1973, I saw that they had their family reunion dinner and in the days that followed, they would just sit at the tables playing mahjong or whatever and I heard that this would be the usual practice in the peninsula too. Sad to say, it looks like the practice of holding open houses is gradually becoming a dying tradition.

Nonetheless, I, for one, would continue to observe and preserve our heritage and enjoy the bonding, all the good wishes and the positive vibes, all that joy and laughter shared with everyone who cares enough to stop by. Thank you once again to all who came this year and thanks to those who brought along a little something too…

Family & friends…

My good friend, Lim, and his family went back home to Kuching for Chinese New Year and they drove all the way back on the 3rd Day, arriving in Sibu late in the night.

I invited them over to my house on the evening of the 4th Day – we used to do this quite often before but with their kids all grown up now and their work commitments and all plus we were tied up at one time taking care of my ailing parents, we could barely find time to do this and since the schools were still having their holiday, I thought that would be a good time to get together like old times. I also asked my sister to join us, 9 of us altogether.

Of course, we did not serve them all the left overs from our reunion dinner and our open house on the first day. This was a fresh batch of my missus’ chicken curry…

Chicken curry

– the last of the lot. She cooked a whole lot and kept it in separate tubs so she could heat up a tub at a time to serve and yes, she also fried her ngor hiang

Ngor hiang

– she would pre-steam these to keep and then deep-fry a few at a time to serve.

This was a new one too – I ordered two that day and we had finished the first one, the duck stuffed with glutinous rice…

Duck sticky rice

…from a leading hotel in town. If anyone is curious, this is what it looks like inside…

Duck sticky rice, inside

– the duck, deboned and stuffed with something like lor mai kai that one would usually get at those dim sum places.

My niece, the one working in Singapore, gave us these when she came home that day – the overrated, celebrated Muar otak-otak

Muar otak-otak

I think she did say something before like this would be much nicer than the one at Payung but of course, we would disagree 100%. My West Malaysian friends from KL that day would vouch for the fact that the Payung one is in a class of its own, many many cuts above and a whole lot nicer – they loved it so much that they immediately placed orders to take home – and it came as no surprise that none of us that night had anything nice to say about this one.

I also steamed a fresh pack of sio bee

Sio bee

…from here and I had this super-duper spicy tempoyak

Payung tempoyak

…from Payung which, in fact, is cooked durian, not really the fermented version of the fruit and we also had this very nice sambal petai

Sambal petai

…from a Malay lady who sells some very nice dishes at her stall in front of her house along Jalan Ria at its T-junction with Jalan Kpg Datu Baru.

They went really well with the last bundle of the banana leaf-wrapped ketupat/kelupis

Ketuapta/kelupis

…that my aunt gave me that day.

My missus also fried this dish of broccoli…

Fried broccoli

…and steamed one of the two Chinese silver pomfret or 斗底鲳 (Dao Dai Chong/ikan bawal tambak) that I bought…

Steamed fish

…which one of my West Malaysian friends that day told me is a class above the regular pek chio (white pomfret). I did not know that before this – to me, it was either black (or chio) or gold (kim chio) or white (pek chio). Personally, I think the Soon Hock we had for our reunion dinner that day was nicer.

I guess they all enjoyed the dinner and I, for one, enjoyed every moment of the get-together – the catching up with one another’s lives, the bonding, the laughter and the joy. Such good vibes all round sure auger well for a bright and happy year ahead.