Chic sardines and the kampung variety

26 April 1998

If you grew up in Ireland, the story about the great Potato Famine caused by the cruel and greedy English landlords and imperialists would have been dinned into you. However, when I was growing up in rural Kelantan, my parents instilled in me that there were plenty of things to be learned from the English.

My parents -I do not believe - knew the difference between the English, Irish, Scot, Welsh or British. Of course, they knew who were the Germans, Dutch and French - the Dutch of the East Indies (now Indonesia) and the French of Indo China (now Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). Frankly they would not have known the difference between the English, Dutch, German or French languages! To them all those people were all "orang putih" (pale face).

They were actually correct to call the white administrators in Kelantan British because they were the people of United Kingdom or British. They, I am sure, did not know that Churchill, a distant relative of Winston Churchill, the British advisor of Kelantan in the early fifties, was an English man while his predecessor, M.C.Sheppard, who was the British advisor of Negeri Sembilan, was Irish.

Sheppard was the British advisor of Kelantan in 1950.

SardinesMy father had a British passport because we did not have our own passport until independence and if my memory does not fail me, he was described in the passport as a British subject in a British protectorate. Whatever.

I definitely recall that the passport was blue in colour with the British emblem embossed on it. My father also had an account with the British owned Mercantile bank and not with the Overseas Chinese Bank. Then, only these two banks operated in Kota Baru.

He was as I said in a previous article, definitely not an Anglophile, as we understand it, although he was not averse to the British except for colonizing us.

Before attending formal schooling in 1947, the days in Kampung Bandar inn Kok Lanas-Pulai Chondong did not pass by quietly. There were walks, swimming in the Kelantan River, excursions in the rubber plantations, (sawah), and bushes, top-spinning, stalking birds, simple games and the compulsory Koran lessons.

I was very much the integral part of the village make-up, and have carved a niche in the fabric of the local society which I was to represent in Parliament for two terms in my thirties and forties.

As far as I know, Kelantan never had a famine. If there were one I was never told about it either by my grandparents or parents. No doubt there were many poor people. However I do not believe anyone had to retrieve or ate discarted food. There was enough rice, maize, vegetables, sweet potatoes, tapioca, papaya, fish and ayam kampung and many other food stuffs. If they went to bed hungry every night they could not say it was the fault of the Sultan, the British or the Chinese and Indian shopkeepers.

In my village there was enough food for every one and more importantly enough love and Kampung Bandar, even during the Japanese occupation, did not suffer much hardship; the land was fertile, the villagers hardworking and united. No excess of food but they did have a balanced diet and what more could they want?

My father had many Chinese friends because he was a licensed rubber dealer and many of them would come to my house for lunch but never I recall, for dinner. We had a round marble top dining table with six chairs. Unless we had visitors, we normally ate Malays style. The Chinese visitors would be provided with forks and spoons (no knives, much less fish knives).

Talking about fish knives...not many restaurants in New York, unless they are really upscale, give diners fish knives unlike in Europe. Even in Malaysia, most restaurants would provide diners with appropriate knives - fish and butter knives.

As for the food, inspite of fresh fish, chicken, other meats and, at times, game served, there would always be the inevitable ikan sardin - canned sardines, chicken brand from England which we could buy in Kota Baru and Kok Lanas.

I would occasionally be invited to join the towkays for the meal. The sardines would be deep-fried or served as it was with raw, sliced onions and chilies The sardines were either in tomato sauce or in vegetable oil crammed into little cans or sizable tins.