26 April 1998
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I noticed that most of my father's friends preferred ayam kampung, deep fried or
bakar kunyit especially and ikan sungai (fresh water fish) but sardines would always
be part of the fare. It was de riguer, well at least in my house as early as the
late forties. As a result, sardines have become a fixation with me ever since, boistered
by my scouting and cadet days at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) when we had
sardines during camping and "military" exercise.
I remember how we had to open the cans crammed with sardines with a key. During school
sports days and at garden parties, sardines besides tomato and cucumber sandwiches,
were always served. I always enjoyed sardines even more so now, preferably fresh.
In Washington, New York and in London - sardines have suddenly become chic. I must
confess I have not been able to find a restaurant in New York which serves white
bait which I also like. White bait is always available at the right restaurants in
When I talk about sardines, it is not what my father served his Chinese friends and
the family, where we had to use a can opener to open the crammed sardines out of
the can or tin. I am talking about fresh sardines that could be recent émigrés
from the Mediterranean, Portugal or Norway, and done up with as much craft and care
as Japanese grilled "Hamachi" collar (yellow-tail fish neck).
I like my fresh sardines grilled or fried until crispy - no lime, no onions and or
hot chilies. One can have choices, of course, like sardines fried with sliced onion,
red pepper and white wine vinegar or whatever
Many people say sardines are not a natural crowd pleaser unless the fish is fresh
and the eater is European and a rural Kelantanese who has not outgrown them! Well,
I can tell you this: Europeans know how delicious sardines are. There are sardines
from the Atlantic coast of Spain, France, Portugal and Britain and in the Mediterranean
Seas as well as in the different areas of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. As many
as 20 different species of fish of the clupeidas family, including herrings and sardines
can be called sardines - including those off the coast of Maine in the United States.
Americans generally do not like sardines nor do they like fish heads. They consider
sardines - especially the silvery species - an inexpensive canned food which should
be fed to the cat. Imagine! I know for most people the fishy taste of sardines is
a little bit too strong. The Americans certainly would not eat sardines with their
heads on. But then if you don't have the fishy taste, it is not sardines, is it?
The question show this fishy sardines, once considered the food of the poor ( I did
not know this until recently; in my kampung it was deemed to be the food of the towkays)
get to become chic, and a chef's favourite? In Washington and London, that is.
According to Judith Weinraub of the Washington Post's food section, this may
be a post-nouvelle-cuisine era. Some of the new classics - however exquisitely presented
- have become old and chefs are continually on the look out for foods that not only
please the palate but engage the imagination. It is not good enough in the evolution
of cooking to keep having a capriccio of tuna.
A chef in Washington, who is a sardine enthusiast, serves a pickled Venetian version
or bakes the sardines with herbs and bread crumbs at the restaurant Obelisk, which
I just love simple grilled or fried sardines the way my mother used to cook, which
my wife now cooks the way I used to eat it in Kampung Bandar and Kok Lanas where
I grew up.
I once asked Towkay Ah Kong during a school vacation when he came to lunch, why the
Chinese like to eat at round tables. He was surprised, but he told me the reason:
"Banyak senang cakap, banyak senang angkat luk sama nasi".
Since the days of Ah Kong, I have always known Chinese like to eat well and at round
tables. I don't know if Chinese like sardines but Ah Kong and my father's other Chinese
friends did. I could never have guessed the reason why we had a round-top dining
table until Ah Kong told me. All my other relatives had rectangular dining tables
but then they were all civil servants.
Dato' Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia's Special Envoy to the United Nations
(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Sun )