Chic sardines and the kampung variety



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 London.

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 he owns.

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 )

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