Jul 7, 2011

Making raw fish salad - Malaysian style

Sarawak is one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. For me the image of Borneo was one of the wildest jungles with unique wildlife and people still living in a very primitive manner. When John and I visited in January, I found Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, to be a lovely, modern city. Kuching means “cat” and it seems that the city was so named because the first non-Malays who visited the area saw a cat – most likely a civet – under a tree. Today the city is home to the world’s first Cat Museum. For nearly 100 years the area was governed by the Brooke family, called the White Rajahs of Sarawak. The area prospered under the White Rajahs. Outside the city it is possible to observe orangutans in the wild but most of them are rescued ones that stay close to the reserve even though they are not caged.

Most of Sarawak’s inhabitants belong to one of 27 ethnic groups. Less than an hour from Kuching is the Sarawak Cultural Village. It is a living history destination with houses of some of the ethnic groups. One of the houses we visited was a Melanau tall house that is entered by a log notched with steps that is easy to pull up preventing unwanted people from entering. However, it didn’t keep the macaques away as they were cavorting in the rainforest next to the house and on the tall poles supporting the house. The large house is home to several related families. Inside one lady was deep-frying thin slices of manioc root making Melanau-style “potato” chips.

The Melanau were one of the earliest settlers of Sarawak calling themselves "a-likou" meaning "people of the river.” They lived mainly along the rivers in the central coastal area of Sarawak where they built stilted houses thirty to forty feet above the ground and unlike other Borneo people they ate sago instead of rice. At the Village’s folkloric show the Melanau dance included one of the men being twirled atop a long bamboo pool. The performance evolved as a diversion while using the long poles to build their houses.

Just a short walk from the cultural village is Damai Beach Resort where we stayed. The resort offers free weekly cooking demonstrations that reflect the culinary diversity of the Sarawak people. At the beginning of the cooking demonstration Chef Sumardi greeted us in local fashion with his hand over his heart indicating that his greeting was heartfelt. One of the several recipes demonstrated was Melanau-style Raw Fish Salad.

Umai Ikan (raw fish salad)
1/ 2 lb fish, preferably red snapper fillet (cut into small pieces)
1/ 2 cup lime juice or calamansi juice
4 bird’s eye chilies (tiny green chilies)
1 turmeric leaf
2 shallots
2 cloves garlic
1/ 2 inch ginger
1 stalk of lemon grass
Salt to taste
Roasted sago pellets for garnish (optional)

Marinate fish in lime juice for at least 10 minutes. Put aside. Finely dice three bird’s eye chilies and slice the remaining one into a flower to be used as garnish. Thinly slice the turmeric leaf, shallots, garlic, ginger and lemon grass. Remove fish from the marinade. Place fish in a bowl and toss in the rest of the ingredients. Stir well. Garnish with chili flower and roasted sago pellets.