Salted Fish Of The Earth

KF Seetoh
Makansutra20 September 2011

I don’t know how and why but suddenly, I have this cause to champion the humble and peasant pleasures of the salted fish. Actually, on hindsight, I know the reason for this. It’s because I had the pleasure of quietly savouring its simple appeal the last couple of weeks, without consciously trying. While filming for our new series and taking giant buddy Anthony Bourdain out for some claypot rice, I almost accidentally stumbled on these salty sensations. My late father once told me: “Having salted fish with rice is a treat. What our poor relatives in Guangzhou used to do was to stand outside the neighbour’s kitchen and sniff the fried salted fish they were cooking, as they spoon in a bowl of rice.”

The sensation can be likened to a drop of red in an ocean of blue. A hawker once recounted how his neighbouring stall, became a “hum yue fan sang” (Cantonese for reviving salted fish which can mean rejuvenating the dead or jaded) with some simple changes to  the menu and stall décor; that a once-quiet stall turned into a sea of hungry hordes every night. A little bit of salted fish in a dish can sometimes feel like it revived the jaded digestion system.  It made me stand up and account for their place in our food culture. Well, for now I shall list two of the ways – with more dishes to come in Part 2 of my ode to the humble salted fish. 

Steamed Minced Pork Patties with Salted Fish
This is my childhood comfort food, and admit it – it is for many of you Post- Independence Singapore  Chinese babies out there too. I remember my Mama chasing me around with a pink-motif bowl filled with rice mashed with minced pork, steamed salted fish and winter pickled greens (tung choy). The meaty saltiness, coupled with bits of fat and cartilage with the umami laden sauce over the rice, just felt right – one mouthful followed by one home run around the house chasing an imaginary cat about. Not many cze cha eateries offer this freshly steamed comfort dish but you can get them, slapped over a bed of fluffy rice at most economic rice (chap chye png) stalls.  Just that: its sauce, some greens and perhaps a two squares of braised tofu over rice and ahhh… A satisfied home run meal.

Fried Taugay (bean sprouts) with Salted Fish
This one gets my best supporting factor meal award.  Sometimes, we just don’t feel for the array of dishes ordered for a meal – the prawn paste chicken, sambal kangkong, tau yue pork (soy sauce braised pork), thick fish maw soup, kon jin har lok (deep fried prawns in black sauce)and even the crispy baby sotong – it just doesn’t add any fire to your system.  It’s the side effect of decadence and affluence, I guess. Then, a plate of taugay with salted fish calls on our table and wham! You get this urge to bury your bowl of rice under a mountain of this – only to slowly chopstick claw it into your mouth. The sweet crunch of the sprouts, paired with the occasional saltiness of the fish, moist with its natural sauce, satiates the moment and satisfies this primal need.

Look out for more of my salted fish highlights next week!

Makansutra celebrates Asian food culture with various platforms – managing food courts, food guides, events and consultancy. For more, click here.

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