In our conversation (4th December 2003) with George Lee Kim (now in his late 80s), a grandson of William Lee Kim, a pioneer who lived in Bendigo, George recalled, "I told you about the fish disappearing? That was a funny thing, that fish business. We took a lot of fish home to Bendigo and the grandmother, later in the afternoon, the grandmother was going to cook some for tea. She goes outside where the fish had been put on the table and there is no fish. They disappeared. She sounded crook. She used to like swearing. I was a bit inquisitive and I am inside, I happened to look up the chimney, and there is all the fish, hanging over the fire inside the chimney. He got them, he threaded them on the wire." In context, George Lee Kim was referring to the way his grandfather dried (cured) fish during the early days in Bendigo, a mining city far away from the sea coast, but near rivers where one could catch fresh-water fish.
The Chinese is a very resourceful and frugal people. When it comes to food, nothing is wasted if it can be helped. Using salt and other minerals such as saltpeter to preserve food is well known to many people, including the Chinese. Given that fish and other seafood such as shrimps, oysters, mussels, anchovies, whitebait, abalone, squid, cuttle fish and sea slugs are highly perishable, especially where refrigeration is not available, using salt to preserve these seafood was a natural thing to do. In some cases, good quality large fish could be processed into "Fish Floss" -- a floss made of fish, of course -- something to be enjoyed over breakfast, with rice porridge.
Through the ages, salt fish and other dried seafood are popular foodstuff of the Chinese all over the world. Nowadays these ingredients are readily available from any Chinese grocer stores and sometimes even in select supermarkets. Note though there are many types of salt fish -- from fresh water fish salted and smoke dried, to salt water fish dried under the sun -- and the way to enjoy the salt fish is different in each case.
In this page, we record some of the dishes that one can cook using salt fish and other dried seafood such as oysters, mussels, squid and cuttle fish. They are based on our collective memories during the growing up years (1950-1960 period) as off springs of "Overseas Chinese" raised in places such as Malaya, Hong Kong and California.
Cuttle Fish and Vegetable Soup
A simple yet tasty soup is prepared by boiling the dry squid with fresh or dried vegetable. This would have been well appreciated by the gold miners in the gold field, away from the sea coast. Chin Lang Tip could have supplied the dry vegetables to the gold miners.
Oysters & Mussels: Sign of good luck
Oyster in Chinese sounds like "good fortune". The dry oysters and mussels would be used by the Chinese pioneers in the bush to celebrate auspicious days, such as the Chinese New Year or the Northern Winter Solstice. The dry oysters and dry mussels would be soaked for a day or so before being used in the preparation of the special dish.
Dry shrimps and dry prawns are often used in Chinese dishes as they add flavour to otherwise bland vegetable such as melon, Chinese cabbage and the likes.
Anchovy and White Bait
When fried till crispy, these morsels are usually eaten with rice porridge.
Clay Pot Salt Fish Chicken Rice
As with most Chinese cooking, measures of ingredients used need not be precise. As my mother-in-law used to say, "You don't need to have a book in front of you to cook!"
There are three distinct parts to the cooking, viz. preparing the salt fish, preparing the chicken, cooking the salt fish chicken rice.
In the next installment: Watch this space