By Joan Dolly Chung Zie Wei
“Min na siak ta lou!” An elderly man exclaimed, while beaming with his eyes half closed. His friend let out a small chuckle. He He. That was uttered 2 years ago, on the last day of Covid lockdown in Sibu. It literally meant ‘tomorrow, we shall have tea together’ in Foochow dialect.
Food is of utmost importance for Sibu people. Instead of “how are you”, they ask: do you want to have tea together? “Ai siak ta mo?” Be it in happiness or in grief, food takes centre stage in everyday lives of Sibu folks.
During my childhood years, going to town was synonymous with food. Always well fed, never once was I left hungry. Once, my grandma brought me along to visit a relative, whose shop was located a few doors down from my father’s. Knowing that my grandmother would pay a visit, she got fresh mackerel from the market early in the morning.
During the entire visit at the back of her shop, she prepared fish balls while both of them were engaging in conversation. Skillfully slapping the mackerel meat on the chopping board, the relative despite her advanced age did not show any signs of feebleness. Customers came and went. The fish ball-making process was interrupted from time to time.
Depending on whichever language the customers were speaking, the Hakka grandma switched effortlessly from Hakka to Iban; Hakka to Hokkien; Hakka to basic Malay. Three decades later, the taste of the fish balls and the polyglot Hakka grandma’s skills are still on my mind, as though it was just yesterday when I visited her. Those bygone days, akin to a trip of a lifetime, encompassing food, culture and languages experienced during my childhood years are irreplaceable.
During my 40 years of living, it dawned on me that us Sarawakians are truly unique, unlike no other. We love and are fiercely proud of our food. In other parts of the world, love conquers all. In Sarawak, food conquers all. Through food we express our innermost feelings, our love language. That is why our coffee shops and restaurants are institutions on their own. Regardless of our race, we gather for food; and when we part, we leave with food. Each time before I leave Sibu, I diligently fill my luggage with a year’s worth of Kompia (local Foochow bread), taking with me a piece of home; and I am not the only one.
It has been nearly 20 years since I have left Sibu. Every trip back home, is an unforgettable trip. Filled with memories, my heart stays in Sarawak despite being physically away from her. Dum Spiro Spero: as long as I breathe, I shall hope that my Sarawak stays magnificent. “Nuan udah makai?” (“Have you eaten?” in the Iban language.) — DayakDaily
Joan Dolly Chung Zie Wei from Sibu is the Consolation Winner (Adult Category) in the ‘Magnificent Sarawak: An Unforgettable Trip’ writing competition organised by DayakDaily and supported by the Sarawak Ministry of Tourism, Creative Industry and Performing Arts and Imperial Hotel Kuching.