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The International Writers Magazine: Travel

Eating Crabs in Kuching
Fiona Lal

‘Malaysia truly Asia’, the sing song refrain kept bouncing around my brain as we lurched down the runway at Kuching. Scruffy palm trees bent graciously as we rather jerkily slowed down. My husband and I were on a promised holiday to Malaysia, my husband was turning fifty this year and we had to mark the occasion with something majestic; Malaysia.
We had just spent a leisurely two days, wandering around K.L’s city centre and were now ready for the more tranquil sights of Sarawak and Kuching. KL is amazing in its diversity and we planned to come back to investigate more on our return journey, but now we were embarking on the highlight of our tour. Sarawak, what an incredibly romantic and exotic sound. It conjured up images of boat people, blow pipes, David Attenborough, history, culture, BBC Two. It was the home of the Iban head hunters, Dayak, and Bidayuh tribes, home to Indians, Chinese and Malay. Jagged jungle fringed beaches, wildlife that was real and actually in its natural habitat. And to top it all, it was possibly one of the best places to eat in the world. All these little scraps and fragments torn from newspapers, guidebooks; friends and the internet were whizzing around, creating a magnificent collage in my head. I think it’s true to say I had expectations of Sarawak. I couldn’t wait to set my feet down in a country that still had jungle.

I love that first lungful of air you take when you step out of a plane, inhaling the essence that stays with you in your memories. The sky was violet and bluish, malevolent clouds were massing together, pushing and bumping against the skyline. They dipped and touched the vibrant foliage clinging to the runway, turning them a pulsating electric green. A big heavy drop splashed on my nose as I followed the crowd down the steps. It was hot and humid and my clothes immediately stuck to me as I felt my body temperature step up a notch or two. As soon as we got through the customs the rain started in earnest. Sheeting down, Kuching from our taxi looked as if it had been badly wrapped in cling film, smudges of town reflected back through the window.

Our hotel provided sanctuary from the maelstrom that seemed inconsequential to the doormen and receptionist. They were used to it. The rain stopped and we were soon outside, nothing on the agenda but to walk and explore the now very damp Kuching.
The Sarawak Sengei river is the focal point of the town, and from which the buildings and humanity have emanated through the centuries. Until two hundred years ago, it was the only form of transport through the jungle. Any reference to local history is peppered with references to The East India Company and James Brooke, who became the white Rajah of Sarawak. Presiding over his own little kingdom, Brooke passed on Sarawak to his sons, taking nepotism to new heights. Although the history reads of constant battles with the locals in order maintain his fiefdom so graciously given to him by the Sultan of Brunei in 1841.

In our conversations with local people, they are very clear about the ‘good’ the British brought to their nation, the schools, education, and commerce. I squirmed every time I heard some reference to our colonial misdemeanours. Later, in the Cameron Highlands, I felt my stomach flip when Sam, our taxi driver explained matter-of-factly how the British brought over Tamil Indians to work the tea plantations. Sam proudly stated that his great grandfather was a tea planter, and how now, the tea planters were all imported Pakistanis. The pay wasn’t good enough for any self respecting Malay anymore. The colonised become the colonisers. In fact, his children were at university training for more professional careers. I felt a cool clutch of embarrassment a few times, when evidence of Britain’s past arrogance wafted up like a bad smell.

Today, the town by the river is a mixture of local markets and tourist shops. These shops along the waterfront are old two storey, wooden and plaster buildings that lean on each other like old friends. Their top parts are painted in thrilling colours; rich reds and ochre clash together with a glittering turquoise, whilst underneath their cavernous interiors hold
treasure troves of handmade batiks, baskets, beaded purses. Here, colour again assaults you, pinks, reds, dazzling yellows all competing for your attention. Some of the shops are darker; they sell antiques, dim outlines of effigies and past wooden totems. Carvings of ancient healing gods, hunting spears and shrunken heads all heaped together with old Chinese pots and wooden mixing bowls. Musty smells and a lingering hint of danger as black snarling crocodiles and gurneying gargoyles leer at you from their shelves. These remnants are the very stuff of survival from not so long ago; yet so far from our sanitised, western lives.

Another reminder of survival is the grumbling in my stomach, it was time to search out dinner. We started our ‘jalan jalan cari makan’ which is Malay for ‘walk and walk to find food’.We hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast and were both ready to sample something authentic. We had heard rumours of a great seafood stall and set out to find it. It’s location was a bit dubious, the fifth floor of what looked like a concrete multi-story car park. It loomed up at us unpromisingly. However, we were never daunted when it came to seeking out something delicious. We heard the fifth floor from the third. A vast football field of round tables greeted us, all full of chatting, eating, shouting, laughing Malays. The roof was a rigid tarpaulin that let at least six foot of night time in. Around the edge were fish stalls, owned by different fishermen, each one vying for your custom. We stood dumbstruck, all senses trying to take in everything at once. The smell was heavenly, rich wafts of garlic, chilli and ginger mixed with the sweet smell of cooking fish. We tentatively moved towards the first stall.
‘Selamat dating, welcome, come, come look, fresh fish, beautiful fish, you want delicious prawn?’

The young Chinese girl pointed in the direction of her stall awash with seafood. The prawns were huge; their grey and pink tiger stripe glistened in the ice bed, their little legs curled mutely around little frozen particles. A slow movement confirmed they were still clinging to life. Our stall holder sensed our interest and started the hard sell, as Hans chatted to the girl about price and cooking methods, my eyes wandered over her immaculate stall. Rows of fish lay in immaculate order, their lustrous skin gleamed in the overhead lights, spots of blue and grey punctured the iridescent sea of silver, as bright parrot fish lay cold and startled on their artic bed.
Above another shelve held bunches of wrapped vegetables, newspaper sheets in perfect cones bursting with greens and purples, tendrils and curlicues linked and knotted together as if they were still growing. We decided to keep moving and spotted a stall that seemed to have the most customers. The staff were dashing round with trays, their faded yellow tee shirts sporting ABC, the logo of the stall. The host beckoned us to look; we saw what we were looking for.

The tank had a few bits of rock in it and a sprinkling of wet sand, a scruffy metal pipe spurted water down the side, providing a little bit of home for the inhabitants. They were about twenty of them sitting in ragged rows, their shells a dull purplish-brown, their pincers wrapped in red rubber bands moved about violently. Their liveliness confirmed their freshness; the owner assured us they’d been caught that very afternoon. We ordered two, one cooked in Thai spice chilli and the other in garlic and oil, with a side dish of mixed vegetables. After choosing our drinks, an ice cold Tiger beer and a freshly squeezed lime juice, we sat down to watch and wait.

I am not squeamish about my food and never have been. I object to wanton cruelty, if an animal is to be eaten then it must be killed quickly and humanely and it’s journey to that end must be speedy. I remember seeing rabbits in a French market; I was twelve and assumed they were for pets. I watched the stallholder wring one of their necks. She then carefully placed the rabbit in a plastic bag and money was exchanged. My father explained that the rabbit you see on a menu starts here. I wasn’t horrified, I started to make the connection with life and death and how it ends up on your plate.

I took the time to have a closer look at the people around me. To our left was a large Muslim family, the young girls wearing colourful hijabs. They were talking in Malay, their conversation overlapping and interrupting, laughing amid the clattering of their spoons on the orange melamine plates. There was a large fish in the centre of the table, steam still rising as its flesh was scooped away. Next to us was a large Chinese family, they were speaking Mandarin, little child voices clamoured amongst the adults everyone wanting to be heard. They had about twelve different dishes, arms, chopsticks, voices flying around the table as the food disappeared. Quick deft fingers holding bowls of rice, and next to each person a perfect pile of small chicken bones.

I realized that Hans and I hadn’t spoken for at least ten minutes, both of us mesmerised by our surroundings. Suddenly our dinner arrived. Two big oval plates carried two large crabs each sitting in a pool of sauce. They had been cracked to allow easy access, but no fancy implements to help eke out the flesh, just a spoon, fork and chopsticks. It was time to get down and dirty with the food. There is no other way to tackle crabs on a plate but head on. I love crab; it is probably one of my most favourite dishes to eat. I love the visceral ripping, bashing and extracting that goes on before you can eat. We took our crabs apart slowly and carefully, peeling away the shell and placing the flesh into the fragrant sauce, it was messy. Traces of sauce stuck to parts of our face far removed from the location of our mouths. Our concentration was absolute, there isn’t much room for polite talk as you forage and seek bits of meat in the outer reaches of a carapace.

Finished, I felt good; I leaned back and sipped my lime juice. The glass was sticky and smudged with chilli sauce. Our plastic table cloth was awash with orange mess, bits of shell and glutinous lumps and pools of water from the condensation from the chilled beer glass. There were no finger bowls, just communal basins strategically placed around the room where everyone could rinse their hands. I felt an earthy connection, although I hadn’t actually killed it I had selected it, and it had been killed in close proximity to the cooking area. I looked around at the different people, different languages, and different religions all together, aside from all the politics and being Malaysian, food was the really unifying force. Everyone should eat crab in Kuching, ‘Terima kasih Sarawak’. Thank you Sarawak.

© fiona Lal October 2007

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