February 24, 2009

A fish tale

One of the earliest and most enduring memories from my childhood is our family's frequent trips to a Sundanese/West Javanese restaurant just outside Jakarta. The dining area was on a traditional wooden pavilion built over a small lake, accessible by a bridge from the shore. But even before we got to the bridge, we'd pass a row of large ponds to choose our soon-to-be-lunch from the fish still swimming in there. A restaurant employee would then scoop the ones we pointed out and bring them to the kitchen to be cooked to our liking (deep fried or grilled). Lunch selected, we'd then walk across the bridge and be seated.

Our order would come with plenty of hot steamed rice, a plate of lalapan (raw vegetables such as cabbage, sliced cucumbers and kemangi/holy basil leaves) and freshly made sambal bajak (with the pungent terasi or fermented shrimp paste as a main ingredient) served on its cobek (stone mortar and pestle). Something about the gentle, cool breeze that flowed through unhindered by the 'wall'-less pavilion, the sound of water rippling across the lake and leaves rustling up in the trees, combined with the delicious aromas of the food would make all of us absolutely ravenous. Talk about the feast of the senses! Then we'd all dig in... no, make that 'attacked' the meal spread before us. No utensils needed here, everybody used their fingers, tearing into the fish, scooping it up with a mouthful of rice and a dab of sambal.

The fish... oh, the fish! It was definitely the star of the meal. Each one was left whole, only cleaned of its guts and scales. We'd compete for the skin, crispy and salty from being deep-fried, or charred and smoky from the charcoal fire. The flesh underneath was sweet, moist and succulent.

A grilled tilapia smothered with the hot and spicy Manadonese bumbu rica.

I really missed this kind of meal when I was living in Los Angeles. Seafood dining in American restaurants didn't hold much appeal to me. The seafood section in American supermarkets seemed very anemic and sterile with their uninspiring sliced fillets and fish 'steaks', in forms so far removed from the original creatures. There was so much of the fish that went to waste just to get a nice chunk of fillet!

Looking back, I don't think in all my years in America I had ever bought a whole fish from an American supermarket. It had always been the Asian/Chinese markets that had the best quality and selection of fresh (even live) seafood in town. The seafood counter there was always the most crowded as customers chose from row upon row of glistening tilapia, bonito, eel, yellow tail, etc., not to mentions from the live ones that were still swimming in large tanks. (Another bonus of Asian supermarket seafood counter: you can have your fish deep-fried for free! We would race home as its enticing aroma filled the car.).

While we often ordered fish in Chinese restaurants, it was almost impossible to find charcoal-grilled ones on the menu. Fish in Chinese cuisine are mostly steamed, deep-fried or stir-fried with other ingredients, never grilled.

There was one highlight of 'feasting on fish' while I lived in California: my husband and I and a couple of friends went fishing from the Huntington Beach Pier when I was about six months pregnant with our first child. It was a beautiful summer day and it got much better because after just a few hours of fishing, we caught over twenty bonitos, each about as long as a forearm (just in case you're wondering, yes, I caught a few also! I was a pregnant fisherwoman! Oh, by the way, we were warned by a few older ladies at church that it was verboten for the husband of an expectant woman to go fishing, because the child would be born very ugly. Huh? We happily ignored that. Not only did my husband go fishing a few times during my pregnancy, I sometimes tagged along too! As for our baby? He's one handsome little boy, thankyouverymuch!). Anyway, I digress. It was just about lunchtime when we left the pier with our bounty from the Pacific Ocean, so when we got home we immediately went to work to clean and broil a few of those beautiful bonitos (which are related to tuna and mackerel).

That was a superbly delicious lunch, to say the least. Those critters were still swimming in the ocean a couple of hours before that! The freshness was unbeatable.

But that kind of meal was very far and few in between in all my days of living in America.

So ever since we returned to Jakarta about a year ago, one of the things I've often indulged in is grilled whole fish. A medium-size fish weighing less than a pound (perfect for two people, or just me when I'm particularly hungry) is left whole or butterflied (with head and tail intact), then cooked to perfection over a charcoal fire. The best seasoning is usually the simplest: salt and lime juice, but there's always the additional sambal and ubiquitous kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) served on the side to spice things up.

A butterflied and grilled kwe fish with a simple sambal
made of sweet soy sauce, chopped chilies and shallots.

Here in Jakarta enjoying fish or seafood in restaurants is very affordable compared to southern California. One grilled baronang (a local fish related to perch) at one of our favorite seafood 'tent' restaurants here costs about Rp.40,ooo (less than US$4 at the time of this writing). Every time my husband and I eat there, our entire meal would cost only about Rp.100,000 (less than US$10).

When it comes to grilled fish, I devour it clean down to the bones. I save the head for last (a fish head is a terrible thing to waste!), slowly picking it apart and coaxing each savory bit from every nook and cranny. And as I did in my childhood, the only utensils I use are my fingers.

I'd stop only when the fish is reduced to a messy pile of bones on the plate.

1 comment:

  1. Yummmyyyyy... ;) Good posts sis! -Sid