I HAVE LIVED AWAY FROM SARAWAK FOR CLOSE TO TWENTY ONE YEARS, with too few visits after I left. I often struggle to answer, when asked, where home is. I usually cover that by a simple wherever I am at a point in time.
Delving into my memories of growing up in Sibu and holiday visits to Kuching (where I was born) is akin to retrieving the last bits of Nutella from the bottom of a nigh empty jar. No mean feat but you still get the beautiful whiff of Nutella-ness which meets you as you keep dredging.
I used to be able to understand the fuzhou dialect adequately and speak it to get by. My piano teacher was the lone champion in helping me to remember it, resolutely conversing with me in fuzhou over the years. A difficult Chinese dialect. How many intonations does it have again?
Kampua mee. Indigenous to Sibu. Noodles in its simplest form, relies on its unseen flavours rather than garnish or presentation. I liked it with soy-sauce and chillies.
Kolo mee. A version different from Kampua mee and I believe originates from Kuching. Fragrant, tasty and similar to Kampua mee, it has minimal garnish (usually very light on the serves of cha shao (or char siew)).
Kompia. Years later, as my palate saw more of the world, I likened it to mini bagels. Some like it with pork and sauce. I used to like it simply toasted, drizzled with some meat sauce. Crunchy on the surface and soft on the inside, with the lovely flavours of toasted sesame. Story has it that the kompia was introduced as an easy and effective way for soldiers to carry their ration by stringing the kompia together, through the pin-hole in the middle, and slinging them over their shoulder.
Sarawak laksa. Fragrant broth made out of spices, eaten with vermicelli or noodles, topped with prawns and eggs and of course, delicious sambal. It is lighter than its cousins in the Peninsular such as the kari mee or nyonya laksa. I am accustomed to eating Sarawak laksa garnished with a special type of local coriander. As children, we termed the coriander as “vegetables for the old” as we reckoned that it was an acquired taste, acquired only after one has attained certain maturity.
Sarawak pepper. Whenever I see bottled black pepper with sophisticated grinders attached in supermarkets, I would quickly assume the pepper would not match in flavours nor aroma with that from Sarawak. It is after all the land of pepper. Premium grade pepper.
Hornbills. Show me a bird more exotic than the hornbill. Don’t they look almost unreal as though some artists have stealthily left their creative mark on the unsuspecting bird? Even the eyes look like those plastic ones with a black moving button found in some stuffed toys. But it’s real. It flies, it moves, it cocks its head. Such is beauty.
I remember human skulls gathered in nets hung from the beams of the rumah panjang in rural Sarawak. As the new girl in school after my family moved to Kuala Lumpur, I was asked if we lived in trees. I said yes and that we swung from tree to tree to get around. And that headhunters abound, shrinking heads collected as war trophies, into the size of apples!
Ah, the days of playing on the streets with my friends from neighbouring houses. Putting grasshoppers with some grass, in empty Kjeldsens butter cookie tins.
Neighbours who ran what was almost a poultry farm in their backyard. I suppose health inspectors and council regulations were different back then. If you were lucky, the neighbours may give you a chicken or a duck.
We did not really need the weatherman then. A particular neighbour used to holler that “rain is a-coming!” A timely communal warning for laundry to be collected before the downpour did too much damage.
It is not easy to recall vividly that connection with a place. There are however certain things about a place that remains with you.
You know…you can take the girl out of Sarawak routine…but you can’t take Sarawak out of her.
The sights, sounds, scents and tastes of my childhood seem a very distant memory. I have strived to fit in wherever I moved to over the years and seldom had much opportunity to savour these memories. When I do, they are like the happy cacaphony of firecrackers and lion dances during Chinese New Year, the surprising strength and warmth of tuak sipped during Gawai, the beautiful aroma of masak merah which meets you during Raya visits and the delectable crunch of muruku at Deepavali.
I plead guilty to not registering in time to vote this election but I keep my fingers crossed that justice will prevail for the people of Sarawak. Timely reminder for me to start giving back to the birthplace, which is part of who I am today.
I am Sarawakian. And proud of it.
Charissa Kam may struggle with where home really is but knows that Sarawak is in her no matter where she goes. Some of her thoughts are shared at www.traveldragonfly.wordpress.com