Monday, January 16, 2012

A fish by any other name would sound just as sweet

I WONDER if the leatherjacket fish (koay bak hoo in Hokkien or jebong in Malay) has ever been served in the Lunar New Year reunion dinner.

My wife says she has heard of the garoupa, red snapper and threadfin being served, but she has yet to hear of the leatherjacket making an appearance on the reunion dinner table.

For those with pockets as deep as the South China Sea, the star attraction at the dinner table is the white pomfret (tau tay chneo in Hokkien or bawal tambak in Malay). Some years back, demand for the fish during the Lunar New Year drove the price to over RM100 a kg before it had to be capped.

If you are wondering why the pomfret is the preferred fish on the dinner table, it is because its name in Cantonese sounds similar to an auspicious word that means prosperity.

And if you have gone on to ponder why fish is such an important dish on the reunion dinner table, I can only repeat for your edification what was quoted to me in Mandarin: "Nien nien you yue".

By some twists in the tone and inflections of the words, the Chinese idiom, which translates to mean "surpluses every year", becomes "fish every year".

The reason why people do not serve the leatherjacket during the reunion dinners, my wife reasons, is because of its ugliness. If you have seen leatherjacket divested of its skin, you would know what I mean.

I argue that the fish is tasty, so much so that it is also called the chicken fish - because it tastes just like chicken!

If steamed, the flesh is easily stripped from the main bone without pulling off the tiny bones that may choke you.

That is one reason why it is among the best fish to feed the kids.

But the reason I thought of the leatherjacket for the reunion dinner was simply logic.

Last week, the fish was still selling at RM15 a kilo at the Pasar Tani near my home.

The fishmonger even offered to lower the price if I took the kilo-and-a-half fish that had been lying in his ice tray since 6am.

His garoupas were already selling at RM38 a kilo - and the price is still rising - while the threadfin was priced at RM35 a kilo.

Why did I not see the white pomfret? Your guess is as good as mine. It may be that it was too expensive. It could be the fishmongers were holding on to the stock to sell it at a much higher price later next week.

Of course, some will tell you that the bad weather - or even the floods in Thailand - has reduced the catch. Take that with a pinch of salt.

During the last Dragon year 12 years ago, orchard owners in Sungai Buloh made a killing when the loong kat, or dragon lime, was introduced. The golden citrus plants with longish fruits fetched almost four times the price of the common lime or limau kasturi.

A chap I know paid almost RM188 for a pot of waist-height dragon lime plant bursting with fruits.

It symbolised abundance, he told me, before promptly putting the plant in an auspicious corner of his house.

By the fourth day of the Chinese New Year, the fruits were falling all over the floor and attracting an abundance of ants. A month later, the lime plant withered and died. The chap's wife later told me that it was such a waste of money.

I don't know if the dragon lime will be less expensive this year, but I know that there will surely be another another festive fad, claiming good luck and prosperity, dreamed up by marketing geniuses.

I also hope you will not be blinded by the glowing promises and get caught up in the buying frenzy. You might want to remind yourself as you dig deep into your wallet that the festive celebration is only the start of a long year ahead - which you should be financially prepared for.

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