Monday, June 25, 2012

For lack of tastier fish to fry

SPOTTED featherbacks (ikan belida) were being sold at the Serdang pasar tani where I was recently. I had not seen this freshwater fish being sold anywhere in the Klang Valley except in aquarium shops and even then, only as pet fish.

The Cantonese call the common featherback "toh yue" or "knifefish" because of its knife-shaped silvery body. The spotted featherback, which has between seven and 10 dark spots on its lower body, is called "chat-sing toh" or seven-star knifefish. The fish can be found in unpolluted rivers, lakes and disused mining pools.

The last time I saw one sold in a wet market was in Pusing, a small town near Ipoh, three years ago. The fish measured an arm's length. I asked the Chinese man who bought the fish if it was good for eating. He said the fish had many fine bones and was best used for making fishballs, which was why some people called it freshwater ikan parang (wolf herring, a marine species traditionally used for making fishballs).

To have seen the spotted featherback in an urban wet market such as in Serdang came as a surprise because, as far as I know, the fish do not belong to the mainstream table fish species such as red tilapia, ikan sepat (Malaysian gourami), patin (river catfish) or keli (common catfish). A thought that came to my mind then was that city folk had developed a taste for exotic freshwater fish species or our fishermen was running out of common table fish species to catch. But don't be surprised if it is both.

Last week, I read that live ikan puyu (climbing perch) are fetching a good RM15 per kilogramme. The hardy fish, which can survive long periods with little or no water, can be found in abundance in padi fields, mining pools, lakes and some rivers.

In the 1970s, the ikan puyu (or ikan betuk as it is sometimes known) was not seen at dinner tables simply because there were other tastier fish. Ikan puyu were only kept in earthen jars or dropped into wells to feed on mosquito larvae.

Sometimes, they are reared in Horlicks jars placed inside the house for protection. According to an old wives' tale, the ikan puyu never sleeps, and this enables it to be able to protect premises from being broken into by burglars using "pukau" or spells. This belief was rife among the Chinese but my Malay friends also said the same of the fish in their households.

But having seen large numbers of live ikan puyu being sold in wet markets, I know it is not superstition that has inflated its price. One ikan puyu lover told me told me that the fish fried in kunyit (turmeric) powder and cili padi will make you drool for more.

If you were in Johor and had been to the fish market there last week, you would have known that the prices of fish had gone up almost 50 per cent.

A shortage of imported marine fish due to declining exports from Sumatera has caused the hike. Indonesian fishermen were not going out to sea due to bad weather and what little they caught made it unprofitable for their exporters to send their fish over here.

Our fishermen, too, failed to find fish because of the haze and this sent ripples through the fish market as consumers grabbed what they saw without worrying if the prices were a little fishy.

In such a situation, is it any wonder that unpopular fish from our inland waterways, like the spotted featherback, are now finding ready buyers in the city?

Monday, June 18, 2012

A cashew acquaintance from the past

I WAS jogging at Lake Titiwangsa in Jalan Kuantan last week when I spotted an elderly chap trying to pluck a fruit from a tree.

Although it was already sunset, the chap, who was dressed in sports attire, paid no heed to the failing daylight. He was trying to reach some fruits on a broad-leafed tree using a bamboo pole.

As I got nearer, I saw that he was trying to hit the ripe fruit of a cashew tree. He finally succeeded but the fruit was reduced to pulp upon hitting the ground. Letting out a sigh, he sought out another fruit.

Curious, I asked the man if he knew what the fruit was. Happily, he replied that he didn't know but it had tasted nice the first time he ate it, and he had been plucking them every time he was at the park since.

Another chap who happened to be around that evening was amused. "City people," he said to me under his breath. "They don't even know a cashew tree when they see one."

"It's not surprising," I replied. "There are not many places in the city these days that you can find cashew trees growing wild."

In the early 1970s, there were quite a number of them in Gombak and Sentul. Today, I can only find one near Kampung Puah. The tree grows in the compound of a Malay house but I don't recall ever seeing it fruit.

If you want to see a cashew tree today, I suppose you will have to go to Lake Titiwangsa's pony riding track.

The cashew trees are planted near the stables, but I doubt you will recognise the tree unless you have previously seen one.

You may have tried the cashew shoots though, as ulam (Malay raw herb and vegetable salad), perhaps. And you may even have mistaken them for something else as cashew shoots exude a sharp, citrusy fragrance when bitten into.

There were plenty of cashew trees in Terengganu where I grew up. The trees grew well along the beach. Folk collected the seeds when the fruits ripened. In fact, it is the only fruit which seeds develop outside the flesh. It is this peculiarity that gave birth to a "pantun teka-teki" (quatrain riddle), which goes like this:

"Anak kera naik keldai
Keldai pula memakai seluar
Kalau tuan bijak pandai,
Buah apa bijinya di luar?"

The riddle asks if you know which fruit bears its seed on the outside. Pupils used to recite the poem to test the general knowledge of their peers during my schooldays.

As far as I know, cashew fruits are seldom eaten because they taste "kelat" - a Malay term which English equivalent I have yet to find.

The sap is believed to cause lip ulcers on sensitive skin.

Only the seeds are sought after, roasted and eaten like nuts.

These days, electric ovens are used to roast the cashew nuts. In the past, we fried them in heated "pasir garam" or fine sand along the beach.

According to an online report I recently read, cashew nuts are rich in fatty acids that can lower the bad and raise the good cholesterol.

They are also good stores of minerals and essential vitamins, including zeaxanthin, an antioxidant that protects the eye.

An old wives' tale, however, has it that eating cashew nuts can cause newly-closed wounds to re-open and existing ones harder to heal.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Follow Chukai's paperless carpark

LOCAL authorities in cities should occasionally visit small towns and take a look at how things are run by their counterparts there. Sometimes, if they are lucky, they may learn something useful.

Many years ago, before the digital countdown traffic lights arrived in the Klang Valley, they were already used in Malacca. From what I was told when I first saw one there, a particular junction in Malacca town had the highest accident rate among motorcyclists before the lights were installed.

Apparently, motorcyclists and some motorists tend to speed past the junction whenever the lights were amber, not knowing that the red light would come on in a split second.

When the digital countdown was installed, car drivers and motorcyclists were then able to estimate whether they could make it past the junction before the lights turned red and before traffic from the other side moved across the junction. This has reduced accidents tremendously.

Last week, when I was in Chukai, Kemaman, I decided to drop by Hai Peng coffee shop for roti paong (local coal oven baked bread) and its famous coffee. There were no parking bays along the road near the shop, so I parked at the open car park across the road.

If you have been to this car park, you will agree that this could be one of the most environment-friendly parking systems that can be adopted by local authorities in the Klang Valley, to add to their green effort.

This car park does not use tickets that often end up being discarded indiscriminately and choking drains.

The parking area is colour-coded. Each parking bay has a number. You only need to locate an empty bay, park, and note the bay number and colour of the section.

Then you walk to the electronic parking terminal that has the same colour code, punch in the duration you need to park and pay into the machine.

The machine does not issue tickets. The parking duration is instead displayed digitally on the terminal.

The parking enforcement officer only needs to check the meter for bays where the parking duration have expired and walk to the illegally-parked car to issue a summons.

I don't know if this system is implemented anywhere else in the country, but I have not seen it in Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, Klang or even Malacca.

Most parking meters I have come across issue tickets that motorists then had to display openly on the dashboard. Others, like Malacca, use pre-paid coupons that you have to scratch out and display on your dashboard.

Both systems are not environment-friendly since they use paper. Chukai's parking system is paperless and it means less discarded paper get into the drains and fewer trees need to be cut to make the coupons.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Chukai parking system is cheaper to maintain as well.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Be alert always even in seemingly safe areas

LAST week, the Internet was abuzz with a first account posting by Internet marketeer Chin Xin-Ci who related her experience of being abducted at a shopping complex in Mutiara Damansara.

The story, which was posted on Chin's Facebook page, was titled "30 hours ago, I escaped from being kidnapped". Uploaded in the wee hours of May 29, the story went viral with over 45,000 shares over the next few days.

According to the posting, Chin was abducted from the mall's car park by two men after she had paid for her parking ticket and was about to leave. One of her abductors, armed with a meat cleaver, surprised her when she was putting her stuff into the rear seat. Despite having the cleaver pressed against her throat and realising what was happening, Chin did not appear to panic but put herself in a position to escape without raising the suspicion of her abductors.

As the other abductor who drove the car slowed down to exit the mall's parking lot, Chin saw the opportunity to escape.

She opened the car door, fought with her abductor in the rear seat, and made a run for it. Except for scratches and bruises, Chin was safe. She even managed to post her harrowing experience on Facebook to alert others.

Chin was lucky. Few women, even men, can keep calm under such a stressful condition. Not panicking gave her the clarity of mind to think of an escape when opportunity presented itself. Not many people can react with such presence of mind. What she did was extraordinary.

When we visit a shopping complex or any high traffic area, we are unconsciously reassured by the presence of the crowd, security officers, as well as the sight of closed circuit television cameras (CCTVs). Unless you are sceptical, chances are that you will even believe that someone alert is monitoring the area from the security room. You see it in the movies and often you think it is the same in real life.

Only when cases like Chin's come to light, you begin to think again and start to worry for your safety.

If the Canny Ong tragedy has taught society any lesson, it should be to always tread with caution when in public places, especially dimly-lit and secluded areas like underground car parks and alleys. Those that appear safe may not be, despite what people tell you.

Sure, most shopping complexes in the city have CCTVs and you see them most of the time. Some of us even try to park near the pillars where they were mounted so that thieves will not break into your vehicle and steal your valuables.

But in reality, have you ever wondered if the electronic eyes are in good working condition?

Are they able to capture events that transpired within their scope clearly, under the lowest lighting condition?

Are those manning the CCTVs trained to watch out for suspicious characters and be alert enough to identify a crime in progress? And if such event occurred, how fast would the security personnel come to your aid if you are a victim?

These days, very few shopping complexes position ticket cashiers at the exits of their car parks. To cut costs, electronic payment booths are provided. This system reduces a long queue at the gates and saves the complexes manpower costs.

There is usually CCTVs at exit points but I suspect these are to keep an eye on people who may try to exit without paying.

Without human presence at the exit point, the CCTV recordings may be too late when it comes to preventing a tragedy.

The way I see it, you have to be alert always. Forget about how safe you feel in familiar places.

Keep your eyes on your surroundings at all times. Watch out for anything suspicious even if you choose not to park at a low-lit or secluded end of the car park.

By being alert at all times, you would never know when you might save your own life or that of another person even in the seemingly safe areas.