OUR HOLIDAY TO KOTA KINABALU took us to the many local eating shops, to sample the astounding variety of seafood from the South China Sea. The most famous of which was a famous fish ball noodle soup which had queue lines all the way to the pavement.
Fortunately, my friend was a local and he had pre-booked a large table for the eight of us.
The fish balls there were so springy you could bounce one off the floor, two feet in the air! Just kidding.
Charles, my Aussie friend once asked quietly, “Err, fish where got balls?” when we took him to eat Yong Tau Foo. But that’s a story for another day.
Although the shop was crowded, we were served quickly with large bowls of delicious noodles with the famous fish balls. There was a choice of yellow noodles, flat noodles and vermicelli but all of us had ordered the soft, palatable flat noodles, koay teow.
The broth was flavourful, sweet and the fish balls had a nice bite to them. They were obviously home and handmade, as the shape was not an exact sphere but rather a little oddly shaped and slightly grey in colour. These are not like the factory made pretty fish balls which are almost white with the addition of chemicals.
After eating quickly, I took to survey all the decorations, ornaments on the walls and displayed in the cabinet shelves. As with most old shops there’s always an assortment of the owner’s signature collection displayed for patrons to appreciate.
In this particular place, the most interesting of which were the photos on the wall. They were an assortment of size and looked like they were framed quickly and handled frequently. The glass bore oily smudges of fingerprints of all sizes.
Each and every photo was of proud fishermen with their marvellous catch. Some had strange looking fish hanging from a line. Others were big catches, the size of a small child that the fishermen cradled like babies.
The one that really held me fixated was this great grandfather of a Garoupa hoisted by a crane and hanging a little shy of the second floor outside this very shop. I had never seen such a big fish before in my life. Unbelievably humongous.
An older man sided up next to me; stood and stared. I just assumed he was equally intrigued by the photos. I didn’t turn to face him but instead remarked loud enough for him to hear, “Wow, that must have been some battle landing such a HUGE fish!” pointing to the Garoupa strung up, displayed in its full dead glory.
As luck would have it, this man was the fisherman who caught that one and only Garoupa and the boss of the shop to boot. We started chatting, or rather I just listened to him regale me with endless tales of his adventures at sea. How he battled with the fish, how long it took to land it and how his brethren organised the crane to hoist it up for the entire town to see. Simply astounding!
This girl was wide eyed, mouth ajar and totally besotted (as my friends termed my look). Uncle took in all the attention, pleased as punch and asked if I was a visitor from the Peninsular. I nodded weakly, my facial muscle were tired from all that polite smiling.
“Aiyah, where got fish to eat from your small sea. I will cook you a dish to remember me by,” with that he turned his back and went into the kitchen.
The moment his back was turned, my friends teased me mercilessly, as usual. As luck would have it, I have that range of skill capable of charming only a 7- year-old or a 70-year-old.
All the ages of the men in between seemed to think otherwise. Sigh, except Uncle, who at 50 was ruggedly handsome, tanned and strapping! Nowhere near Hugh Jackman, but still very easy on the eyes.
A little later, Uncle trooped out, beaming with a huge steamy bowl of something soupy and garnished to the brim with wonderful fragrant cilantro, julienne young ginger and garlic oil. I looked at the chunks which were the size of match boxes and just as thick, bobbing in the soup. That to me was the strangest looking fish balls. Grey, lighter grey and some part translucent and springy. I poked at one with my chopstick. It bobbed away.
Uncle smiled broadly and fished one out with a spoon and topped it with some chilli padi. So, he’s going to share my bowl, I thought. Suddenly without batting an eyelid, he popped it into my mouth, “Eat, eat, it’s good. Give you skin smooth like a baby’s bottom”.
I chewed, soft, spongy with an incredible bite, tasted of the sea, still clueless, I chomped and swallowed. Actually it was rather tasteless.
“You like?” he asked. He fed me again before I could reply. He grinned and said, “First time is the most memorable, yes? You’ve been kissed by a fish. That’s the fish lips from the photo!
Arrgh… and so I had my first kiss stolen from me by great grandfather Garoupa.
And this was the start of how I came to lead a Curried Life.
Read more of Doris Lim’s spicy adventures at her blog A Curried Life