FISHMONGER Kassim (name has been changed) called out excitedly to customers at the Piasau Utara Fish Market.
To the Malay women who stopped by his stall, he was happy to introduce tenggiri (Spanish mackerel) and prawns.
“Sliced or whole before I pack up for tomorrow,” he said to them. To the Chinese woman who just walked in with a camera, he recommended ‘pah tiek poh’.
“Madam, the Chinese love this fish, which has good firm flesh and the head is best for soup. Buy for Chap Goh Meh.”
Kassim then walked over to a fish tray on the table and to the surprise of my friend and I, pulled out a huge garoupa, prompting several customers to gather around.
The garoupa looked like a little baby elephant and could easily have weighed 50kg.
“I can only cut it up for tomorrow. Just hooked early in the morning — still very fresh. Maybe someone will call me this afternoon to sell it,” he said.
As we got ready to leave, Kassim put the garoupa back into the tray, happy that he had shown us and the other customers the pick of his finned litter.
Like Kassim, the fishmongers at Piasau Utara, mostly Melanaus, Malays, Ibans and some Indonesians, are conscious of market pricing trends.
A Malay customer told thesundaypost, “People of all races visit our market. The prices are very reasonable. Even ikan bawal putih (white pomfret), a favourite of the Chinese community, are below RM100. In some places, the festive seasons will see a sharp rise in prices.”
Teacher Zaharah Omar, who came to buy fish with her siblings and relatives, said they were usually spoilt for choice.
They do their shopping regularly at Piasau Utara. According to her, parking is a problem at the old market in Miri.
Tar-sealed car park
The Piasau Utara Fish Market now has a tar-sealed carpark. The upgrading has attracted customers from as far away as Luak Bay and Holiday Park in the south of Miri, some 20km away.
An elderly customer observed, “It used to be very crowded here and I found parking very inconvenient. Now, I can drive straight to the tar-sealed car park.
“If I buy more than 10kg of fish, I can easily manage the load myself. But if I have to walk far, I will only buy a small amount — like 2kg.”
The land for the market and the car park is owned by Persatuan Nelayan Kawasan Miri (PKN).
Besides the fish market, there are several side-stalls selling vegetables and even packet fried noodles.
Housewives find this one-stop morning shopping very convenient, especially when they have to rush home to cook lunch.
Kassim and the other fishmongers at the market are what he calls “direct sea fish sellers” — they sell fish freshly caught from the sea.
He said some of the fish could even be still alive when sold in the morning.
“Our tuna can be made into sashimi. Many of the smaller fish are really good for umai. Did you know the fishermen started catching white pomfrets just before Chinese New Year? It’s the season (including Chap Goh Meh) to have white and black pomfrets (duai hitam) on the menu.”
He said tenggiri were also netted while pelayak (tripletail), which swim in large schools, were harvested as well around this festive time.
“Strange, but it’s the nature of the sea,” he added.
A Mirian, who only wished to be known as Chong, said she and her sister came to the market to buy fresh seafood for Chinese New Year. For the reunion dinner, she prepared dishes of senangin (threadfin), black promfret and prawns.
“Black pomfrets can be deep fried and served with good sauce. Senangin is a good fish and I usually make bee hoon (vermicelli) soup with it. If there are crabs, I will use them to make tang hoon (cellophane noodles). This market is nearer my house than Krokop 10 market.”
A lot of garoupas are usually on sale at the market — from 500 grams to 50kg in weight. The flesh is white, very fine and sweet. This fish is steamed, whole or in fillets.
One of the female fish-sellers suggested using the fish heads to prepare masak asam pedas. They are usually sold around RM20.
Kassim, on the other hand, invited customers to look at his tray of white pomfrets, saying they would be perfect for steaming.
The pomfret is one of the most sought after fish in Southeast Asia for its smooth white flesh with a subtle ‘non-fishy’ flavour.
“It’s presentable as a restaurant fish because of its shape and texture. It’s the number one fish as well for Chap Goh Meh,” he said.
Subsequently, pointing to a medium-sized pomfret, he said it would be less than RM60, adding, “We don’t increase our prices anyhow.”
By reputation, the Piasau Utara Fish Market is a very good place to buy fish, netted less than 500 metres offshore.
Piasau Utara Jetty
The Piasau Utara jetty is protected from strong winds by a long stretch of forested sandpit called Piasau Peninsula.
Dotting the landward side (to the east) of the river are kampung homes of many fishermen and other early settlers of Miri.
The Miri River flows seaward from the left of the jetty and towards Lutong from the right. Fishing boats and speedboats ply the river while oil and gas vessels also pass by the jetty. Some days, it can be quite busy.
An onlooker reminisced, “In the old days, before we had this concrete jetty, bigger vessels could sail up the river during low tide and pass under the Piasau Bridge.
“They would travel up to Pengkalan Lutong. Longboats belonging to the Ibans, Kayans and Kenyahs would also pass here on the way to Miri town.”
The concrete jetty allows ice-making companies to drive close to the fishing vessels to release their icy loads.
Fishermen can also offload their catch at the jetty, depending on the tide. When the water is high, the boats are at the same level with the road.
Concrete steps lead down the jetty to the river, making it convenient for small boats to berth at low tide.
Many sea-going open boats are also moored at boat-sheds on both sides of the jetty.
Important food source
Sitting at a coffeeshop having her nasi lemak after buying fish at the market was a Lutong woman, who only wished to be known as Indai John.
She told thesundaypost, “A river gives life to the people living on its banks. Today, I’m buying some fish but when I have a day off, I will fish in the Miri River. Over the past 20 years, I have been selling what I managed to catch. But the Miri River is not so full of fish now.”
She lives in a wooden house on the right bank of Miri River in Lutong. She said she and her family also fished in the Adong River.
Miri is ‘washed’ by several rivers. The main one draining the Miri basin is Miri River, which flows between the South China Sea and the Baram Valley.
It has provided the riverine population an important source of food since the founding of the town.
Many older people in Miri would remember these three small rivers — Sungai Tamiku, Sungai Kabala and Sungai Kabeli which are the main tributaries of Miri River.
They join Sungai Dalam and drain into Miri Miri. Further downstream, the Maloi and the Liku also join Sungai Dalam which is still quite a visible river.
According to Musa Musbah, chairman of the Malaysian Nature Society in Miri, Sungai Liku has probably been reduced to a streamlet by land development and cultivation of oil palms.
The river used to be the catchment area for Miri’s water supply. Less than 20 years ago, the water at Liku Shell Pump Station was clean and fresh.
Musa and his friends used to go to the area outside the prohibited zone to fish. Back then, fish, wild fruits, vegetables and even wildlife meat were plentiful.
“We used to see a lot of ikan baung and tiger barbs. Now, we can only find yellowish top soil and sediments in the streams,” he said.
The Adong (with two tributaries — Adong Kecil and Adong Besar) — drains into Miri River. Longboats can still ply along the Adong.
Near Lutong is Lutong Kecil which flows into Miri River at the Pengkalan. The larger Sungai Lutong flows into the sea.
There is also another small river called Sungai Baung, which flows into Miri River and most people think it’s just a monsoon drain.
Sungai Merbau flowing from Canada Hill is just a small creek today, draining into Miri River at the Yi Hai Hai area. Perhaps, Merbau Road is named after this river.
What are very visible now are Adong and Miri Rivers. Just before reaching Lutong, Miri River makes a dramatic U-turn and runs between Piasau Peninsula and the main landmass before flowing out into the South China Sea via a new artificial river mouth.
The old river mouth has been filled up and developed in the Parkcity Marina area.
Among marine products, the fish is considered an auspicious food for Chinese New Year dinners as well as other festive fetes. If our rivers are in pristine condition, we have no reason to fear losing our fish population.
The oceans and the seas depend on the rivers to bring food sources upstream to support marine life. Everything is connected in a never ending spiral.
As ‘Pocahontas’ sang in the animated eponymous movie:
The rainstorm and the river are my brothers
The heron and the otter are my friends
And we are all connected to each other
In a circle, in a hoop that never ends.
(Words by Stephen Schwartz — 1995)